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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Nashua to become part of NH farm-share program for fishermen

NASHUA – The area’s local-food movement has learned to embrace everything from arugula to pork to raw milk in recent years.

The question now is whether it will also embrace cape shark, white hake and redfish. ...

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NASHUA – The area’s local-food movement has learned to embrace everything from arugula to pork to raw milk in recent years.

The question now is whether it will also embrace cape shark, white hake and redfish.

“We want to develop markets for these lesser known species, to engage the consumer in caring about not only the existence of our fishing fleet, but also the deliciousness of our fish,” said Joshua Wiersma, co-founder of New Hampshire Community Seafood, which is expanding to Nashua this month in its second year of operation.

Sign-ups are being taken for deliveries each Tuesday afternoon at a site at Railroad Square and at the recently opened Brookfield Farm stand.

For customers, N.H. Community Seafood operates like a farm-share or CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, that has become familiar with area farms. Customers pay a set fee in advance in return for a portion of the weekly harvest – or, in this case, the weekly catch – that they pick up themselves. The cost over the course of the eight-week season, which starts Aug. 12, is $12.50 per pound.

The 36 New Hampshire fishermen in the cooperative harbors benefit from up-front cash and guaranteed sales that help them make decisions about investment.

Customers benefit from fish fresh, delivered within 24 hours of landing, as well as the pleasure of connecting with a working New Hampshire fishing boat. People can learn all about the participating fishermen and their boats, and learn more about the fish they’re eating and the fish out in our ocean.

More enthusiastic customers can become members of the cooperative, participating in decisions about its operations and getting a portion of any end-of-season profit dividend.

There’s also a small but growing “restaurant-supported fishery” program.

Participating restaurants get fresh fish and can peddle the local connection to diners (in some cases even with a scannable Quick Response code that lets you see a map where your fish was caught), just as many restaurants have lists of local farms on their walls.

MT’s Local and Surf are two Nashua restaurants that have expressed interest, co-founder Sarah VanHorn said.

Another advantage to consumers: It helps negate their guilt about contributing to the over-harvesting of the Gulf of Maine.

“This is small dayboat fishery,” Wiersma said. “These are 40- to 50-foot boats. They go out and set their gear every day and bring in the catch. This isn’t a 200-foot net, dragging over everything in the ecosystem. Our boats can go into the ecosystem niches and fish for 1,000 pounds a day instead of 20,000 pounds a day, and be stewards of this ecosystem.”

There’s one major difference between New Hampshire Community Seafood and farm CSAs, as reflected in the word “community.”

A CSA involves a single grower, but this seafood initiative involves a group of fishermen – in this case, virtually every working boat from four ports on New Hampshire’s small ocean coastline.

It has a more complicated backstory, as well.

As explained by Wiersma, who has a Ph.D. in fisheries economics, the cooperative is the result of changes in the way the United States oversees ocean fishing.

As of 2010, oversight began moving away from the long-running model of catch limits for species. That produced “a race-to-fish” attitude, Wiersma said: “You had to go out and catch fish faster than Joe next to you, before the government shuts down the fishery for the season.”

That led to bigger and bigger boats catching more and more fish, which was hard on New Hampshire’s small fishing community and on the fish.

Now there’s a catch share program, which he calls “a type of cap-and-trade program for fisheries” that is managed by sectors.

The New Hampshire cooperative is all one sector (Northeast Sector XII). This gives it flexibility about how and when to meet catch goals, to trade catch limits, to hold back when necessary rather than plunging into ruinous debt.

“There’s no more incentive to over-capitalize your boat and fish faster than the next guy, because Joe can’t catch your fish,” Wiersma said.

Part of the process is developing markets to support the local boats, which is where the cooperative comes in.

“This is a close-knit coastline,” Wiersma said. “We’ve been able to use this new system to organize ourselves as a group that has given us more political capital.

“We understand how we can work together to develop new programs and opportunities that wouldn’t have been available under the old management system.”

Selling directly to consumers or restaurants rather than selling fish via the large auctions at Portland, Maine, or Gloucester, Mass., which are the traditional outlet for New England fisheries, should put more money in dayboat owners’ pockets.

That’s partly because consumers are willing to pay more for goods with a local connection and partly because of fewer intermediaries taking a share of the profit.

That has worked well with New Hampshire farms, which have grown in number since direct-to-consumer sales largely replaced the traditional wholesale system hereabouts.

Whether it works for fishing boats remains to be seen, but the cooperative is optimistic.

“Our first season, we had a total of 550 or so CSF members,” Wiersma said.

This year, they’re expanding the distribution area from seven towns to 13, as far away from the Seacoast as Peterborough.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).