Hakai Magazine

More and more seafood consumers want to know where and how their fish, crab, shrimp, and other species were caught. Small-scale fishers are responding with a new market model, community-supported fisheries. But will consumers pay a premium for sustainably caught fish? Photo by UpperCut Images/Alamy Stock Photo
More and more seafood consumers want to know where and how their fish, crab, shrimp, and other species were caught. Small-scale fishers are responding with a new market model, community-supported fisheries. But will consumers pay a premium for sustainably caught fish? Photo by UpperCut Images/Alamy Stock Photo

United We Fish!

Caught between depleted stocks, collapsing prices, and commercial trawlers, small-scale fishermen join forces to create new niche markets for their sustainably harvested product. Can they succeed?

Authored by

by Lina Zeldovich

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Every Friday afternoon, New Hampshire mom Kate Politano opens her garage door and rolls out a fridge. Starting at about 3 p.m., local residents trudge up her driveway and pick up their weekly allotment of fish—plastic bags of various weights and sizes—from the fridge’s three compartments labeled Quarter Share, Half Share, and Full Share. Some weeks it’s pollock. Other times it’s haddock. And sometimes it’s a lesser-known but plentiful species, like redfish.

Politano is a member of New Hampshire Community Seafood (NHCS), a cooperative of fishermen and consumers who have joined together to support the state’s disappearing small-scale fishing industry and its sustainable harvesting practices. NHCS is modeled after community-supported agriculture. The co-op members prepay a certain amount for their shares, and the fishermen deliver local, sustainably caught fish every week. The NHCS is a community-supported fishery. Politano volunteers her driveway as a pickup point for co-op members who live nearby.

The community-supported fishery (CSF) movement emerged from the industry’s well-known environmental and economic woes. The industry’s demise went like this: modern industrialized fishing turned the sea’s bounty into a commodity, with prices that fluctuated in response to the market rather than in response to the environment. And after decades of market-driven overfishing by large commercial fleets, the stocks of cod and other popular species collapsed; stringent regulations and plummeting prices followed, pushing many small-scale fishermen out of business. Despite the turmoil, the pricing structure (so insanely confusing, it makes US tax codes look easy) remains tied to the market and stacked against the small players. In all of New Hampshire, there are only nine privately owned ground fish boats left, says Andrea Tomlinson, a marine biologist, who manages NHCS. Caught between depleted stocks, collapsing prices, and the big commercial trawlers that can travel farther and fish more—all while trying to keep the fish flowing and their boats sailing—the diehard small-scale fishermen of North America joined forces with scientists and environmentalists to reinvent the seafood trade.

“CSFs came about because the old system wasn’t working,” says Joshua Stoll at the University of Maine, who studied the phenomenon. “There was a need to reinvent what it means to be a small-scale fisherman.”

Members of New Hampshire Community Seafood prepay for their shares and collect local, sustainably caught fish every week. Photo by Lina Zeldovich

The movement is inching its way into the mainstream. When lifelong Maine fisherman Glen Libby started the very first CSF in 2007, Port Clyde Fresh Catch, others followed suit, including Josh Wiersma, a federal government manager for the US northeast fisheries sector, who started NHCS in 2013.

Besides their lighter impact on ocean ecology and species, CSFs also have a much smaller carbon footprint than big industry. From boat to plate, conventionally harvested seafood in the United States travels an average distance of 8,812 kilometers, says Loren McClenachan, a professor of environmental studies at Colby College in Maine. (This number doesn’t include seafood sent to China for processing and then shipped back.) By contrast, McClenachan’s study found that the fish sold through CSFs travels about 65 kilometers—two orders of magnitude less. For an industry in troubled waters, the moral ecological high ground of a CSF program should be attractive to many consumers. And it is. But there’s a catch.

Browse your local supermarket and you’ll likely find pale-white slabs of indiscriminate seafood at US $3.99 for half a kilogram, while CSFs’ harvests can easily cost triple that amount. Can consumers afford their eco-friendly dinners on a scale large enough for the little co-ops to succeed?

That is indeed the million-dollar question. Every CSF manager hopes the answer is yes—as long as they can carve niche markets, teach consumers the value of sustainable fishing, and amend the policies that currently favor the big industries. For a small, fish-friendly industry to keep fish flowing to market hinges on geographic locales, local tastes, and licensing governing whether they can process their own fish. This path to a seafood utopia is fraught with trials and errors, as unpredictable and erratic as the sea itself. And navigating it feels as shaky as walking the plank.

