For my presentation at FAO:

Across the globe, small-scale commercial fishermen are facing significant challenges. In the Southeast U.S., rising fuel costs, an influx of seafood from abroad, increased regulations and other factors have caused many fishermen to leave their life on the water. To survive in the small-scale sector, fishermen must diversify their markets by beginning to think of innovative strategies to market and distribute their fish.

One such strategy is utilizing the community supported fishery (CSF) model, which seeks to directly link fishermen to consumers. Consumers pay an amount before the CSF season begins, and in turn are provided high quality, local seafood through weekly “shares.” Not only do these direct sales provide fishermen with a premium price for their product, but consumers are educated about fishing methods, seasonality in seafood and the cultural heritage of coastal communities through a weekly newsletter. Shares are filled with a diverse range of species, thereby also expanding consumer perceptions about what types of fish are best to eat.

Core Sound Seafood, a CSF business in North Carolina, has been able to pay the fishermen they work with an average of 30% more than the traditional market would pay. Established in 2010, they have doubled their consumer base from 100 to 200 shareholders and have received excellent feedback about the service they provide. Follow this link to find the full presentation about the CSF model, which gives a background on the decline of the small-scale commercial fishing industry in North Carolina, how fishermen need to shift their marketing strategies to a focus on high quality/locality and the successes, challenges and lessons learned from Core Sound Seafood’s experience. Also included are thoughts on how the CSF model could potentially be replicated abroad in Europe and developing countries.

a belated post dedicated to fisher fathers

It’s hard to know if anyone is reading this blog or it’s just me out here alone in this virtual weird blogosphere world.

Either way, I don’t really mind. It’s a nice way to check in with myself and my project.

So since I wrapped up the adult fisher interviews and The Core Sound Waterfowl Museum is holding camps for kids on entrepreneurship in fishing, I decided to spend some time with the sons of these wonderful fisher folk to get their thoughts on fishing as a job, what they were interested in doing when they grew up and what they think about their unique community. I’ve already spent some serious time with one of these kids, Hunter, who is the son of our delivery guy and who likes to accompany his dad on the rides. 

I jokingly refer to Hunter as our intern as he gets right into business – scooping up ice for people to keep their share cold, telling them about how to cook so and so kind of fish and checking their names off the list.

The best part was when he told me – “Anna, these people don’t know anything about fish, do they?”   

I had to chuckle.

So I went with Hunter, the kid I already had an in with, down to the dock to do some swimming and hang out with two of his pals, also sons of fishermen. We chatted about the sea (rough that day), their favorite type of seafood (shrimp, fried and fried), what they thought about fishing (overall consensus, they liked it, but didn’t want to do it for a living) and their community (they hated the Downeast brogue). All of them loved to go fishing with their dads and one of the boys, Phil, told me about his urge to go out with his dad in the morning but “…gosh dang it, I have to go to school.” The other boy, Edward, followed up on Phil’s comment with the fact that his dad left school to go fishing, in fact, at eighth grade and never came back.

I’ve heard the story from his dad myself and if I didn’t know the guy, I’d feel pretty bad for him that he didn’t reach highschool. But when I started to spend time with him, watched how he mended nets with fish bone needles, hanging them carefully for the next season, noticed how he read the sky and the water to determine what would happen that day and listened to the stories he would tell me about his catches, the amazing ones and the poor ones, I figured out that the ocean was his school, that’s all there was to it. There is nothing he’d rather be doing more.

Anyways, I digress… these days, kids Downeast aren’t quitting school for fishing. There just isn’t enough promise in it. Back when Edward’s father quit school for it, there was…you could take care of your family solely from small-scale fishing. And when I asked the kids if they wanted to go into fishing for a living, they all said no, though they would be sure to keep fishing as a hobby. They all recognized the important jobs their fathers did though and you could tell, respected them very, very deeply.

I respect their fathers so much as well and lately, have been feeling so fortunate to be able to learn from them and to have a key into this amazing community that can be quite closed to outsiders. A few months ago, I found out that I will be going to Rome, Italy and Galicia, Spain to give a presentation for The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. on the community supported fishery model and how it can play a role in improving the economic viability of small-scale artisanal fishermen. I almost feel like I shouldn’t be going…the fishermen should! I need to be sure to underscore in my presentation how there is no way I would be presenting if it weren’t for them. Anyways, more on my travels soon….see below for two good father son portraits.

CSF Challenges

sign in Atlantic near harbor

sign in Atlantic near harbor

I was recently on a conference call with folks from across the nation who are involved in CSFs. So far, the CSF model has largely occured in the northeast, so I was happy to hear many people in on the call from California who were looking to get a CSF started. Then last week, I read that a new CSF in Northern California was sprouting up and their first customers were none other than the infamous Google! How cool.

