New England Fisheries

National Seafood Month: The Power of the Local Consumer

Andrea Tomlinson, General Manager of New Hampshire Community Seafood. Photo courtesy NHCS.

This post was originally featured on New England Ocean Odyssey by Amanda Yanchury.

October is National Seafood Month! To celebrate, I spoke with Andrea Tomlinson, General Manager of New Hampshire Community Seafood, an organization committed to supporting the state’s

We hear a lot about sustainable seafood in New England, but what does it really mean, and how can we, as consumers (and seafood lovers), impact the future of the fishing industry – all the while eating more healthy fish?

AY: What is “sustainable seafood”?

AT: I think few people understand what it really means – as more people use the term, it seems to have lost meaning. For me, sustainable seafood simply means that our fishermen are only taking an amount of a particular population that does not prevent parent fish from reproducing at the same level the following year. If fishermen leave the pregnant and older fish alone, and take just the younger fish, it’s more likely to be sustainable. The fish population must be able to sustain itself while also being fished for commercial purposes.

AY: Do you think most of the industry fishes this way?

AT: No. In the past, it was a free for all. Fishermen took whatever they wanted — cod was our fish, there was lots of it, so we took lots of it. Today, our small New England fishermen are still fishing the same amount (and taking the parent fish), but there are other, bigger players in the game. Once cod was shown to be a successful industry, the number of fishermen increased – and now the populations are suffering because of it.

Our local fishermen never had to be conscious about [the amount they could catch] before. In order to stay in business, you want to take the biggest and most fish you can. When you take this traditional way of fishing and compound it with new catch regulations (and a perceived lack of communication from those enforcing the regulations), and more and bigger players fishing in the area, that’s how we ended up where we are today, with the fishing industry in crisis.

AY: What are “underutilized fish” (formerly called “trash fish”) and how could they help the industry and/or economy?

New England is home to an abundance of the spiny dogfish shark. Photo courtesy of NHCS

New England is home to an abundance of the spiny dogfish shark. Photo courtesy of NHCS

AT: In New England, there are certain types of fish that we have a lot of, but that just aren’t as popular as cod or haddock. There’s the dogfish shark, which is a shark but they are small – about

three-and-a-half to four feet in length. In Europe, they are commonly used in fish and chips. Here in New England, we have lots of it. So much so, that they are almost considered overpopulated, making it a great alternative for consumers, especially since whatever you can do with cod, you can do with dogfish.

AY: But it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

AT: Right. When people hear “shark” and “dogfish,” they don’t like that. But as soon as you tell them how to prepare it, and that it holds up well in the freezer, and it seasons well, and is cheap – that makes a difference.

AY: Are there other underutilized fish in New England?

AT: There’s the King Whiting, a type of Silver Hake. It’s a delectable, thick, firm white fish that’s high in protein and omega-3s. It’s good for grilling or sautéing, and the fillet is just as large as one from a cod or haddock. And there’s also the Monkfish, which is an incredibly scary-looking fish on the outside – and delicious on the inside. We hear it called the “poor man’s lobster.” It tastes just like lobster, but for a fraction of the price.

AY: How does a Community Supported Fishery work? Is this model feasible in other places?

AT: The way fishing in New England works now, most fishermen sell everything they catch all at once at an auction, instead of buying directly “off the boat.” So, as a Community Supported Fishery, or CSF, New Hampshire Community Seafood gives the fishermen an incentive – we’d give them, say, an extra $0.25 per pound of a certain fish that’s higher than what they would receive at an auction. For dogfish, it’s actually a $1.10 per pound incentive! A CSF is really the only way to buy off the boat now. We buy a small portion of what the local fishermen catch, but it’s something.

There are about 50 CSFs in the United States. On land, we’ve seen a growing popularity in supporting the local farmer, and this fits in well with that model. You pay up front, and get what’s ripe each week – it works the same way with fish. Community members can support local fishermen and the local economy in this way. So, the challenge is to get people to realize that underutilized fish are just as delicious as cod and haddock.

In New England in particular, when people hear that the fishing industry is in crisis, that affects them. Many who grew up here are enamored by our iconic fishing traditions – maybe they have good memories of fishing, or they feel that it’s a big part of the culture. When you add in the “locavore” mentality, as well as those who are trying to eat healthier, we see a real opportunity to appeal to a lot of people.

AY: So consumers can have a real impact here.

AT: Yes. The fish are there – all we need is more consumers and more buyers, and it can make a greater impact. We are also working with restaurants and chefs; they will buy underutilized fish and put it on the menu, creating more exposure and making it easier for consumers to try something new. Right now we are in 10 restaurants and a hospital cafeteria, and are continuing to expand.

AY: How can people get involved?

AT: We are mostly based in Portsmouth, NH, but our CSF has 17 pickup locations in New Hampshire, one in Northern Massachusetts, and we’re partnering with Monadnock food cooperative in Keene, NH (all of these are listed on the New Hampshire Community Seafood website). We also have a newsletter that informs locals about what’s new, how to cook underutilized fish, recipes, and more.

AY: Anything else you would like to add?

AT: Three years ago, there were 26 local fishermen in New Hampshire, and now there are only 9 left. We buy fish from all of them. The industry is in desperate need of support, both from communities and from the NMFS [regulators].

In addition to community-supported fishing organizations like NHCS, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Out of the Blue series aims to educate the public about abundant fish that are well-managed and are not harvested primarily due to low market demand.

And NOAA recently announced the public availability of fishwatch.gov, a resource that provides up-to-date information about fish, including the ability to look up a certain fish to see where it’s available, whether it’s a smart and sustainable option, nutrition information, and more.

Would you (or have you) tried dogfish, whiting, or monkfish? Leave a comment below!


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