To state the obvious, a lot of people love the ocean and love to eat fish, so forging CSFs has been a fits-and-starts endeavor, with multiple genesis stories. In Nova Scotia, a decade after the 1992 collapse of the cod fishery, an ocean ecologist wanted to support the small-scale guys who fished without destroying the sea. Nancy Shackell routinely strapped her two toddler sons into car seats and, with a third one in her belly, drove from her hometown of Halifax to Sambro, a fishing village about 25 kilometers south. At the docks, she would buy boxes of fresh fish and stuff them into her car under the puzzled stares of the local fisher folk. Her one-woman crusade confused them. “I would buy the fish, come back, and get a bunch of baggies and a scale,” Shackell recalls. “I felt like a drug dealer.” About 15 people would come knocking on her door to pick up the very legal loot.

Shackell ran the fish-dealing operation for over two years. But after her third son was born, she no longer had the time, especially since the trips were hit or miss. Sometimes she’d show up to find that the catch had already been sold. The fishermen wanted to sell to big steady buyers, and she wasn’t their priority. “The world wasn’t ready for it,” she says.

Shackell was ahead of her time, but she represented a growing number of fishermen, researchers, and eco-activists who were similarly frustrated with how the fishing business was functioning. Over the years, other fish lovers launched schemes to reshape the industry and eventually their efforts flowered into a movement.

Ten years after Shackell’s attempt, other Haligonians revived her work. The Ecology Action Centre, a nonprofit Canadian environmental organization, formed a CSF in 2010, Off the Hook Cooperative Limited. Unlike large industrial trawlers that scrape the ocean floor, Off the Hook’s members use gentler gear, such as longlines, a system of lines stretched out on the ocean floor with numerous baited hooks attached. Longline fishing is easy compared with circumventing what would normally happen to the fish after they’re caught: at the processing plants, the sustainably caught fish is usually lumped together with the big trawlers’ load, losing its ecological value and selling for the same bottom-line price. Most of Nova Scotia’s fish gets exported to New England—chucked into trucks and dumped at an auction in Boston while the fishermen have no idea how much they will get paid until it’s sold.

Fishers and scientists are reinventing the seafood market. Marine biologist Andrea Tomlinson (middle) manages New Hampshire Community Seafood, a cooperative of fishermen and consumers. Photo by Michael Sterling

Without a corresponding price increase for their low-impact, labor-intensive practice, small-scale operators end up out of business. David Adler joined Off the Hook in 2011, and his job as value chain development manager is to fix that. Adler creates new niche markets in which sustainability is the selling point, hoping that increasing numbers of consumers will pay a higher premium for a renewable sea bounty—and keep fishermen afloat.

Off the Hook originally included five fishermen based in Digby County, about a 230-kilometer drive northwest of Halifax. The original intent was to divert the catch from the fish auctions, selling it locally instead—to residents, restaurants, and food markets. But in Nova Scotia, where fisheries are spread out across a 13,300-kilometer-long coastline, making enough business through local outlets proved impossible. Aligning demand with supply was hard; having the fish cut, filleted, and transported from Digby to Halifax was even harder. Chefs wanted their fish by Friday. The Halifax farmers’ market—their biggest market—needed fish by Saturday morning. To deliver by 10 a.m. on Saturday, fishermen would have to land it on Wednesday, offload it to a processing plant on Thursday, pick it up Friday, and leave Digby before dawn on market day. “If you asked the fisherman who drove the truck to Halifax on Saturday morning how his day was going, he’d say, ‘Good, it started three days ago,’” Adler says. All that took time from their actual job—fishing. And if conditions were bad or fish didn’t bite on Wednesdays, they had nothing to deliver at all.

There were also logistical challenges, such as constantly having to ask fish processors for favors. Processing plants fillet several tonnes a day. To keep Off the Hook’s eco-friendly 400-kilogram batch separate from the rest is a nuisance most processors don’t want. “We are kind of being a pain in the butt,” Adler says. “That’s what my job is.”

It was clear that to stay in business, Off the Hook had to find a bigger fish to fry—expand beyond local markets to sell. But scaling up the flow of fish while retaining the fishery’s ecological value (and avoiding the trap of a volume- and price-driven bottom line) is no easy task for CSFs. Adler and other co-ops, however, had some help blazing a new market pathway.

