Nine months into this food systems reporting gig where I’ve done everything from cuddling with a heritage pig to chomping on fresh-picked mustard greens, there’s been a lingering question that’s bugged me all along.
What about the fish?
“The food system has not been paying attention to seafood,” Niaz Dorry, the coordinating director for Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, said. “Change is happening in land food. For me it’s sort of ironic that the only thing that we eat that had the word ‘food’ in it has not been included.”
And that’s especially rich given that small and medium fishing operaitons have gone through almost the same exact decline as family farms as the industry has consolidated, privatized and taken over by large corporate interests.
“A lot of them got out, a lot of them got big, and that’s when we started seeing the slippery slide of our food quality getting worse for us,” Dorry said. “The current lack of equity – economic equity – have made both fishermen and farmers focus on volume to make ends meet.”
When higher volume generally translates to more processed, less fresh food and worse-off farmlands – monocultures, soil degradation, inhumane conditions for livestock, more fertilizers and pesticides – it has a similar effect on ocean health, too. Overfishing leads to damage in fish populations, their habitat and the ecosystems they exist in.
But like the many farmers fueling the local, sustainable food movement, there are community-based fishermen also struggling to stay afloat and challenge the status quo.
Dorry’s organization, NAMA, has been working for the last eight years to help these fishermen as a way to protect ocean health.
“From our perspective these guys have the most potential for saving the ecosystem,” she said. “It’s a no-brainer for us.”
In addition to policy work, NAMA has been creating strategies for local fishermen to get directly back into the New Hampshire market. The organization has also campaigned for seafood to become part of the movement to create a more sustainable food system in New England.
“We really are making sure of every opportunity . . . to make sure seafood is on the table when it comes to food system work,” Dorry said. NAMA is, for instance, a part of Food Solutions New England, an organization based at the University of New Hampshire working to connect food partners throughout the state and region.
So, what next? That’s where you, the consumer, come in.
“We’re at a fork in the road,” Dorry said. “We as consumers have to act as advocates.”
Just as you might pack your cloth bags in your trunk and trundle to the farmers market for your weekly vegetables or carefully read labels in the supermarket to find food made by regional or state producers, Dorry said, customers need to educate themselves about their fish, too.
“Caring about who grows and kills your pig or who grows your lettuce . . . you need to equally care about who catches,” she said.
Supporting direct sales
This is probably obvious, but the best way to support New Hampshire fishermen is to buy directly from them.
New Hampshire Community Seafood is the most robust opportunity at present, offering a CSF – community supported fishery – share, in the spirit of a CSA.
General manager Andrea Tomilson explained to me that the CSF takes fish directly from the last surviving commercial fishermen in New Hampshire, all eight of them. That seafood is transported directly to customer pick-up locations as far west at Peterborough and as far north as Plymouth.
“We’re the link between the boat and the dinner table,” Tomilson said. “We really appeal to local food eaters, we appeal to grandparents who used to go down to the docks and buy.”
For those grandparents (or non-grandparents) who still want to do it the old way, one of few options in New Hampshire is F/V Rimrack, which sells scallops off-boat out of Rye. Access is limited, however – they note on their website and Facebook page said that they can’t fish more scallops until March 1 of next year.
If you don’t want to prepare your own fish, you can access New Hampshire-caught seafood in various restaurants, too. N.H. Community Seafood has an RSF – restaurant supported fishery. The newest kids on the block, New England Fishmongers, also sell direct to restaurants.
Amanda Parks and Captain Tim Rider are just getting going with their boat-to-chef operations and sell to almost a dozen restaurants along the Seacoast. Now that they have a refrigerated truck for deliveries, the pair expects to expand their radius in the future.
Asking the right questions
Wherever you buy your fish, it’s always best, Dorry said, to ask lots of questions.
“Stop thinking about species and start applying the same values – that you’ve learned to apply to your land food – to your seafood,” she said. “If the restaurant or supermarket can’t tell me where this came from, I’m not going to buy it.”
Beyond that, she said, consumers support sustainable fisheries when they avoid imitation or farmed seafood, and choose wild caught fish. Fresh fish – as opposed to frozen or processed – is generally an indicator it was caught in nearby waters, too.
Dorry asks that consumers pay attention to seasonality.
Native shrimp, for example, are only available in New Hampshire from December through February. She added that consumers can be open to diversity beyond cod or salmon or shrimp, too, since there could be 60 species in local waters at any given time.
Tomilson said that buying and eating underutilized fish species is what keeps operations like N.H. Community Seafood and New England Fishmongers alive in a market where they can’t compete with the large-scale commercial fishing industry.
“If we don’t get the underutilized species out there – our fishermen are going to go out of business,” Tomilson said. “For people who really want to support their fishing industry, we’re it.”
(Ag & Eats is a biweekly column for the food page and blog by Elodie Reed. She can be reached at 369-3306, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @elodie_reed. Read more at food.concordmonitor.com.)