Small fishermen borrow a page from small farmers
Community-supported fisheries, like community-supported farms, sell 'shares' in a catch directly to consumers.
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Others who are studying the industry, such as Maine's Island Institute and Susan Andreatta, a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, say that with the loss of sea life, knowledge about fishing grounds that is passed on from generation to generation will also be lost by the time fish stocks rebound – if they rebound at all.Skip to next paragraph
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Given the rising cost of waterfront land, soaring costs for fuel and nets, and tighter and tighter fishing quotas, the commercial viability of fishing has been waning for years.
"Their challenge is just like [that of the] small family farmer," says Eric Siy, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. "Big corporate interests are edging them out, driving up costs, and consolidating opportunity. We've seen a major crippling of the ability of community-based fisherman to be able to compete."
Consumer awareness about fisheries has begun to change with more frequent reports of mercury in tuna, overfishing in Europe, and fish farmed in suspect Asian waters. The federal government has responded by ordering mandatory country-of-origin labeling. Others, like North Carolina's Carteret Catch, have spurred regional recognition of food that up to now had been largely reserved for fancy European wines and cheeses.
"When you drive 300 or 400 miles to the coast, and you're eating shrimp that you think is right out of the local water, and instead you're getting imported shrimp – I just think that's wrong," says Dr. Andreatta. She has advocated labeling for fish caught in Carteret County at restaurants and fish houses.
While CSFs universally aim to better educate the consumer, there are regional and individual interpretations of what it means to be economically fair, develop the community, and maintain the ocean's ecology. "We're doing everything we can to be stewards of the sea," Maine's Kim Libby says. "In the fishing industry, that's a brand-new dynamic."
Others argue that all groundfishing – essentially dragging nets across the ocean floor – is inherently an unsustainable practice. In Southeast Alaska, it's banned. None of the CSF groups have received the coveted certification on sustainability from the Marine Stewardship Council, an international nonprofit group.
Still others say there are too many ways to measure "sustainable" seafood. Until proposed rules are released, about the only thing fishermen cannot do is call seafood "organic" (the USDA is expected to rule on organic "wild captured aquatic animals" in August 2008, according to one recent prediction).
More than certification, fishermen say going to consumers has fostered an increased sense of responsibility and pride. "We're passionate about these fish," says Eric Jordan, a lifelong Sitka fisherman whose trolled chum salmon go to Alaska's Catch of the Season. "The real reward is in hearing from your satisfied customers." [Editor's note: The original version misidentified a type of salmon.]
But the efforts are hindered because some fishermen don't want to talk to customers, especially after eight hours on the water. Others say expecting home cooks to process raw, whole, head-on fish – gutting and scaling – isn't realistic. Furthermore, red tape associated with processing licenses is prohibitive for independent producers.
Maine organizer Burt says consumers in Rockland this year needed to invest more than money. "They really have taken a leap of faith to make this happen. It was not an easy sell – not like a bunch of carrots."
Still, with burgeoning interest in locally grown foods and farmers' markets, the community-supported fisherman might be a concept that will catch on. "It really isn't just about these 15 men and these 10 small boats," says Nancy Carter, an organizer with the Island Institute, which is providing funding for a marketing coordinator at the Port Clyde CSF. "It's about all these people that are aware about global warning and carbon footprint and make decisions about what they eat so they can sleep at night."