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Going Green: Local gets fresh look

Community-supported fisheries model expands on East Coast

Fishermen are selling their catch direct to consumers
    through CSF programs. - Photo courtesy of Walking-Fish
By Lisa Duchene
March 01, 2010

Maine scallops from Portland's Bristol Seafood appear among cheeses and beers, a feast of New England flavors, as pictured in Hannaford Supermarkets' "Close to Home" promotional program. The 171-store Northeast chain is sourcing half its seafood from the Gulf of Maine and has highlighted that effort the last couple of years with its Close to Home promotion.

The idea of selling fresh, local fish in coastal markets is hardly new. But in practice, it's tougher than it sounds. Needing consistency and variety, large retail and restaurant chains shop the global market. In 2008, imports made up 83 percent of the U.S. seafood supply.

Now, a few trends are colliding: New England's seafood supply is surging again, and efforts are underway to help it regain access to markets lost when groundfish stocks dwindled in the 1990s. Haddock is doing particularly well, and NOAA scientists say a summer 2009 scallop survey showed the highest numbers of juvenile sea 
scallops on Georges Bank since 2000.

Among consumers, the buy-local trend has only gained steam in the last decade, from the growth of farmers' markets nationwide to the rise of consumers buying produce directly from farmers in community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, an approach fishermen are trying with some success. Within a year, the number of community-supported fisheries (CSF) grew from one to at least six.

Nationally, local sourcing of seafood, produce and meat, along with sustainability, topped the "What's Hot in 2010" survey of more than 1,800 professional chefs conducted by the National Restaurant Association.

Freshness, minimizing transportation and supporting local communities and businesses are all driving the trend toward local sourcing, says the NRA.

"[Local soucing] is retro," says Michael Ty, national president of the American Culinary Federation. "It's what we did in the past when chefs relied on local markets because we did not have the luxury of today's transportation system."

More than 40 percent of 1,013 consumers surveyed by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, Maine, in spring of 2009 said they were "very likely" to increase their seafood consumption if they knew the fish was caught sustainably, and 55 percent said they'd buy and eat more fish if it was locally harvested.

GMRI is developing a regional eco-brand for Gulf of Maine seafood and helping Hannaford with its sustainable-seafood policy.

Jen Levin, GMRI's sustainable-seafood-program manager, equates sustainability with regional sales of Gulf of Maine seafood, due to a smaller carbon footprint and the improved status of the fisheries. The recession, she says, has also boosted consumer awareness of sustaining local fisheries and fishing communities by helping to even out the historic booms and busts.

The CSF model is that fishermen get a better price for their catch by skipping wholesalers and selling directly to consumers. Those customers commit at the beginning of a season to a share of the catch and pay up front, usually less than they would at the supermarket. But the CSF concept is not all about price. Many consumers want to know precisely where their food comes from.

Port Clyde Fresh Catch, out of Maine, started its CSF in 2007. A second Maine CSF, at the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington, in 2009 sold 6,000 pounds of Maine shrimp to 120 customers. It expects to expand on both counts this year during a 10-week season January to March.

There are two CSFs in New Hampshire, one on Cape Ann, Mass., and one at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Ed and Carolyn Eastman, husband-and-wife owners of Seabrook Beach Eastman's Fish Market, run a summer and fall/winter CSF in New Hampshire. They've also branched out to selling fish at local farmers' markets.

The Yankee Fisherman's Cooperative started a second New Hampshire CSF this winter for an eight-week period during the northern shrimp season. The 
fishermen's co-op is working with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension/NH Sea Grant Fisheries program.

CSF shareholders number 130 and pay about $1.60 a pound. Outside the CSF, fishermen have been receiving a wholesale price of 45 to 51 cents per pound.

Joshua Stoll, a Duke University graduate student studying coastal environmental management, last year helped start a pilot CSF with the student chapter of the American Fishery Society, DukeFish, in Durham, N.C. Four hundred people subscribed and 400 more are on the waiting list.

Each week, the CSF, called Walking-Fish, worked with one or 
two local fishermen 
who delivered their catch to a retailer for processing. The retailer, three hours away, got a share of the proceeds, as did the refrigerated-truck driver who delivered it to a public garden on the Duke campus 
for distribution.

Over a 12-week period, subscribers could purchase 2 pounds of fillets or shellfish (including shrimp, blue crabs, clams, oysters, southern flounder, mullet and weakfish) every other week for $80, a half-share of 2 pounds a week or 4 pounds every other week (both $210), or a full share of 4 pounds for each week for $420. H&G fish worked out to be about $1 per pound less.

Before the CSF, fishermen in 2008 received an average of $2.04 round weight for their shrimp. In 2009, they received $6 per pound for headed shrimp. The group is gearing up to run the CSF again for 12 weeks beginning this spring.

CSFs encourage ecological, environmental and social sustainability - and a way to hash out all the related aspects, says Stoll.

"What the CSF does better than anything," says Stoll, "is connect different groups of people so you can have this conversation."

 Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa. 

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