Connecting Fishermen with Hungry Communities Can also Benefit Local Food Systems

While delivering food boxes this summer to tribal communities in Oregon’s Columbia River watershed, Bobby Rodrigo was moved by the challenges he saw. Tribal members were living in campers and RVs with no electricity and a single hose for running water. Meant to be temporary, these “in-lieu fishing communities” were created in the 1950s when the federal government-built dams that forced tribal members to leave their ancestral fishing grounds.

It was like “being in a homeless shelter, without the infrastructure,” said Rodrigo, who is part Mohawk, a member of the Native American Committee of the American Bar Association, and legal and operations director for We Do Better Relief.

Rodrigo was handing out food boxes as part of a pandemic relief effort led by a new Pacific Northwest coalition called The Wave. Efforts started earlier that day at an event in Cascade Locks, Oregon, in collaboration with the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission and other groups, before moving out to the in-lieu fishing communities. The event focused on tribal members but was open to the public.

Rodrigo brought 850 pounds of fresh-frozen Alaskan lingcod, a type of groundfish, to provide alongside U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farmers to Families Food Boxes provided by the Oregon Food Bank. The Wave also provided a food truck, KOi Fusion, that served 400 free teriyaki fish rice bowls, cooked with more of the lingcod.

A partnership with the community-supported fishery (CSF) Alaskans Own, the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, and the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, the Wave’s fish donation program involves a slew of Northwest food security groups, tribal organizations, chefs, food trucks, and seafood groups. The groups received funding from a nonprofit accelerator group, Multiplier, to purchase 130,000 pounds of fish from small boat, Alaskan fishermen to provide to food-insecure communities in Washington and Oregon.

The KOi Fusion food truck during the event at Cascade Locks. (Photo credit: Bobby Rodrigo)

While the program focuses on rural, and/or predominantly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), communities, it’s recently pivoted to feeding firefighters and evacuees as deadly wildfires sweep Oregon. Getting seafood—or, truly, any fresh and healthy food—to communities like those in-lieu settlements in Oregon and Washington poses additional challenges, but those are precisely what these partners aim to solve.

The partnership is one of six U.S. fish donation programs funded by Multiplier through its Catch Together program, which supports community-based fishermen. At its core, Catch Together’s grant program aims to provide fishermen a living wage to help feed food insecure families a highly nutritious, lean protein—locally caught seafood—that is rarely, if ever, included in food relief efforts.

“My real hope is that we can start seeing fishermen as part of the food system again.”

But the fishermen groups it supports, from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico to Alaska, view the program as a bigger opportunity to reconnect local fishermen with their communities, at a time when many feel disconnected by global markets that whisk their catch from the dock to far-flung corners of the world. And they seek to leverage the grant funds to overcome barriers that have made it difficult to integrate their sustainably harvested catch into local and regional food systems.

“All of these different organizations and fishermen, they’re really getting excited about . . . how do we get a little bit closer to the people we’re feeding, and how do we support our communities,” said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, one of the grantees. “My real hope is that we can start seeing fishermen as part of the food system again.”

Shoring Up Fishing Communities

Prices paid fishermen have plummeted everywhere during the pandemic as restaurants have closed or scaled back services. Bristol Bay sockeye salmon, for example, is selling for half the price fishermen were paid in 2019, according to Elizabeth Herendeen of Alaskans Own.

A bag of vegetables including a recipe for “one pot fish stew” distributed in Oregon. (Photo credit: Bobby Rodrigo)

The Catch Together funding allows the groups to buy sustainably harvested fish and pay fishermen a stable price to keep them fishing at a time when one in eight households don’t have enough food to eat. In some cases, as with the lingcod fishermen in Alaska, the grant funds have tipped the balance: Without that funding, the fishermen wouldn’t have been able to go out fishing.

