Why We Should Insist on U.S.-Caught Seafood

Selling direct to consumer is temporary but buying local should continue

Photo courtesy F/V Falcon Instagram

You know Dave Marciano from National Geographic’s Wicked Tuna. (And I’ve written about him before): To most of us in New England, he’s just a decent guy who goes tuna fishing and happens to be on TV.

Photo: Dave Marciano

TV is just a thing that happened for him, and he sees it as an opportunity to both help his business and do what he can to promote the importance of commercial fishing, American fishermen, and delicious seafood in the U.S.

Marciano is worried about the future of his business, regardless of the TV show. He depends on people visiting and traveling to Gloucester for his charter boat business. “I was a smoker for 40 years so that probably puts me in the high-risk category,” he says. And, despite being outside, being on a fishing vessel is pretty close quarters.

Many of us who work in the fishing industry are worried about a couple of months from now when the fishing season picks up, the weather warms, and visitors flock to the coast. Are the restaurants going to be able to open? Are people going to want to travel? Will people be spending money? Restaurants and tourism are outlets for products like Maine lobster and other seafood in the U.S. What is going to happen when all of the fishermen need to get back to work but there’s no place for the product to go and no mechanism to get it to where it needs to be?

Direct markets are temporary but buying local should continue

The outpouring of support from consumers to buy directly from fishermen during this weird time has been amazing. It has allowed many fishermen to cope with current circumstances. They are able to sell a small amount of volume to neighbors, friends, and community members to get by right now, but it’s important to note that this is not a permanent shift in how the fishing industry works. The fishing industry in Maine, Massachusetts, or any place on a U.S. coast is dependent on infrastructure to process, cut, ship, distribute, market, and sell seafood. Fishermen also depend on businesses that sell ice, bait, fuel, and other marine supplies that support their fishing business. Right now, that infrastructure is pretty much nonexistent, and that’s why there is seafood available to consumers at below-average prices and right from the fishermen. As Marciano says, it’s a Band-Aid.

Lobstermen in Harpswell, Maine, have been working with their community at Allen’s Seafood. You can learn more by visiting their Facebook page. Photo courtesy of Tom Santaguida, Maine lobsterman and founder of Cucina del Pescatore

But he and I agree that it’s also an opportunity. Consumers can learn more about how vast and intricate the seafood system is, they can talk with a fisherman a bit more about how difficult their job is, and maybe take some time to learn new recipes and fillet fish.

“People need to know they have a choice,” Marciano says. “You can demand U.S. wild harvest seafood all the time.” He also points out that when you are eating American seafood, “wherever you are in the country you are supporting local fishermen.”

‘People need to know they have a choice,’ Marciano says. ‘You can demand U.S. wild harvest seafood all the time.’

I think that’s such a great point. Obviously, not everyone lives on the coast. So, if you’re buying seafood in Ohio, it’s not local. Or is it? Fish from Gloucester is a hell of a lot more local than fish from a completely different country, and if you’re buying U.S. seafood and you live in the U.S., well, I guess that’s pretty local for you.

Speaking of Ohio

When I spoke with Marciano, he told me about a buddy who drove up to Gloucester from Youngstown, Ohio, to buy haddock and bring home to feed people who could use some good food because they were in need or recently lost their jobs. Mahoning County Deputy Steven Morlan (Outdoor Blues TV) and others raised money to drive the nine hours to Gloucester, buy haddock off the boat for $1 a pound, and drive all the way home to Ohio. Morlan worked with local businesses and a local catering company to fillet all of the fish, cook it, and get it to the people who need it. His efforts helped out Gloucester fishermen and his neighbors.

The important thing to remember about seafood is that it is food

That seems like such an obvious statement, but I’m not sure it resonates in the same way that we know that vegetables are food and an essential part of our diets. And the images that local carrots generate in our minds is not the same image that fish might trigger for people living in Ohio. For some, tuna fishing might conjure images of big boats, huge nets, and trapped dolphins, but that’s not the reality of tuna fishing. For those of us who are more familiar with tuna fishing, we picture beautiful sunsets and sunrises, lots of waiting, salt air, and the occasional tuna on a hook, if you’re lucky. Like it or not, shows like Wicked Tuna have helped alter the way some might think about tuna fishing, and that’s a good thing.

Lessons to remember

Out of this crisis, we can learn something, and fishing families hope that people learn to eat more American seafood.

Choose U.S. seafood — every time

When things return to normal, whatever that new normal might be, don’t stop buying and eating local seafood. Don’t stop seeking out fishermen to answer your questions. Go to restaurants and ask for American wild-caught seafood. The infrastructure will come back, and it can come back even better. Maybe we can stop relying so heavily on overseas markets or require so much imported seafood because everyone in the U.S. is able to find and buy American seafood. We can know more about seafood, fishing seasons, and how to cook and cut fish at home.

One of the biggest contributors to food waste in the United States is seafood. Can you believe that? It’s a perishable product that was once alive; we should not be wasting it! We should be able to find it, eat it, buy it, and support coastal fishing communities. But that requires some education and effort from the consumer: understanding fish has seasons just like vegetables; knowing that sometimes some fish stocks are more abundant than others; not demanding the same type of fish all of the time; learning to eat a variety of fish species; and educating yourself on how to properly store fish.

Fishermen go fishing

Most fishermen I know do not want to market and sell their own products. After long days on the water, sometimes in rough weather, the last thing they want to do is start calling customers, making deliveries, and chasing down payments. Right now, selling some of their own seafood is helping them make a little bit of money to temporarily fix a very uncertain and worrisome time. That’s not to say this crisis might not beget creative and innovative new ways for buying and selling seafood — wouldn’t that be cool? But it will be a few, not many, that are able to innovate and maintain new models.

That being said, there are many small seafood businesses in the U.S. that have adapted models from agriculture, like CSAs, or community-supported agriculture. You can find them at localcatch.org.

Fishermen deserve a fair price

Right now you might be able to find Maine lobsters, fish from Gloucester, and Northern Gulf of Maine scallops for a little less than you might normally expect to pay. You don’t have to pay for some of that other necessary infrastructure that we usually rely on, and fishermen want to help their neighbors just as much as people want to help fishermen. But under normal circumstances, it’s important to remember the true cost of seafood. Fishermen have boat payments, crew members, health insurance, engine repairs, bait, fuel, ice, and upkeep to pay for.

The amount of physical labor and mental stress is also important to consider. Rough weather, increasing regulations, strict management, changing rules, high prices for fuel, low prices for fish; these are all things that weigh heavily and constantly on the mind of a fisherman. And, as Sir Walter Scott said, “It’s nay fish y’er buyin’, it’s men’s lives.” Fishermen have lost their lives catching seafood for us to eat. Please don’t expect them to give you fish for free.

(For more information on fisheries management and regulations, please visit the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. If you have any questions, you can email info@mainecoastfishermen.org)

“Nothing is going to substitute getting back to business,” says Marciano. But the outpouring of support and interest in buying local seafood from consumers along the coast has been overwhelming and reassuring, so if you’re a consumer, if you like seafood or love seafood, if you’re new to filleting fish, if you live in Ohio, Gloucester, or Maine, please keep supporting American fishermen.

A version of this article was originally published on Aragosta Mama.

Lives on Orr’s Island. Married to a commercial fisherman. Works for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. Writes on AragostaMama.com. Eats a lot of seafood.

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