Direct marketing is changing consumer relationships with seafood

Published on
May 13, 2016

At the start of this decade, Alan Lovewell, living at the time in Monterey, California, set up one of the first community supported fisheries (CSF) in the United States. His vision was to reconnect people to seafood in a way that had not happened before: through a membership-based subscription scheme.

Now Lovewell runs Local Catch, a network of community supported fisheries and small-scale harvesters in the U.S., is helping to change consumers’ relationships with seafood through direct marketing initiatives and an emphasis on positive communication. The initiative has now inspired a couple of fledgling projects in the United Kingdom.

“I wanted to bring people closer to the fish they eat, in a world where 90 percent of seafood is imported, and many local fishers make just enough money to scrape by,” Lovewell said.

By making local connections, fishermen benefit from above market prices, access to new markets and predictable demand. Consumers benefit from the knowledge that their seafood is sustainable and fresh from the sea, and are tempted to embark on culinary seafood adventures. The initiative benefits the whole community, removes the mystery about fishing and helps cultivate positive relationships between fishermen and the public.

To help his customers connect with seafood suppliers, Lovewell makes good use of his website, posting videos and articles about the fishermen, writing a blog, suggesting recipes and asking people to send back pictures of the dishes they create with the catch. His fishermen enjoy knowing that their catch is appreciated.

“We believe that life is too short for canned tuna, farmed salmon and frozen, imported shrimp. We love sardines fresh from the water, oysters that taste like Tomales Bay, buttery spot prawns, rich black cod, sweet and messy Dungeness crab, and king salmon straight from the boat. Seafood should be fresh, delicious, varied and a celebration of seasons and local bounty and this is what our members enjoy,” Lovewell said.

Last year his project was renamed Real Good Fish, and Lovewell made a TED talk, which spread his fame far and wide and helped grow membership. Now, Lovewell has launched a new project, working with a local school to use bycatch in popular lunchtime seafood tacos.

New movement spreading fast

The CSF movement only began in 2007, but community supported fisheries have now spread far and wide, and CSF aggregator now sports a network of 274 schemes operating from Anchorage, Alaska to Key West, Florida. Local Catch promotes the ethos that direct marketing provides a platform for fishermen and consumers, to engage in a dialog about community, fisheries, and marine stewardship.

A recent seafood summit held in Norfolk, Virginia, attracted more than 100 people to connect and continue to build the network, which is committed to supporting social, ecological, and economic sustainability through local and direct seafood marketing.

In his book American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, author Paul Greenberg highlights the benefits of small-scale, artisanal fisherfolk in New York, Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico selling directly to customers, in a bid to reconnect them to product from American waters.

Thirty-nine percent of Americans call themselves coastal folk, but Greenberg argues that we have lost touch with the complex ecosystems of the nation’s shores. A whole chapter of the book is given over to examining “our nation’s broken relationship with its own ocean.”

Across the Atlantic, in the U.K., Faircatch is helping the local community in southwest London to buy seafood direct from fishermen. Set up by entrepreneur Guy Dorrell, the scheme asks members to pay upfront for a four- or eight-week membership and to choose weekly or fortnightly deliveries to a local collection hub.

“We can’t promise what they will receive, but we can guarantee that it will be spanking fresh, seasonal, sustainable, local and delicious,” Dorrell said.

He was horrified to read an article about how supermarket fish can be several weeks old when it reaches the consumer and made this into a selling point for customers.

The local ethnic community can’t get enough of his fresh fish, which they find better for making sashimi than supermarket fish.

“I started off manning a couple of pick-up points and it was great to meet new customers and chat about the idea. I quickly realized that we needed to be more user-friendly, so sought out unmanned alternatives and we are rolling out our seventh collection point this week,” he said.

Dorrell’s scheme is just 15 months old and has already evolved to include talks in local schools and seafood workshops.

“There is a real need for seafood education in schools; and for them to understand that fishermen are real people,” he said.

Dorell is aiming for 200 to 300 members, but says he would be delighted to grow as large as some of the schemes in the USA, which have more 1,000 members. He is currently working on making Faircatch as flexible, convenient and attractive as possible to help promote interest.

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