ORONO — A team of researchers is looking to learn about the direct seafood market across the country in order to strengthen local food systems and coastal communities.
“Currently, there is a gap in national-level data on the domestic seafood system,” said Joshua Stoll, a marine policy professor at the University of Maine and one of the lead investigators for the project.
The collaboration between the school, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will help better understand how fishermen in the U.S. market their catch.
The agriculture sector has collected this kind of data for decades but the scale of the direct market, where fish is sold from fishermen directly to customers, isn’t clear.
“Knowing more about alternative market strategies is critical to understanding how to add value to industry products and remain viable,” said Dale Squires, a senior economist at the NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center.
Seafood is a large part of the country’s food system and wild-caught seafood accounted for more than $144 billion in sales in 2015. But little is known about what happens to seafood once it enters the market. Collecting this data could help inform fishermen and policymakers about what could use future investment and support as the industry faces increased regulation and climate change.
The COVID-19 pandemic shook up the seafood industry, which in Maine traditionally has relied heavily on restaurants.
“This work really comes out of the model and this recognition that supply chains and food systems have experienced challenges,” Stoll said.
So much of fisheries management has focused on the water, but there are tons of data gaps on the market side of things, he said.
Comparable data collection in the farming sector has been around since the 1970s and the data surveys can help justify funding to small and mid-sized farms.
“We’ve seen that baseline data is critical to strengthening local and regional food systems because it helps to make them more visible,” said Edward Ragland, with Agricultural Marketing Services.
Through a grant, the project will start with building a list of seafood businesses involved in direct sales and survey how they do it.
One challenge is that direct sales are called different things across the country. It’s known as peddling, cash sales and off-the-boat sales.
“There’s so much regional variance,” Stoll said.
The project is expected to take about two years. The researchers hoped it would support the flexibility and resiliency of the fishing industry so it could continue to provide sustainably harvested food.
“Domestic seafood markets are critically important to coastal community resilience, food security and jobs and, thus, sustainable fisheries,” said NOAA social scientist Patricia Pinto da Silva.