Growing in popularity, local seafood movement picks up US government support

hyper-local seafood purveyors throughout the United States have seen a boom in interest the COVID-19 pandemic.

From Alaska to California to New York to Maine, hyper-local seafood purveyors throughout the United States have seen a boom in interest the COVID-19 pandemic – and federal, state, and local governments are taking notice.

As the result COVID’s drastic impact on seafood supply chains and the U.S. consumer market for seafood, the local seafood trend has thrived in the pandemic, from direct-to-consumer seafood subscription services, to community supported fisheries (CSFs), to fishermen banding together to form sales cooperatives such as Real Good Fish and Get Hooked Seafood in California, Local Catch Network in New England, and Louisiana Direct Seafood.

Sitka, Alaska, U.S.A.-based Seafood Producers Cooperative, the oldest and largest 100 percent fishermen-owned coop in North America, said it has realized unprecedented demand for its Alaska Gold Seafood products.

“Customers appreciate that they’re getting real food from real people, when stores can often be dominated by a more industrialized selection. Our customers respect the quality of our offerings and really believe in the connection they have with our story,” Alaska Gold Seafood Marketing Manager Kendall Whitney told SeafoodSource. “The idea of supporting a fishermen-owned co-op resonates in the stories of fishermen we tell through our newsletters, social media, and video.”

Eighteen percent of Sitka residents earn their income from the fishing and seafood industry, “making Alaska Gold Seafood both a critical economic driver for this local community and a crucial player in setting the standards for sustainable and ethical fishing operations,” Whitney said.

With the increased demand for local seafood, federal, state, and local governments are increasingly offering their support – financial and otherwise – to vendors of local seafood. In January 2022, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) will launch a year-long seafood marketing and promotion campaign aimed at increasing the consumption and value of Rhode Island seafood in the state. The campaign will be funded by a USD 300,000 (EUR 265,000) grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

While Rhode Island's commercial fisheries “have long been an economic powerhouse,” most seafood landed and grown in the state is exported out-of-state, the DEM said in a press release.

“Exports of Rhode Island seafood are important and valuable and will remain so. However, the relatively small amount of Rhode Island seafood sold in Rhode Island calls attention to the need and opportunity to grow the in-state market and render it more secure,” DEM said.

The grant will boost the state’s commercial fishing industry, benefit local consumers, and support food security and sustainability initiatives, Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee said.

The Rhode Island Seafood Marketing Collaborative, a public-private body whose objective is to support local fishermen and seafood farmers and increase awareness and consumption of locally harvested species by the public, will spearhead the campaign. The multimedia campaign will promote all opportunities to access Rhode Island seafood in the state, including retail markets and restaurants as well as opportunities to buy directly from commercial harvesters.

In New York, the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County recently began a "Choose Local F.I.S.H." initiative aiming to increase demand among Long Islanders for locally harvested seafood and shellfish.

The initiative, which has garnered support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, works to increase interest, awareness, and demand for locally harvested, wild-caught and grown seafood through media outlets, local seafood cooking demonstrations and tastings, “Seafood Literacy” presentations, and other public events, CCE of Suffolk County said in a press release.

Suffolk County’s 361 commercial fishing establishments landed more than 19 million pounds of fish valued at over USD 27 million (EUR 24 million) in 2019, CCE of Suffolk said.

“These revenues generated USD 47.4 million (EUR 42 million) in economic activity, earnings of USD 15.4 million (EUR 14 million), and 656 jobs.”

The public education campaign provides Long Islanders with the resources to know what fish is caught locally – and how local residents can support local fishermen and women. Its website, for example, includes a "Local Fish Locator" to help drive business to fish markets that sell locally sourced fish. 

“Purchasing locally caught seafood ensures that the product you are buying is sustainably harvested and in compliance with strict all fishing and food regulations,” CCE of Suffolk County Fisheries Specialist Kristin Gerbino said. “Choosing local seafood benefits local economies by creating and maintaining jobs for fishermen, processors, and wholesalers.”    

The USDA has also awarded the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA) a Regional Food System Partnership (RFSP) grant “to foster new partnerships around Alaska that help build a more resilient regional food system, specifically when it comes to local seafood access and seafood industry workforce development,” ALFA said in a press release.

In response to the pandemic and food insecurity in Alaska, the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association formed a state-wide-coalition of nonprofits, tribal organizations, military organizations, city and boroughs, foundations, fishermen, and seafood processors in March 2020.

The Seafood Donation Program provides stipends and workforce support to the seafood industry and has already deployed USD 2.5 million (EUR 2.2 million) to purchase local seafood for distribution, providing more than 630,000 free meals of Alaska seafood to individuals and families facing food insecurity. 

In Maine, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NOAA Fisheries and the University of Maine are partnering on a project to study the scope and scale of local and regional seafood marketing practices nationwide in order to improve the commercial fishing sector’s ability to conduct direct marketing.

The project, announced in October 2021, will create a comprehensive list of seafood businesses involved in local and direct seafood sales. It will then develop a national benchmark survey of direct seafood marketing practices in domestic wild-caught fisheries “in an effort to strengthen food systems and coastal community resilience.”

“Currently, there is a gap in national-level data on the domestic seafood system,” UMaine Assistant Professor of Marine Policy Joshua Stoll, one of the principal investigators for the project and the leader of the Local Catch Network, said.

The research is intended to give academics, policymakers, and the fishing industry insight into the marketing strategies of the lcoal seafood movement and to “support the flexibility and resilience in the fishing sector necessary to continue providing nutritious and sustainably harvested seafood to the nation,” according to Dale Squires, NOAA Fisheries project co-lead and senior economist at the NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

“Knowing more about alternative market strategies is critical to understanding how to add value to industry products and remain viable,” Squires said.

Photo courtesy of Local Catch Network


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