Netting a more local seafood flavor?

CATCHING ON: Richard A. Cook, owner and operator of The Local Catch in Narragansett, sells seafood at seven farmers markets in Rhode Island. He is certain the demand is there to support local sales. /
CATCHING ON: Richard A. Cook, owner and operator of The Local Catch in Narragansett, sells seafood at seven farmers markets in Rhode Island. He is certain the demand is there to support local sales. /

Despite living in a state that lands seafood worth more than $900 million per year, Rhode Island consumers don’t see a lot of the local catch on their dinner plates. And one state senator wants to change that.
Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski, D-New Shoreham, sponsored legislation signed into law by Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee to create a seafood collaborative that is tasked with getting as much locally caught seafood into Rhode Islanders’ lives as possible.
“I want to see Rhode Island codfish on every Rhode Island consumer’s plate,” said Sosnowski, who chairs the Special Senate Task Force on Fisheries as well as the Senate Committee on Fishing and Agriculture. Her legislation created both the nine-member collaborative, composed mostly of state department directors, as well as a 10-member advisory council, to be filled with representatives from the fishing industry.
Those close to the fishing industry say there is a great demand among consumers for local seafood, and they point to the success of the state’s 45 farmers’ markets, where local produce is sold, as evidence of this demand.
One key mission of the collaborative is to identify regulations that prevent or inhibit local seafood marketing initiatives and “identify opportunities to remove those regulatory restrictions,” Sosnowski said. The collaborative also will research funding sources available to the local fishing community and issue recommendations in a report to the General Assembly due April 30.
“People would be surprised to learn that most fish caught in Rhode Island is shipped out of state and is not sold in local markets or restaurants,” said Sosnowski. “The Seafood Marketing Collaborative … will support and work closely with the Rhode Island fishing community to promote the marketing of local seafood.”
The Ocean State need not look far afield to see that such efforts bear results. New Bedford, home to 225 commercial fishing vessels, is the nation’s top fishing port in terms of the dollar value of landed catch, approximately $249.2 million in 2009, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Kristin Decas, executive director of the municipal Harbor Development Commission that governs the port, said her city has encountered no barriers to providing locally caught seafood to local consumers, evidenced by seven retail fish markets in the city. The commission, for instance, meets weekly with a “core working group” of fishermen, regularly mounts marketing efforts to promote New Bedford seafood and supported the fishermen in a recent unsuccessful lawsuit against NOAA challenging what Decas called “inequitable” federal regulations.
Lars Vinjerud II, owner of wholesaler Fleet Fisheries in New Bedford, said he encountered no special problems when establishing a local seafood market in the city almost two years ago. “Believe it or not, a lot of people come over from Rhode Island” to shop there, he said. He revealed he is “toying with the idea” of opening a seafood market near the Rhode Island border.
The Ocean State certainly has a big-enough fishing industry to compete. According to NOAA, Massachusetts leads the region, with $6.7 billion in sales in 2009, followed by Maine with $1.2 billion and then Rhode Island, $906 million. The federal agency said in 2009, the commercial fishing industry in the Ocean State comprised 7,888 workers.
The Rhode Island collaborative will explore at least three main avenues to increase local seafood availability, Sosnowski said: through local restaurants, fish markets and farmers markets.
Hannah Mellion, food-system activator for nonprofit Farm Fresh Rhode Island, said the state has about 45 farmers markets, nine of which are run by Farm Fresh and, of those, just three carry seafood in season (two at Lippitt Park and one at Cranston Street armory, both in Providence).
The key result of a recent conference held on the topic at Save The Bay was “a better awareness among all the participants that we need to work together better,” said Monica Allard Cox, communications manager of Rhode Island Sea Grant and the graduate oceanography program at the University of Rhode Island.
Asked about the establishment of a seafood farmers market or some other vehicle to increase the availability of local seafood, Cox said a lot of issues must be worked through, mostly generated by state health department regulations that strictly govern the gathering of seafood and how it can be sold to the public.
For example, according to Sosnowski, anyone who sells processed fish (such as filleted fish) to the public must have a state processing license to do so. Richard A. Cook, owner and operator of The Local Catch in the Galilee section of Narragansett, sells seafood at seven farmers markets in the state on a regular basis. He has been a fisherman for 30 years, opening The Local Catch to process and sell seafood in the spring of this year.
Cook is certain there is more than enough seafood in Rhode Island waters to support increased local sales, as well as strong demand from consumers. “People are thrilled to buy fresh fish locally,” he said.
Although he said no concrete figures are available to support Sosnowski’s contention that most Rhode Island seafood is sent out of state, Cook said his 30 years in the industry convince him that it is true.
Cook and Sosnowski both pointed to the state Department of Health regulations as extensive and restrictive. According to Cook, they cover just about every aspect of fish processing, from the temperature that must be maintained in refrigeration units to the need for fly-catching apparatus in processing areas and a requirement for ice that has been certified as safe to eat.
Detailed records must be kept of where each piece of seafood comes from, Cook said. In recent months, he handled about 20,000 pieces of shellfish, he said, and has a book-sized ledger several inches thick with records of where the shellfish came from and where it went. Such regulations are expensive – Cook said he spent about $100,000 to set up his processing plant – and time-consuming, but neither Cook nor Sosnowski called for their elimination.
Both stressed that strict health department regulations are necessary to ensure the safety of Rhode Island seafood. “You cannot eliminate them,” Cook said.
“We want to make it easier to access, understand and navigate those regulations,” Sosnowski told Providence Business News.
Farm Fresh fully supports Sosnowski’s collaborative. “We need to take a comprehensive look at the industry, and we need to create a brand for Rhode Island seafood, similar to the work that’s been done in agriculture,” Mellion said.
No time frame has been set for when appointments will be made or when the collaborative and advisory council will begin meeting, but the law calls for the April report, as well as yearly updates. •

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