The global market forces fishermen to either scale up or sell out, says Niaz Dorry who directs the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), a nonprofit fishermen-led organization that bridges marine conservation with social and economic justice. “[The market] only honors large-scale industrial fishing—the volume, not the value of fish that you bring to shore,” she says. That is no surprise. But what to do about it? In 2006, NAMA began an investigation: how could small-scale fishermen get a leg up in the global market and achieve both economic sustainability and financial success? They concluded that fishermen had to forget the global market and focus on creating their own niche markets. Great. Except for that little problem Nancy Shackell and Off the Hook ran into—a gaggle of small-scale clients is not enough. Niche fish markets need big local clients, a strategy that NAMA pioneered.

To help fishermen create substantial niche markets, NAMA turned to large institutions. “The healthcare industry in North America, from nursing homes to hospitals to clinics, spends about $12-billion on food, and roughly a quarter of it on seafood,” Dorry estimates. If NAMA could convince some of these institutions to source some of their lunches and dinners from the small boat fleet, CSFs could work.

To recruit large buyers, NAMA teamed up with some institutional allies, such as Health Care Without Harm, the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference, and Real Food Challenge. The fact that many institutions were already sourcing from local farmers was a big help. “We asked them to apply the same values to seafood purchasing,” Dorry says, and some did. Since then, CSF-based programs have been piloted at Boston Children’s Hospital, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, and other places. “Almost every New England state now has a facility that purchases that way,” Dorry says. Now NAMA is working to expand the program beyond New England.

This approach worked well for Cape Ann Fresh Catch (CAFC), a CSF program in Gloucester, Massachusetts. An hour north of Boston, CAFC had easy access to an urban sprawl of over four million people, as well as many large organizations. More than 1,000 kilometers away from Toronto, the closest metropolis with over six million people, Off the Hook faced bigger challenges. So Adler and his colleagues took NAMA’s ideas about creating a bigger niche market and improvised. They added their fish offerings to the weekly produce baskets of TapRoot Farms—a community-supported agriculture co-op with an established clientele. They recruited a large local institutional buyer—Dalhousie University. And they partnered with upscale food shops, markets, and chefs—local and in other cities. Today, for instance, Off the Hook supplies its fresh catch to Toronto chef Dan Donovan, who also sells seafood to customers at his shop in Kensington Market, a bustling neighborhood with an outdoor market in the city’s downtown.

The restaurant connection not only helps Adler move more volume, but also lets him sell under-appreciated fish parts as gourmet. Recently, he carried a box of fresh halibut cheeks up to a cargo jet in the Halifax airport—a special order for Donovan. Halibut cheeks are meaty and tasty, but there’s little market for them locally. Donovan bought about 15 kilograms from Off the Hook, while the rest is still sitting in Adler’s freezer. “Now I’m trying to figure out how to sell the frozen cheeks,” he says.

Storing transient seafood in his home fridge isn’t unusual for Adler. Neither is trucking around coolers full of weird fish parts. His car carries a raw seafood scent, as if the unconventional cargo had marked its territory. “My kids call my car ‘the stinky fish car’ and my wife won’t let me borrow hers,” Adler says with a chuckle. He delivers fish, photographs fish, sends fish pictures to prospective buyers, and sometimes even tastes fish raw at the docks. “I’ve done all kinds of ridiculous things,” Adler says, all to keep the fish flowing.

The very first formal North American CSF, Port Clyde Fresh Catch, has kept its fish flowing since 12 diehard Maine fishermen formed it on a cold snowy day in 2007, as a way to regain control over their product. When trucks shipped their catch off to fish auctions in Portland, Maine, or Boston, Massachusetts, they had no clue whether they’d make money, lose it, or break even. “Waiting for the prices to come out on Monday after selling your fish on Sunday was akin to watching the lottery numbers to see if you had a winning ticket,” says Glen Libby, the co-op manager, who traded his nets for an office desk to build the CSF.

