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Going Green: From fields to sea

Fishing community learns from farmers how to stay afloat

Community Supported Fisheries programs are helping
    struggling fishermen.
By Lisa Duchene
January 01, 2009

Parishioners of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rockland, Maine, have been leaving Sunday services with more than just good will. They're also taking home whole fish fresh from the sea.

As part of a community co-op plan to help local fishermen struggling with high fuel costs and low demand, parishioners invest in boat shares that entitles them to a portion of the catch. Investors have received flounder, haddock, cod, pollock, hake, redfish and monkfish tails in varying amounts, depending on what turned up in the nets of one of the 11 boats fishing out of nearby Port Clyde.

Those who had paid $180 received 4 to 6 pounds each week, or a half-share of the harvest, while those who paid $360 for a full share received 8 to 12 pounds weekly for 12 weeks.

In all, 200 Maine residents participated in one of the nation's first Community Supported Fisheries (CSF) programs, a new approach to supporting domestic fisheries and fishing communities.

CSFs are modeled on popular Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, numbering about 1,500 nationwide, in which consumers pay a seasonal fee to a farm for a share of the harvest and pick up their produce weekly.

CSF advocates hope the CSA model that's helping family farmers stay on their land will also help fishing communities stay afloat during an era of depleted fish stocks and lower-priced imports.

"The old model used to be volume," says Kim Libby, manager of the Midcoast Fishermen's Cooperative, which represents the groundfish boats out of Port Clyde, including one captained by her husband, Gary.

"You'd just go out there and catch as many fish as you can and sell them. Now the model has changed from quantity to quality," says Libby. So far, the idea has worked well.

The cooperative learned about CSAs and the potential for CSFs in the fall of 2007 and began with a 14-week CSF for shrimp in early 2008 that drew 32 subscribers. It secured a federal dealer's permit and a license from the state of Maine. By the summer, they were fishing for 200 people, and dropping off fish and demonstrating how to fillet it twice a week at three locations. The co-op is also selling directly to restaurants near the popular tourist destination of Bar Harbor, Maine.

At times, the new approach translated into a 250 percent increase on the price paid to fishermen. Pollock, for example, that would have sold for 43 to 60 cents on the Portland Fish Exchange wholesale auction sold for $3 per pound to CSF members and $4 to local restaurants.

"The ultimate goal is to sell all of our products to the end consumer," says Libby. "We can't afford to carry on with business as usual. The price of everything has gone up except the price of the product. We've suffered so many cuts at the federal level regarding groundfishing itself and these guys can't hope to survive unless we do it this way."

Libby makes the case for environmental responsibility, arguing fish traveling fewer than 100 miles has a much smaller carbon footprint than fish that's traveled thousands of miles. Plus, the Port Clyde fishermen are going above and beyond federal regulations, she adds. They've lightened their gear to reduce bottom impact, which has also saved fuel and emissions, and are experimenting with other gear changes like a 7-inch mesh size - 6.5 inches is required - to let small fish through.

In Portland, Maine, lobstermen and brothers John and Brendan Ready sell lobster directly to 150 investors and tell their story using videos on their "Catch a Piece of Maine" Web site and YouTube.

The CSFs are part of a niche marketing trend among U.S. fishermen in several regions who are finding innovative ways to stand apart from the commodity market, brand their story and sell their catch directly to consumers.

In North Carolina, where one-third of fish houses or waterfront wholesale buying operations went out of business from 2000 to 2006, the Sea Grant program has sponsored research into creating CSFs for local fisheries. In 2007, researchers surveyed 300 coastal residents and tourists about their fish-eating habits. People were shocked to learn that the fish served in restaurants was more likely to be imported than local, says Susan Andreatta, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina who is studying how to adapt CSAs for fisheries.

About 84 percent of the consumers surveyed in North Carolina want to be eating local seafood, says Andreatta. The program published a brochure that helped consumers find local seafood and built upon the branding work of commercial fishermen, fish distributors, researchers and restaurant owners who established the "Carteret Catch" marketing program, named after the North Carolina county.

The consumer survey asked customers if their choice was a $15 imported meal or a $20 local meal would they be willing to pay the difference? "People overwhelmingly said they would," says Andreatta. "They expected it to be local and were willing to pay for it."

 

Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.

 

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