Story last updated at 9/16/2009 - 11:48 am
Programs that dole out catch shares of fish are a hot button issue in the fishing industry, but here's one that everyone likes.
Community-supported fisheries programs (CSFs) sell catch shares to customers, entitling them to weekly or bi-weekly deliveries of a wide variety of locally caught fish and shellfish. The concept is modeled after "buy local" agriculture programs that have popped up all over the country. CSFs are already active throughout New England, but the concept has yet to head west.
"It's a very new concept for seafood, but people are already used to hearing about supporting their local farmers, so supporting their fishermen and women is just an extension of that. We call them 'mobile markets.' It's really catching on," said Jason Horay, Health Education Manager at Duke University in North Carolina.
Duke is home to the nation's newest CSF called "Walking Fish," which is set to distribute its first 350 pounds of pre-sold seafood to customers this week. Full shares provide between 3-5 pounds of mixed fish; half-shares include 1-3 pounds per week. Prices range from $70 to $420, depending on preparation and delivery frequency. The pilot project aims to sell 1,000 pounds of local fish and shellfish over 12 weeks, and repeat in the spring.
"We want to prove to ourselves, the fishermen and the consumers that this is something that has long-term potential," said Josh Stoll, an environmental management student and organizer of Walking Fish. "We're trying to build off of existing infrastructure but also increase the price points for the fishermen."
Most CSFs so far are operated by fishing groups (a church group runs one in Maine), with close connections to local harvesters. That was a critical link that Walking Fish lacked.
In March Stoll turned to veterans at Carteret Catch, a trade group that promotes North Carolina's 400 year old fishing heritage. Nearly half of the states' seafood comes from Carteret County.
"We had access to the market, resources and funding, but no knowledge of the fisheries or community members that need to be involved," Stoll said. "It turns out they're asking the same questions: How do we market our seafood? How do we sustain local communities? Our missions really overlapped."
Carteret Catch rallied its network of fishermen and other seafood experts, and Walking Fish got underway.
"You need a place, as in a fish house or inspected facility to ensure quality control, and you need people to take orders and get them ready to go out, and transportation that maintains the quality of the seafood to the customer," said Carteret Catch president and former fisherman Pam Morris. "It's not something that one or two people get together and make it happen. It's very complicated. But the ones I've seen work pretty well.
Morris said CSF surveys show that supporting their local fishing industry ranks No. 1 among consumers.
"People like supporting the community and they want the fishing industry to survive as part of their heritage and their culture. This gives them a way to do it, and they are proud of it," she said. "They also want quality, they want to know where their seafood comes from, and that it's a local product that has not been treated with chemicals and all the other things they hear about. Those are the top reasons they want to buy into CSFs."
The community supported projects also provide customers a voice in their food choices.
"The consumer rarely has a seat when it comes to regulatory concerns," Morris added. "You never hear about just the regular old person who likes to eat seafood. You're always hearing from every other group out there except the consumer."
CSFs also educate people about the seasonal nature of seafood, Morris said, and bring the "true story" to consumers.
"People have forgotten where their food comes from," she said. "And they are spoon-fed so much propaganda and misinformation about the commercial fishing industry. We can help dispel that directly."
"Buying direct from local sources also brings in more income for producers, and helps promote more sustainable fishing practices," Josh Stoll added.
As Walking Fish gets its legs, he said the goal is to replicate the project in other communities.
"The goals are simple: to foster economic opportunities, to cultivate healthy communities and to encourage good stewardship," Stoll said. "We want to help support fishermen in any way we can and we really believe the consumer has a role in that."
Pam Morris believes Walking Fish projects pay another dividend that goes beyond the bottom line.
"It tells the fishermen that you're a valuable person - that you're valuable to the economy, and to culture of the area. That's an added benefit," she said.
Walking Fish is funded by DukeFish, a chapter of the American Fisheries Society, and the university's Sustainability Office. www.walking-fish.org
State and federal researchers are partnering with Alaska divers to learn more about octopus in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea.
Octopus are caught accidentally in other fisheries and can be sold, but there are no directed fisheries, except by special permit in state waters. Prices to fishermen for octopus range from about 65-cents to 90-cents a pound; it fetches a buck a pound sold as halibut bait. More market demand is boosting interest in Alaska octopus, but before any fishery can occur, much more needs to be known about the creatures.
"If there is something in a fishery management plan that is sold for market, the law requires that we must set an annual catch limit on it. We have very little information on octopus from which to set a catch limit. We know next to nothing about them," said project leader Elizabeth Connors at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.
Learning about octopus reproductive seasons is the place to start, Connors said. The best guess now is that octopus in the Gulf and Bering Sea have distinct reproductive seasons, with mating in late summer to early fall, spawning into the winter, and incubation into early spring. The researchers also aim to learn if Alaska octopus have a seasonal migration pattern, as they do in Japan.
Connors said of the seven or eight octopus species found in Alaska, the project will focus on the giant Pacific octopus, which can weigh more than 50 pounds.
Researchers are asking divers near Kodiak, Dutch Harbor and Juneau to watch for octopus, and to note the size, general location, time and date, and whether other octopus are in the vicinity. Connors said researchers are especially interested in sightings of octopus dens containing eggs.
"We're really interested in where and when the eggs show up in the dens. They lay big long strings of eggs that look like grains of rice on a string - and they'll hang from the roof of the den," Connors told KDLG.
The scientists will begin paying monthly visits to octopus dens starting next fall. ADF&G will assist the project by providing specimens and testing new octopus pot gear. The octopus project is funded by the North Pacific Research Board.
"A Guide to Squids and Octopods of the Eastern North Pacific and Bering Sea" is hot off the press at www.alaskaseagrant.org.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and web outlets. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations around Alaska. Welch lives in Kodiak.