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Out of the Blue: Putting local fish back on our plates, helping fishermen get some green
Here in the United States, our seafood consumption habits haven't changed too much during the past several years. Eating about 15 pounds of seafood per person per year, we tend to eat the same types of seafood from shrimp, salmon, and canned tuna to milder species like tilapia, catfish, and pollock. While there's nothing wrong with an unadventurous appetite, health experts agree that we should be increasing not only the amount but also the variety of seafood we eat for a healthy diet.
Luckily, we have an incredible variety of seafood available in the United States—but how do you introduce lesser-known seafood to a stagnant palate, and better yet, get the market to demand it? Enter the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and their new "Out of the Blue" project . Funded by a NOAA Saltonstall-Kennedy Grant, Out of the Blue seeks to build markets for underused and under-appreciated Gulf of Maine seafood species. The project hopes to increase consumer awareness, demand, and value for these less popular—albeit no less delicious or less sustainable—seafood species by promoting them through local restaurants and taking advantage of the important voice of chefs. "Restaurants move a small enough volume of fish so they can be responsive and nimble enough to introduce these species," said Sam Grimley, sustainable seafood project manager at the Institute. "And chefs are looked at as thought leaders in driving consumer demand."
Trash fish no more
Working together since Spring 2011, Institute staff, local fishermen, restaurants, and food service providers identified a number of potential underused and under-appreciated Gulf of Maine species. To narrow down the list, the project team examined various criteria:
- Value—if increasing demand would increase value of the catch
- Utilization—if more of the total allowable catch could be harvested
- Value discrepancies between markets (for example, Europeans love the product but we don't)
- Strong management of the fishery
The team selected four species in the end, each to be spotlighted for one week on menus at local restaurants beginning in June 2012. They chose redfish, Atlantic mackerel, whiting, and Atlantic pollock.
First up was redfish—a formerly highly sought-after species of rockfish, which served as a key protein source for the U.S. military in the 1940s and 1950s. With no catch limits in place then, the fishery crashed. The population is considered fully recovered as of 2012, but the market for this firm, white-fleshed fish has not. But after a week of being featured on twenty Maine restaurant menus, redfish is commanding respect among consumers once again. In fact, it's stayed on some menus well after the promotion ended, and even restaurants not participating in the project starting serving redfish after customers requested it.
Waitstaff have had an important role in this success—they have been a vital link in communicating the project's mission to the customer. With project funding, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute developed fact cards with information about the species and fishery for staff to use as a quick reference tool. They also have cards to hand out to customers; these cards feature a sketch of the species, hand-drawn by a local Maine artist, and a barcode to scan, linking to the Institute's website.
A taste of success
Without in-depth analysis, it's tough to say what long-term impacts this project will have on market demand; however, some impacts are immediately apparent. According to Grimley, "the educational component is huge. A lot of chefs have said they're more likely to serve different types of fish now that they know the management, the research, and the local fishermen. And we're starting to see the fish in markets more and more—the demand continues after the promotions are over."
Some critics worry that campaigns that create demand for a product can backfire, for example increasing fishing pressure on a species and depleting it. However, with U.S. managed seafood, this isn't a concern. Grimley said it best of the project, "Making sure these species are well-managed and that they have catch limits were key to choosing the species we'd highlight. Locally-caught fish is responsibly harvested and well-managed. We use the best science in the world to drive the management and we use catch limits to prevent overharvest."
Sustainable seafood balances people, profit, and planet
Projects like Out of the Blue help us here at NOAA Fisheries to meet environmental, economic, and social objectives for sustainably-managed U.S. fisheries. We've had some incredible accomplishments in 2012, implementing annual catch limits in all U.S. fisheries to end overfishing and rebuilding several depleted fish populations. However, these accomplishments have come with short-term costs, especially for the fishermen and communities impacted by management changes. Out of the Blue helps reward fishermen for their stewardship of our fishery resources—creating new markets and boosting value for their catch. The fishing community wins, too, with increased access to local, high-quality, sustainable seafood, and a little education on the side.