Launched through a church network in rural Maine, Port Clyde Fresh Catch is hours away from Portland, the nearest metropolis, with its half a million inhabitants. Every Saturday, Libby and the fishermen would drive about 70 kilograms of shrimp to a church and sell it to locals. The original 30 shareholders quickly grew to 300. An agricultural co-op an hour away in Belfast, Maine, became one of their biggest drop-off and pickup points—akin to Politano’s driveway pickup point in New Hampshire—and then restaurant chefs jumped on the bandwagon. In the summer, vacationers trekked in, bringing steady profit. Soon, the fishermen who supplied the Port Clyde CSF realized they had to open their own processing plant, which was a leap from the traditional fishing business. “You’d think after being on the boat for 40 years you’d know how to fillet fish,” Libby says with a laugh, “until you have a couple of thousand pounds sitting in the cooler and you have to get through them by the end of the day.”

Glen Libby, left, now spends less time on fishing boats and more time behind a desk as manager of Port Clyde Fresh Catch. Photo by Peter Ralston

Libby and his CSF members learned their new business by trial and error—lots of errors, he notes, the biggest of which was trying to fulfill the smallest requests. Finding trained people was hard, so they had to teach their workers how to cut fish, take orders, and run the accounting software. The staff ballooned. Expenses soared. Libby took over the office, eliminated unprofitable delivery routes, and started paying workers per pound of fish processed rather than hourly wages. That worked better for both sides. “Good workers are approaching $30 an hour picking crab meat,” he says. “That’s pretty good for Port Clyde.”

Port Clyde proved too remote to supply hospitals and colleges, so it scaled up by ground-shipping custom orders to chefs and other special clients—including Leo the cat, whose owner buys 15 kilograms of frozen fish tails a month. “He loves monkfish,” Libby says, pointing at the cat’s picture behind his desk. Libby also ships via virtual markets—shoppers pay online and pick up their UPS-shipped orders at designated shops in Maine and as far as West Virginia and Ohio. “I download the order sheets, put fish in insulated boxes, the UPS picks it up—and it’s there the next morning,” Libby says, adding that he now has a few air routes, too.

Today, about 75 percent of Port Clyde’s business is wholesale; a quarter is retail. And only 20 percent of the catch is bought by the local folk; the rest goes to restaurants, specialty shops, and markets. The operation is a leap for fishermen used to the simplicity of catching and bulk selling. But you can’t make a living if bulk selling yields you about 10 cents a pound, Libby says. “We still can do that, but we don’t want to.”

CSFs not only restructure how fish sells, but also how it’s eaten, steering consumers away from overfished stocks like cod and introducing the under-appreciated species that are plentiful but relatively unknown. In New England, redfish, or dogfish, an abundant small shark species, has traditionally been by-catch no one would buy, even though in Great Britain dogfish is the fish and chips staple. “Now we call it cape shark,” says Libby, and everyone who gets it comes back for more. “We sold a couple of orders to a school; they told the kids they were gonna have shark for lunch. The kids loved it!”

When people join CSFs, they often expand their seafood menu into whatever swims near their coast. Loren McClenachan’s research found that CSFs inspired people to eat Octopus vulgaris in British Columbia, Jonah crab in New England, and Pacific grenadier in California. That bodes well for the idea that we have to replace a traditional market system—all fish, all the time—with one more in tune with signals from the ocean, delivering what the ecosystem offers on a given day, month, or season. “The industrial system gave us an impression that we can eat the same fish 12 months out of the year,” says Dorry, but that’s simply not true.

Because CSFs are small, they adjust quickly to an ecosystem’s quirks. Port Clyde fishermen used to trawl for shrimp in winter, but lost that fishery, and 40 percent of their income, in the past two years after warming waters drove away the shrimp. So they changed their gear to catch crabs, creating a new market. “There’s never been a strong market for crabs here, fishermen used to throw them back,” says Libby. “Now crab is a close second to fish.”

Glen Libby and 11 other Maine fishermen started the first formal community-supported fishery in North America, Port Clyde Fresh Catch, in 2007. Photo by Peter Ralston

But as a small industry, CSFs are very vulnerable to operational hiccups. One week, Politano’s fridge died, threatening one of NHCS’s biggest distribution points, so they had to resort to ice-filled coolers. When Off the Hook’s first foray into the marketplace foundered, the five original fishermen left and Adler had to recruit new ones. One of Port Clyde’s largest buyers lost its bid with a big restaurateur, and “our $100,000 a year went down to $15,000 and then to zero,” Libby laments.

Aligning supply and demand also remains an ongoing challenge. Some CSFs can only deliver once a week, while hospitals need food every day. A fisher wants to offload 1,000 kilograms of catch at once, while a school cafeteria can only buy 100 kilograms, and never mind the foodies’ single-meal-sized bags. To match customers and seafood, a CSF manager has to wear a dozen hats at once—from broker to bookkeeper—constantly tweaking the business as capricious as the coastal weather.

