The Future of New England Seafood

Consumer education is the key to better prices for New England fish

Glen Libby is a second-generation fisherman from Port Clyde, Maine who is currently Chairman of the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association and President of the Midcoast Fishermen’s Cooperative, which started the nation’s first community-supported fishery, Port Clyde Fresh Catch. He also serves on the Maine Marine Resources Advisory Council.

Those of us who make our living in the seafood business had a fresh glimpse of a disturbing reality this past spring: New England prices for cod, flounder and other bottom-dwelling fish dipped lower for a brief time than at any period during the fishing season last year. With low prices and higher fuel costs this season, many fishing businesses will have a tough year ahead if pricing is not stabilized at a level that will sustain these small businesses. This is the real cause of business failure and recent trends of consolidation: not enough revenue to meet the bottom line.

Port Clyde Fresh Catch freshly-caught shrimp. (Say that ten times fast.) (Photo credit: Port Clyde Fresh Catch Facebook Page)

But as we know from past experience, just fishing our way out of it by demanding more fish to catch will cause a cascade effect that depletes fisheries and exacerbates the situation. We all suffer when the wrong approaches are employed, but this time we have the tools to break this cycle. The solution is to price our products correctly in the marketplace, at a level that fits the reality of fish populations today and the needs of fishing businesses. Educating consumers, customers, and regulators about the reality of what it takes to meet margins in this industry is as important as properly managing fish stocks at sustainable levels.

The new management system for cod and other so-called groundfish allows us fishermen to do away with the “race-to-fish” model and concentrate on a sustainable harvest of fish. Focusing instead on bringing a higher quality product to market can help to make up for lower volumes of fish caught if it results in a higher price. In Port Clyde, we work to get a fair price for our fish through consumer education and marketing. We share the message in our community that all businesses in the seafood industry, large and small, on the shore and on the water, are connected. A healthy local fishing economy depends on the success of this web of interconnected businesses, as much as it does on the health of the fish populations upon which we rely to make a living.

With the rise of the local food movement, fishing communities can tap into the growing awareness many consumers have about making local, sustainable buying choices. If you’re going to a farmer’s market to purchase local produce, eggs and meat, and pay a higher price for these higher quality products, then why not invest in local fish, too?

Local restaurants, retail outlets, processors and distributors are also part of this equation.  Having access to fresh local fish and other seafood over a wide geographical range as opposed to a centralized structure that relies heavily on transportation, helps to cut transportation costs and make these important parts of the infrastructure more sustainable.

Sarah Watermen prepares a sign to advertise fresh and local fish to farmer's market customers and CSF shareholders (Photo credit: Port Clyde Fresh Catch Facebook Page)

More and more fishing groups around the country are using the farm model of Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and starting Community Supported Fisheries (CFSs). Check out Local Catch for a CSF near you. Some fishing communities have added processing plants at their docks to better serve the local market; others are developing ways to trace seafood from a restaurant diner’s plate right back to the boat the fish came in on.

Educating consumers and getting a better price for our high-quality, fresh, New England seafood is the key to ultimately restoring both fish populations and the fishing industry. Common opinion around the dock is usually that there is nothing we can do about low prices. This is simply not true if you are willing to put in the hard work and effect the changes you want to see.


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