By TODD McLEISH/ecoRI News contributor
Those looking to buy local seafood at grocery stores and fish markets in New England may have a difficult time finding much, especially if you’re searching for something other than shellfish. Just 15 percent of the seafood available at markets in the region originated in New England, according to a pilot study by the Rhode Island-based nonprofit Eating with the Ecosystem.
“Unfortunately, the results weren’t super surprising to me,” said Kate Masury, the program director for Eating with the Ecosystem who coordinated the project with University of Rhode Island professor Hiro Uchida and student Christina Montello. “We’re a seafood-producing region, it’s a big part of our economy, but we’re not making it available to our own consumers.”
Rhode Island’s results were better than the regional average, though still not as high as one might expect. About 24 percent of the seafood in Ocean State markets was captured in New England waters, which compares favorably to Massachusetts and Connecticut, at 12 percent each, and New Hampshire and Vermont, at 5 percent. Only Maine, at 33 percent, had more local seafood available in the markets surveyed than those in Rhode Island.
The findings are the result of a citizen science project called Market Blitz that took place over a two-week period in March. Volunteers visited 45 supermarkets and seafood markets in all six New England states to identify what species were available and where they were captured.
While the percentage of locally caught species available for purchase was low, the total number of species for sale was unexpectedly high. Ninety-one species of fresh or frozen marine life could be bought during the survey period, including 45 species identified as being landed in the New England region and 85 species from outside the region or unidentified. (The overlap is due to some species being caught both locally and beyond the region.)
Again, Rhode Island was above average, with 50 species available at the 12 markets surveyed, far more than the other five states.
Despite the variety of species available, however, Masury said that New Englanders typically don’t eat a diverse diet of local seafood. Oysters, quahogs, and lobsters dominate the markets, followed by four other varieties of shellfish. Farmed salmon is the most popular regional finfish, followed by wild flounder and haddock.
“We eat a lot of a few things, and it’s mostly shellfish,” she said. “When people go out to eat at a restaurant or go to a seafood market, they want traditional New England food. Shellfish is what people are demanding.”
Where does the rest of the New England seafood harvest go, if not to New England consumers? All over the globe.
“Two-thirds of the seafood caught in the U.S. is exported elsewhere, some species more so than others,” Masury said. “In Rhode Island, whiting, also called silver hake, is a fairly big fishery, but most people here have never heard of it. It mostly goes to New York and it’s distributed out of the region from there.”
In a report issued by Eating with the Ecosystem in late June, the authors wrote that the low availability of locally caught seafood “may not necessarily imply that the market is dominated by non-regional seafood. Rather, it may be in part because the markets did not bother to indicate — or advertise — that the seafood is from the region.”
The report also noted that many of the study’s results suggest that Maine and Rhode Island are different than the other New England states.
“Seafood is a bigger part of the economy in those states, they depend on fisheries more than other industries, and people who vacation in both areas want local seafood,” Masury said. “So part of the reason why those states had more availability of regional species is because there is more demand for local species.”
And that, she added, is the take home message of the Market Blitz. The region has plenty of room to improve, but consumers will have to demand it.
“For many businesses, it’s an economic decision,” she said. “If they don’t think people are going to buy it, they’re not going to offer it. So the biggest thing we can do is to show there is demand for local species. Buy the local instead of the imported. And if you don’t see local in your market, ask for it.”
The Market Blitz study will be conducted twice a year for the foreseeable future, to build up a database and demonstrate how seafood availability changes over time. In the next phase of the project, interviews will be conducted with fishermen, seafood dealers, processors, chefs, and consumers about the mismatch between what species are available in the ecosystem and what species are available in the marketplace.
“One of the things we talk about all the time with consumers is eating a diversity of local species in proportion to their natural abundance,” Masury said. “Species more abundant in the local area should be a larger part of our diet. We hear that species like dogfish and sea robin are abundant in local waters, for example, but you don’t realize that because that’s not what’s available in the local market. Our goal with the Market Blitz is to quantify what is available.”
Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.