By Ilaria Catizone
In the land of big (is best) business, the community is still keen to support local fishers, small-scale fisheries and their products. This is the finding of four Australian fisheries sector representatives during a trip to the US in February to attend the Local Seafood Summit in Virginia.
Glen and Tracy Hill from the Lakes and Coorong Fishery, South Australia, fisher and fisheries researcher Andrew Tobin from Townsville, Queensland, and Suzie McEnallay from the Wallis Lake Fisherman’s Co-operative, New South Wales, were selected and sponsored by the FRDC to attend the summit and meet local fishers there.
The Local Seafood Summit was organised by LocalCatch.org, a network of small-scale harvesters and community-supported fisheries (CSFs). It ran over two days and was attended by 110 seafood direct marketing advocates.
Suzie McEnallay says the main focus of the event was to facilitate knowledge exchange and networking. “It was great to see a seafood community so connected or trying hard to connect with one another for the shared value. The CSFs model seems to work well in the US; they’ve had similar models set up for many years in the agriculture sector.”
At their core, CSF models seek to reconnect coastal communities to their food system, encourage sustainable fishing practices and strengthen relationships between fishers and communities. There are several different models; however, a conventional CSF is where the marketing and distribution channel buys from fishers and delivers to consumers. Seafood cooperatives across Australia largely follow this path.
Alternatively, some models empower fishers to handle their own marketing and distribution by selling directly “off the boat” to consumers. Again there are various methods of doing this, including offering customers shares in the catch, or prepaying for a season of fresh, local, low-impact seafood. In return, customers receive a weekly or biweekly share of fish or shellfish.
“As we learned during the summit,” Tracy Hill says, “the money paid upfront to the fishers helps them fund plant repairs or equipment that they may not have been able to afford otherwise.” This means that while the weekly cashflow is less, because repairs and improvements have been made at the start of the season, fishers are more efficient and productive. Any surplus catch can be marketed or sold to restaurants and retail outlets.
Andrew Tobin says the CSFs and similar networks also provide for individual business advice, support, networking and sharing of ideas. The conference included sessions on business planning, financial planning and advertising.
The Australian delegates also note some clear challenges that US CSFs face, such as bureaucracy, food regulations and the importance of maintaining community support. They say these issues could be obstacles to establishing a similar model in Australia.
“The CSF model has great potential but the fact that many fishers are already selling direct for reasonable fish prices most of the time, and a tenuous definition of ‘local’ are some of the obstacles that may make it difficult to establish such a system in Australia,” Tracy Hill says (for example, how far from the port is deemed local). Nonetheless, she and her husband, Glen Hill, are considering starting the first Australian CSF after their US trip.
Suzie McEnallay is not sure the idea of paying up-front for a random type of seafood throughout the year would work in her area. “Customers have such a huge range of species to pick from and can be fussy to which type they like or dislike. Whereas in the US people do not seem to mind what species they are eating,” she says. “But it is a great way to get the species that are less known or not marketed well to be turned into a valuable fish.”
Andrew Tobin says he was surprised to learn that it was only recently that a study had begun to understand the views of consumers who support CSFs, their values, expectations and concerns.
Before arriving in Virginia for the summit, the Australians enjoyed some US adventures starting in Port Orford, Oregon, where they met Aaron Longton, a member of the local CSF.
This fishery launches its boats by crane over the side of the wharf on high tide due to the shallowness of the harbour – a more challenging approach to launching and retrieving boats compared with Australian fisheries.
“The thing that amazed me was that most fishers seemed to catch only a minimal number of species,” Suzie McEnallay says. “Some fishers I spoke to only caught one species all year round, for example Alaska Whitefish. This is despite the region’s catch including Chinook Salmon, Rockfish, Albacore Tuna, Pacific Halibut, Lingcod, Black Cod, Dungeness Crab and Clams.”
She noticed that the fish shops did not have the variety of species that we see in Australia.
At the Wallis Lake Fisherman’s Co-operative, where Suzie McEnallay is operations manager, the retail shop sells about 30 species at any given time. The lack of variety seemed consistent through most US outlets they visited. Frozen and canned local fish was also everywhere, alongside fresh and some live product, which was held in the hope of bringing higher prices.
During a welcome reception, Glen and Tracey Hill provided a presentation about their fishing and processing business and the Lakes and Coorong Fishery, the challenges and opportunities. “The group was very interested and asked lots of questions,” Tracy Hill says.
The following day, the Australian visitors travelled north with Aaron Longton to visit several retail outlets and to explore some of the scenery along the coast, including the Rogue River bar. Two of the retail outlets they visited were run by fishers – Pacific Ocean Harvesters and Chuck’s Seafood, a seafood shop in Coos Bay.
What interested the travellers was that most shops had canned salmon with their own label, which was produced under contract by the cannery.
The Australians also had an opportunity to speak with Craig Good, a south coast port research biologist from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife at the Brookings field office. With seals an issue for fishers in the Coorong fishery, the Hills were particularly interested in Craig Good’s overview of his work and insights into what is done with seals that become a nuisance around salmon spawning areas.
Suzie McEnallay summed up the trip by highlighting the value of experiencing a different perspective on fishing in another country: “In some areas Australia is well ahead, and in others we can learn some things,” she says.
One of the contacts the Australians made at the US Local Seafood Summit is Amy Sheehan and her family, who run the Gulf of Maine, in Pembroke, Massachusetts. Tim and Amy Sheehan and their children buy and sell shellfish from local fishers and harvesters as well as collecting 600 species of seaweeds, invertebrates and fishes fresh for seafood, scientific, aquarium and research markets across North America and beyond.
They met Glen and Tracy Hill at the Local Seafood Summit and have arranged for their 18-year-old son, Tucker Sheehan, to travel to Australia during the US summer (the Australian winter) to work with them as an unpaid intern in the Hills’ business in the Lakes and Coorong Fishery. They also hope to learn more during his visit about the Sheehans’ family business and its challenges.
FRDC Research Code: 2015-504
Peter Horvat, 02 6285 0400,