You can go to a farmers market and pick up a rump roast or pork loin straight from the local farm that raised the animal. At the same market, or at times in the produce aisle at a grocery store, you can pick up spinach, tomatoes and cucumbers, and know from within a few dozen acres where it was picked.
But try to do the same with fresh Maine seafood, outside of the ubiquitous lobster, and you won’t have much luck. The locally caught seafood that makes it to market is often too far removed from the fisherman who hauled it in — they just aren’t able to sell their product in the same way that farmers can.
But that can change, and it has to change, if Maine is going to realize the full potential of its fishery, and build on the state’s reputation for local food.
Mainers want to eat local food, as long as it is easily available. A survey conducted by the Muskie School of Public Service and released last week as part of the Maine Food Strategy initiative found that almost 80 percent of respondents would choose Maine-produced food over an alternative.
Tellingly, 64 percent of them choose local food not because of health or freshness but out of a desire to support local businesses.
Farmers have done well to fulfill those wishes. Farmers markets and co-ops have exploded in popularity in the last decade, and local food can be found to some degree in grocery stores in most areas of the state. If you want meat, produce or eggs from a nearby farmer, you can easily pick them up along with your other shopping.
The same cannot be said for seafood. A fish in the store cooler does not bear the name of a local fisherman. It most likely does not even say if it is from Maine. Even if it is, most of the money spent by consumers will go to processing and transportation, not the fishermen.
The best you’ll find is seafood tagged by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. That tag, which tells consumers that the product has been sustainably harvested from the Gulf of Maine, is a good step, and it stands out next to fish shipped from halfway around the world.
But it doesn’t tell the full story of the fish. It does not put an actual local face or address in front of buyers.
Much of that is an issue with processing, which is built for bulk. It’s hard for fishermen to find someone to turn a relatively small amount of cod or haddock into packages ready to carry the fishermen’s own label at the store or farmer market.
There are success stories that buck that trend — the Port Clyde Fresh Catch fishing cooperative, for one, which packages and sells local seafood, and cuts down the distance from boat to dinner plate.
Fresh Catch, and the few other community supported fishery initiatives in Maine, can set the tone for future efforts. Fishermen need someone on land to coordinate the business, while keeping the focus local.
At the same time, consumers should make their desire for local seafood known to stores and restaurants. They should be open to trying species, like hake and pollock, that are now underutilized, building off the research institute’s
Mainers want to eat local food, as long as its easily available. Though there is some work to do, getting that equation right worked for local farms. It can work for fishermen too.