No more ‘business as usual’
Carolyn Eastman describes herself as a bit of a risk-taker who loves a challenge. Good thing — since two years ago she married a commercial fisherman of 25 years who gillnets for groundfish and shrimp out of Seabrook, N.H., and faces a potential 70 percent cut to his 2010 catch.
New England fisheries managers passed a new plan for the 2010 season that begins 1 May and includes further cuts to fishing to aid rebuilding groundfish stocks — though many stocks have shown bright spots. At the same time, New England is transitioning to a catch-share fisheries management system.
When the dust settles, Eastman and her husband, Ed, hope to still be standing and fishing. So they are working to re-invent their fishing business to sell direct to the consumer whenever possible.
“When the fishermen tell me ‘you can’t do that,’ I say ‘yes, I can,’ and I try it out and if doesn’t work I change,” said Eastman, who draws on previous career experience in middle school and adult education.
The Eastmans’ reinvention has meant opening a fish market in May 2009 with processing capability and buying a 20-foot refrigerated truck. “We’re gearing up for complete independence as much as we can,” said Eastman. “We’re trying to work smarter.”
It also means selling shrimp, filleted groundfish and even “racks,” or fish carcasses, at farmers’ markets, where a more “adventurous” consumer shops. Said Eastman: “We were just selling to the wrong people.” Even through the winter, 60 vendors including Eastman gather at the local high school every couple of weeks for a farmers’ market.
They also started a community-supported fisheries (CSF) program in summer 2009, based on the community-supported agriculture model, in which consumers purchase a share of the harvest at a price that’s often less than the grocery store and puts more money into the fisherman’s pocket.
(Their T-shirt slogan and rallying cry: “It’s no fish you’re buyin’, it’s men’s lives” – Sir Walter Scott, 1816.)
Fifty people signed up for the CSF last summer. By the fall, 150 had signed up for the shrimp season. This year, 500 people want a spot.
Eastman isn’t yet taking their money, yet, until the regulatory picture comes into better focus and she knows what she can deliver to this new base of customers.
What the Eastmans are living day-to-day is the tough stuff of reaching toward sustainability. As New England cuts the catch rate on some species and moves to the new, catch-share system — widely endorsed by scientists as smart and sustainable fisheries management — there will undoubtedly be more pain in fishing communities.
And more hard work for those who want to keep fishing and must innovate, finding ways to increase the value of their catch. They must step away from the commodity market and adopt a mindset that their harvest is a precious, specialty product.
“If we can’t do business differently, we’re done,” says Eastman.
At the farmer’s market and through the CSF, Eastman sells ocean perch, hake and Atlantic pollock — historically considered low-value fish. But as Eastman works one-on-one with more adventurous consumers, explaining how to cook and enjoy these fish, they’re selling well. Some consumers are rewarding her effort, to satisfy their own taste buds, not just their consciences. New England buyers can support the Eastmans’ effort, too. At the very least, when buyers capitalize on the marketing cache of “local,” they are hopefully taking care to ensure fishermen are seeing the fruit of some of that added value, not just the same old commodity prices.
Eastman would love to see consumers asking questions of their supermarket seafood clerks: “How much of this price-per-pound I’m paying for local fish is going back to the fisherman?”
Let’s face it — most consumers don’t have the time or the inclination to ask their clerks such questions and most clerks won’t have the answers.
Yet this is a critical point. Buyers know those answers. And buyers truly committed to a sustainable future for seafood would be wise to partner with their local fishermen whenever they can, not only to promote their catch as something special but to ensure the fishermen are seeing some of that return in their pockets.
We can’t have a sustainable future of the U.S. seafood supply without rebuilt, healthy domestic fisheries — and fishermen to bring in the harvest.
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