With fishermen under increasing pressure from factory fishing boats and government catch limits, two new ideas on how to keep the local fishing industry alive have recently broken the surface.
Both are intended to provide local fishing boats with a fixed-price market for their catch free from the day-to-day market fluctuations that currently determine the price for the fish they bring to shore. While both the new Duxbury-based business Open Ocean Trading and the South Shore Seafood Exchange, based in Scituate, create new markets for fishermen, they come at the job from different angles.
Open Ocean is thinking big, linking producers with big buyers. The South Shore Seafood Exchange is bringing back the age-old exchange of freshly caught fish from local boats to the waiting hands of customers on the pier in Scituate.
Using the Internet and commodity-based analysis to serve “customers on both ends,” Open Ocean arranges for fishermen to make direct contracts with “end buyers” such as grocery stores and fish restaurants for an agreed-on amount of fish at a previously determined price, owner Keith Flett said recently. Under the traditional auction system, that is impossible. Currently fishermen bring their catch to the few ports where dealers operate (such as Boston and New Bedford, but nowhere on the South Shore) and where their fish is inspected and sold by auction.
Since the auction determines the price for each species of the catch and prices can vary widely from day to day, fishermen never know how much money they have made — or possibly lost — until it’s sold.
Through the open market approach offered by Flett’s company, boat owners and captains can negotiate a price with a buyer such as a supermarket or restaurant chain and go fishing with a clear idea of their profit margin, said Flett, 31, who previously ran a wholesale business in New York.
“We sit down with owners and captains,” he said. “We go over catch history, we develop a marketing plan — for flounder, haddock, cod — then we go to our buyers electronically. A phone call moves along the contract, and we establish a price” for a given quantity. “So they know what the margins will be. It takes the risk out of it.”
Open Ocean began operations last month. Clients include supermarket and restaurant chains, the owner said.
Fishermen leaving ports such as Scituate, Marshfield, and Plymouth for day trips in the Atlantic face long odds these days, said captain and boat owner Frank Mirarchi , one of the three Scituate captains signed up to sell fish to the South Shore Seafood Exchange. “They kind of pulled the rug out on us,” Mirarchi, who has been fishing for 49 years, said of government quota regulations.
Designed to protect against the overfishing that caused populations of popular species such as cod, haddock, and flounder to shrink to dangerous lows, assigned catch quotas have made it hard for “day fishers” such as Mirarchi to stay in business.
Boats are assigned quotas for well-defined fishing grounds in the off-shore Atlantic waters, but the quotas are too small to last a whole season. The result is many fishermen sell their market shares and keep their boats tied up to the dock. To keep going, captains like Mirarchi buy their shares.
In his 55-foot trawler called the Barbara L. Peter, Mirachi goes out within a 20-mile radius three days a week, more than enough time to catch his quota. Back on shore, he takes the fish by truck to New Bedford, since there are no local dealers or fish processors.
Mirarchi said he now takes his boat out mainly so his son, who works for him, can make a living. “We already used up our quota,” he said recently, “and the season is only half over.”
“Catch limits have made it so many fishermen can’t afford to put their boat in the water,” agreed Jay Silva, who is organizing the new “community supported” South Shore Seafood Exchange for locally caught fish.
The market is modeled on the better known community-supported agriculture plans in which members pay a local farmer a fixed rate for a share of the harvest and receive fresh produce each week of the growing season.
Similarly, Silva said, “our members pay upfront for the season’s catch and will get fresh fish.”
Members buy either a full 20-week season share or a 10-week half-share for $25 a week. The exchange will get under way as soon as membership reaches 50. It’s close to that goal, Silva said.
“Part of our goals is to reconnect the fishermen with the community,” Silva said. Currently, he said, customers are unable to go to the Scituate pier and buy fish.
Through the exchange, they will be able to buy fish from Mirarchi’s and two other Scituate fishing boats. He wants local fishermen to be household names, like local stores and restaurants.
“Local folk can say I’m eating fish from a local company,” Silva said.
The fish, which will be processed in New Bedford before being distributed to exchange members in Scituate, will also be fresher than fish from “factory boats” that go out for a week or more at a time.
Silva also seeks to educate consumers about other edible species of fish beyond the few (cod, haddock, flounder) that people are used to eating — such as butterfish, scup, moonfish, dogfish, pollock, whiting, skate, and hake.
If the seafood exchange can help build a demand by distributing recipes along with fillets of these fish to members, it will help free fishermen from reliance on the restricted species.
A member of the energy-conscious advocacy group Sustainable Scituate, Silva said the seafood exchange grew out of his group’s interest in sustainable living.
Community-supported fisheries have already been established on the North Shore and Cape Cod.
Louellyn Lambros, also a Sustainable Scituate member, said industry practices and government regulations make it impossible to buy locally caught fish even though the boats and pier “are right at our fingertips.”
“We used to be able to sell fish to the community right at our pier,” Mirarchi recalled. “I would love to see something like those days come back.”