The return of warm weather is sending commercial fishing boats back out into the ocean and re-awakening the growing local seafood movement, which seeks to help small fishermen, just as the local food movement has helped small farms.
“Fishermen are facing many problems and this isn’t the only answer, but it helps,” said Erik Chapman, acting director of the N.H. Sea Grant program at the University of New Hampshire and a cofounder of LocalCatch.org, which coordinates hundreds of direct-to-consumer seafood operations around the world. “It diversifies their market portfolio, and I think it has grown further than people thought it would. When it first showed up … 10 years ago, maybe, people said it’s a fad and trend – but it’s got legs, and as the model evolves, it is growing.”
For years, the financial situation has been dire for dayboats, those commercial fishermen who return to port each evening to unload the catch, rather than freezing it onboard during long fishing trips. They have been squeezed by competition from larger ships, which sell their fish at the same wholesale auctions, and by shrinking catch limits resulting from declining stocks of commercial fish such as cod. Only 10 commercial fishing boats are left along New Hampshire’s coast, and not all of those fish full-time.
A 2010 reorganization of the way the federal government regulates commercial fishing put all three New Hampshire ports – Portsmouth, Seabrook/Hampton, and Rye – into the same grouping and changed how fishing quotas were allocated. This spurred efforts to create a direct-to-consumer sales model to help dayboats.
“It started out as a few groups organizing around an idea of making local fish available in a way that was going to return higher profits to the fisherman and connect them to the consumer. It has caught on. (LocalCatch.org) is a community of these groups around the country, that can compare notes, share tools and ideas,” said Chapman.
In the Concord area, this effort is most visible at the pick-up locations for New Hampshire Community Seafood, which begins its fourth season in May.
NHCS operates like a farm CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, with customers pre-paying for a set amount of seafood each week during the season, accepting whatever species was caught that week. It also sells some fish to restaurants, which can brand it as fresh local seafood.
“Last year we had over 50,000 pounds of fish sold – up from 32,000 pounds the year before,” said Andrea Tomlinson, who manages the program. The group is adding four locations where people can pick up their fish, including one in Kittery, Maine – its 27 pick-up sites include Cole Gardens in Concord, the Contoocook Farmers Market and Brookford Farm in Canterbury – and is pushing to have 1,000 customers, a big boost from last year’s figure of 588.
This year, N.H. Community Seafood is adding some fish caught commercially on rod and reel as well as those caught by nets used by commercial dayboats, and is incorporating some oysters and lobsters along with groundfish species such as cod, haddock and flounder, plus less-known species such as hake and dogfish (which is sometimes called cape shark to increase its consumer appeal).
The oysters are bought from 10 oyster farms, an indication of how the seafood-farming movement is also growing in the region. N.H. Community Seafood is giving customers the ability to opt out of shellfish weeks because a number of customers only want groundfish, said Tomlinson – an indication of how selling to consumers directly can be more difficult than selling to wholesalers.
Interest in local seafood has prompted another regional entry in the seafood CSA arena.
The Finlander, captained by Tim Rider out of Elliot, Maine, just over the state line from Portsmouth, has started a program called New England Fishmonger, which is selling fish caught by rod and reel during day trips in the Gulf of Maine.
Its sales include a Saturday pick-up at Kittery Trading Post as well as weekly shares of filets or whole fish, some of which may be bought from “other rod-and-reel boats,” said Amanda Parks, co-founder of New England Fishmonger.
Rider started the program to boost income and replace the need for a second job, she said: “He wanted to find a way that he could fish full-time.”
A somewhat similar program is run by the owners of RimRack, a dayboat based in Rye Harbor, although it sells only from the boat itself, not at any pickup locations.
Even so, said Chapman, “They have people who drive an hour for their fish.”
That sort of enthusiasm is part of the importance of community seafood programs, Chapman added.
“I’ve been seeing the non-economic reward, from the fisherman’s standpoint and the community members’s standpoint,” he said.
Just as farmers markets, pick-your-own programs and CSAs have made consumers more aware of where their food comes from, community seafood programs can connect fishermen and lovers of seafood.
“For centuries, fishermen were heroes of the community, but that had transformed … they were forgotten,” said Chapman. “Maybe there’s a little bit of that, being heroes, creeping back in.”
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or email@example.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)