Managing seafood takes new directions

At a time when stocks of cod, one of the most popular fish in New England, are at an all time low, we wanted to share a piece we just saw in an email from FishChoice.com.
“With a coastline of just 18 miles, the smallest in the U.S., New Hampshire is not exactly a significant seafood producer. But don’t tell that to Josh Wiersma. He’s too busy trying to save the state’s shrinking fishing fleet.

With stocks of cod, New England’s bread-and-butter fish, at record lows in the Gulf of Maine, the New England groundfish industry is in full survival mode. Stocks of other groundfish like haddock, redfish and pollock are in great shape, but fishermen can’t catch as much of those fish as they could without also catching the endangered cod. And getting New Englanders to eat any fish other than cod or haddock is also a major challenge.

In an effort to let fishermen still grind out a living, the New England Fisheries Management Council abandoned its “days-at-sea” regulatory scheme and replaced it in 2010 with a sector-based “catch share” scheme that allows fishermen to buy and sell quota so they can fish more to the needs of the market and, hopefully, reduce their by-catch of threatened stocks like cod. This is where Josh Wiersma comes in.

New Hampshire Community Seafood Josh WiersmaOutfitted with a newly acquired Ph.D. in fisheries economics from the University of Rhode Island, in May 2010 Wiersma “decided it would be fun to manage the New Hampshire small boat groundfish sector to see how fisheries economics play out in the real world. “It was a chance to develop market-based solutions and efficiencies based on theories I studied in school,” he says. One of the first things he did was to develop a program for lesser-capitalized fishermen to compete under the new catch-share system, in which the older fishermen came out much better than fishermen who had only fished a few years. “With a catch share system you always have winners and losers. I wanted to create a way for younger fishermen to join the business at a time of great uncertainty. “

To do that he acquired government loans and worked with the Nature Conservancy to form a permit bank that would buy out permits in an effort to give struggling small-boat fishermen the chance to buy quota at half the market price. Then last year, Wiersma co-founded New Hampshire Community Seafood, a coop that connects his small boat fleet directly to consumers and restaurants. In its mission statement, the group says it is a “pioneering effort intended to reconnect the local consumer base with New Hampshire commercial fisherman via a new marketplace for locally sourced seafood—a direct market from boat to plate.”

In just two years, the New Hampshire Community Seafood’s CSF has grown to more than 550 members who pick up their fish weekly at seven locations in New Hampshire. Members can buy fillets in 2, 1 or even ½ pound increments for three eight-week seasons a year. Members cannot order by species, they must take what the fishermen catch, which varies week to week.

“We want people to start eating some of these lesser known species so our boats can fish the species that have very low quota costs,” he says. Redfish and pollock quota, for example, cost about $.02 a pound, much less than cod quota, which can run as high as $2 a pound. Consumers and restaurants pay $12.50/lb. for fillets, regardless of the species. This allows the coop to pay more for fishermen to handle the fish better, especially dogfish, whose stocks are at unprecedentedly high levels.

“Fishermen need an incentive to fish for species like dogfish. This gives it to them because we can make it worth their while if they ice and bleed the fish. It’s a whole new product for consumers and restaurants and they buy into it. People are paying for freshness, the story of the fishermen and the certainty of traceability. They don’t complain once they understand our mission objectives,” Wiersma says.

New Hampshire Community Seafood also gives its members the opportunity to become owners by buying shares of stock for $100 each and a chance to sit on the board. “It’s a novel way that consumers can participate in the policy of managing the resource and become advocates for the fishery. It’s a tremendously engaged group. I use them as political lobby.””

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