Weather, in fact, causes logistical headaches, too. If a dangerous sea keeps small boats beached past the next delivery date, should consumers miss their dinners? Different CSFs resolve this differently. Tomlinson’s backup strategy at NHCS is to either buy the week’s load from the Portland auction—likely from a non-CFS commercial supplier whose larger boats weathered the storms—or to double the customers’ orders the next week. Since Port Clyde has its own plant, Libby resorts to frozen stash, but in winter, when fish go far offshore where only big trawlers can chase them, he too buys from auction—to keep the fish flowing. Off the Hook employs a “buffer” concept, adding a trailing two-week span to the time period members paid for to make up for lost meals. The members get an email that the tides were really bad this week, and they send warm replies. “They say, ‘Oh, I never thought of that, thank you for not taking risks on our behalf,’” Adler quotes. You won’t see a sign like that in a supermarket, he notes, and that’s part of CSFs’ consumer education. People realize that getting fish on the plate is a hard and often dangerous job.

Though fishing is a treacherous endeavor and the Byzantine market is unfavorable to those who fish, there always seems to be a queue of undeterred people who view the profession as noble and worthy. For Tim Rider, a New Hampshire fisherman, fishing is his passion and love. For him, good-looking fish are a thing of beauty and the process of acquiring them an art. Rider is nearing 40, but calls himself “an old school fisherman.” He works with rods and reels, the most sustainable and “fairest” way for both the fishermen and their quarry. “That way the fish has a chance, too,” he says. “Sometimes they choose not to bite.”

With his 10-meter, recently rebuilt boat Finlander, Rider is no competition for factory trawlers that can flood an auction with 10,000 kilograms of fish in one day. He lands about 650 kilograms on a good day—but they’re fish of superior quality. Large boats tend to spend days at sea, piling fish in their holds without cutting and bleeding them, slowly squashing the lower layers into mush. Every fish Rider unhooks is gutted and bled right away, yielding gleaming flesh. Chefs love his product, but the auction buyers rarely shell out the premium. “It’s all volume dictated,” he says, echoing Dorry’s volume-market woes. “If there’s lots of volume, we get crappy prices.”

Fishmongers is a new community-supported fishery, based in New Hampshire, founded by Amanda Parks (pictured) and Tim Rider. Photo by Kelley Jordan

So Rider also began diverting his fish into niche markets. He started New England Fishmongers, a fishermen’s co-op, last summer, together with Amanda Parks, who had worked with NAMA. Fishmongers is so new, no trucks come to unload his boat, Rider chuckles—everything’s done by hand. Early morning, when Finlander returns after a night at sea, the crew wheels the catch up the docks in barrels, stashing its best five percent into coolers to deliver to local restaurants. It’s a start, Rider says. Still, he drives the rest of his beautiful hand-caught harvest to the auction in Portland, Maine, where it’s treated like second-class goods. Fishmongers, he hopes, will eventually reach more people who care about fish and how it’s caught.

After studying how CSFs develop and build their markets, Josh Stoll, the CSF researcher at the University of Maine, wrote that when existing ecological, economic, or social structures become untenable, transformations occur. CSFs are driving that transformation by changing the nature of small-scale fishing, making the industry more powerful. Traditionally, fishing has always been a very independent enterprise, but CSFs let fishermen join forces and work cooperatively. Stoll calls CSFs “spark plugs for change” because they foster the emergence of nascent institutions that mobilize fishermen to improve their social and ecological conditions. “CSFs act as catalysts for all these really cool things to happen,” he says. “It is a form of collective action.”

NAMA’s Fish Locally Collaborative, a worldwide seafood trade forum where people share experiences, connections, and marketing tips, helps fuel and mobilize this collective action. And as CSFs grow and spread, they empower NAMA to recruit more large buyers, which Dorry hopes will one day help influence the policymakers to value ecologically sustainable fishing. Ever since CSFs began to sprout, the markets have been picking up speed, Dorry notes. From 2007 to 2015, the number of North American CSFs grew from one to 250, according to the online local seafood source localcatch.org. And just in the past six months, it went up to 270. “I’m amazed at how quickly this is growing,” she says.

And that’s how small-scale fishermen can grow big.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Cape Ann Fresh Catch as a co-op.