Anyways, during the call, much of the time was focused on talking about challenges different CSFs have experienced. One of the main challenges brought up was price and I couldn’t relate more, especially after talking with many of our fishermen.

Let me explain – when we go about starting sign up for our seafood shares, we set a certain price for the season. This spring for instance, we started sign up for our spring season (April-June) in March, which meant we had to set prices for the shares in late February. Setting a price so far ahead of time means we basically have to give our best guess for what fuel prices and market prices for fish are going to be in three to five months. We also want to stay competitive for our customers and balancing all of this is not easy. When fuel prices skyrocketed in the early spring, we had a really hard time. Not surprisingly, so did many other CSFs and a few have begun adding on “fuel surcharge” prices though with mixed results from their shareholders.

Since I’ve been talking to fishermen about what would motivate them to sell to us, it gets even more complicated. Most of them say the biggest incentive is a higher price, however it would have to be a large enough price difference to factor in the cost of driving their catch over to Harker’s Island where our processing house is. For some of the fishermen who live in Atlantic for instance, that’s over a fifty-six mile round trip, which would set them back a good sum (especially as 99.9% of fishermen drive a large, gas guzziling truck…okay, not exactly a scientific figure, but still). We are already paying fishermen more for their catch than the fish house is, but in doing the calculations, it might not be enough incentive for them to make the extra effort to sell to us. If we do want to make it a higher incentive, we would have to raise the prices on the consumer end.

So, I’ve been trying to think of some alternative ways that we could incentivize fishermen to sell to us. We have the Downeast Assistance Fund (to date we have more than $5000, for every share we sell, we donate a dollar to this fund) and I’m wondering if we could use the money to provide micro grants for fishermen who sell to us on a consistent basis. The money could be used to help them buy needed supplies or maybe even fuel? But there would have to be guidelines about when they would be eligible for the money (after selling to us at least three times, for instance?). Just some thoughts, but I’m going to be doing more research to see how this might work. Perhaps other CSF models have done something similar?

Hope everyone is staying cool…

The Man with a Pencil

I’ve been on the downeast coast of NC for the past week, interviewing commercial fishermen about their experiences selling fish, some of the challenges their communities are facing and what they need to maintain a viable livelihood. I’ve also been talking to them about the community supported fishery model and how it might be able to benefit them.

Many themes have emerged. One of the biggest topics that has come up again and again is the fish house. John was one of the first fishermen I interviewed. With red hair and skin deeply freckled from the sun, he has a hearty laugh that could easily rivle santa claus’ chuckle. He sat on his porch, flicking open his pocket knife now and then as he talked to me. He told me about how for many years, fish houses operated like a bank, giving fishermen loans to buy anything from a net to a car. Not only did this create a sense of reliance on the fish house, but fishermen felt obligated to sell their catch there. Though fish houses are not giving loans for non-fishing related purchases these days, that sense of obligation to sell to them has remained.

Unfortunately, fish houses have notoriously paid fishermen a considerably low price for their catch, talking to each other to determine a set price that they will not budge from. Many fishermen told me that they often had no idea what they would get for their catch until days later, after the fish houses had talked to one another to determine that price. “The man with a pencil,” as John refererd to the fish house owner, is who determined how much he would get paid for his catch.

The fish house also provides ice, a critical supply for fishermen to keep their seafood fresh. Most of the fishermen I talked to did not have many other ways of getting ice, which makes them even more reliant on the fish houses.

What about selling to a community supported fishery model? Well, most fishermen have a very vague idea of how it works and are hestitant to sell to such a seasonal market that may not take all of their catch off of their hands. A few have mentioned that selling somewhere else may even put them in jeapordy with the fish house, as if the fish house thinks they may not be a consistent supplier, they will not want to buy from them in the future.

So, I’m left thinking – how can a community supported fishery model work in conjunction with the fish houses? It’s an important question, as the fish houses still play a major role in providing economic opportunities for the fishermen. Downeast, there are four fish houses remaining (there used to be many more, but one by one they have closed their doors), on Cedar Island, Davis, Beaufort and Atlantic. Additionally, the CSF model may not be able to be the sole source of income for fishermen. Rather, diversifying their income streams through various markets (selling to the fish house, a CSF model, live market, peddling their catch themselves, etc) may be the smartest idea.

All things I’ll continue to explore with my UNC Bryan Fellow this summer. I’ll keep anyone who is interested updated here…


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