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Small fishermen borrow a page from small farmers

Community-supported fisheries, like community-supported farms, sell 'shares' in a catch directly to consumers.

By Peter SmithContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 10, 2008

Lobster brothers: John (l.), and his brother Brendan Ready show off their catch in Portland, Maine. They sell 'shares' to consumers.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP

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On Saturday night, men in thick winter jackets hoist shrimp out of the icy waters of the Gulf of Maine. Most of the shrimp haul goes to a processor three hours away; some shrimp travel as far away as the Carolinas. But early Sunday morning, co-op manager Kim Libby drives a few miles down the road to a snowy parking lot, where she delivers the catch directly to locals. These customers have paid for a portion of the catch in advance.

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"Here's hoping that we can sell all of our product like this one day," she says.

By eliminating processors and purveyors, the Port Clyde Draggermen's Co-op hopes to increase the return on its shrimp, a staple for winter groundfishing boats in the state. The tiny crustaceans have been selling for less than 50 cents a pound. By going direct to consumers, the co-op is essentially trying to make more money selling less seafood – and, in the process, they're hoping to reverse an industry in steep decline.

In addition to federal lawsuits and grants, smaller commercial fishermen using direct marketing to stay afloat. At least four fishing groups started similar initiatives last year.

Two Maine brothers, John and Brendan Ready, sell subscriptions of lobster and other seafood under the name Catch a Piece of Maine. Their 150 subscribers receive shipments and can even go online to check on the status of their underwater investment.

In Alaska, the nonprofit Alaska Marine Conservation Council sends its donors tangible evidence of its environmental initiatives: sustainably harvested seafood. Marketing campaigns have also been launched to promote the regions' seafood, including North Carolina's Carteret Catch and New Orleans' White Boot Brigade. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the White Boot Brigade.]

These community-supported fisheries (CSFs) attempt to replicate the success of small farmers using the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model. Like CSAs, the idea is that shareholders will invest at the beginning of the season with guaranteed return of food dividends all season long.

"You're getting food from someone you know. You know how they grow it, you know how they treat it," says Anne Burt, an organizer with the Maine Council of Churches, which has been organizing CSAs with the Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association.