Catch Together encourages its grantees to use its funding as seed money to help them achieve longer term goals to shore up their resiliency—such as by creating a sustainable value-added product, like a fish cake or fish soup, that they can eventually market or get the USDA to purchase for one of its national food assistance programs.

“Our hope is that they’re able to use our grants to create a runway to a sustainable product, or think through how they can serve underserved parts of the community,” Paul Parker, Catch Together’s managing partner and president, told Civil Eats.

Describing Catch Together as a “hub in the middle,” Parker said it’s “uplifting to watch all the different fishing communities come up with ideas about how to serve this need, and then building the programming and cross-pollinating to one another.”

Figuring out the food donation piece can be challenging, however. First the groups need to select the species and harvest the fish, which isn’t always easy. Then they need to turn the fish into a product that’s readily usable by food assistance programs, which can also be tricky: Some programs don’t want seafood because their clients aren’t accustomed to eating it. Last, they need to work out the logistics of the distribution.

Paul Parker, head of Catch Together, at Chatham Harbor on Cape Cod. (Photo credit: Meg Wilcox)

“Most of the organizations of fishermen we’re working with have deep experience in one or two of those areas, but not all three,” said Parker.

That’s why Alaskans Own and the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, which received a grant to harvest lingcod and sablefish, teamed up with the Wave, said Herendeen. “We knew the Wave had the structure in place to help move the fish to families in need.”

Reaching In-Lieu Fishing Communities

The Wave program aims to feed more than 600,000 people in rural and BIPOC communities through early November with a combination of hot meals and fresh-frozen fillets, and it piggybacks off the efforts of other food relief organizations. That means “things change on the daily,” notes Keri Johns, a manager at The Wave.

It’s currently providing fresh frozen fish to Feed the Mass, which is preparing hot meals for firefighters and wildfire evacuees, among other activities. In-lieu fishing communities remain a priority, however, and it has adapted to their needs by following the tribal fishermen as they move up river with the salmon harvest, providing hot meals from a food truck, via Food Fleet, and also providing a one-pot stew bag with the fish that their families can easily cook.

Johns said that the Wave’s immediate focus areas are supporting tribal fishermen with hot meals during their busy salmon harvest and getting technical needs sorted out for kids for online schooling. But over the longer term, “we’re looking to make a food system that works for the little guy and the health of our nation,” she explained. “How people look at seafood, how fish gets distributed, and where it goes is part of what needs to change. It’s a great protein source.”

Nailing that approach could go a long way to helping feed communities that have been doubly disadvantaged—first by generations of neglect and underinvestment driven by systemic racism, then again by the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19.

A Range of Efforts

Like the Wave, most Catch Together grant recipients are donating fish in frozen, vacuum-packaged, individual servings and/or collaborating with food assistance programs to produce hot meals. Many are also including recipe cards and information about the fish and the people who caught it.

The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Alliance, for example, received funding to purchase 80,000 pounds of hake, a groundfish species, and pay a processor to fillet and package the fish for distribution through Good Shepherd Food Bank and potentially through Maine schools.

In other parts of the country, the Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United, is purchasing up to 20,000 pounds of shrimp, and paying a processor to prepare it for distribution through the Mississippi hunger relief organization Extra Table.

The Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust received funding for two initiatives, both of which focus on feeding BIPOC communities: the Wave partnership and a program to purchase salmon from Bristol Bay fishermen. Alaskans Own (a project of the Trust) and Northline Seafoods will bring 45,000 pounds of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon to Alaska Native villages experiencing record-low salmon returns this year, according to Herendeen.

And the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fishermen Shareholders Alliance is running a pilot program involving 40 fishermen in Tampa Bay that it hopes to eventually expand throughout the Gulf States. Grouper, red snapper, and up to 10 other species harvested by the fishermen will be filleted, flash-frozen, and packed for distribution through two Tampa Bay food banks.

Donated fish will be run through the group’s Gulf Wild program, a seafood traceability system that applies a unique QR code that people can scan on their smart phone to see the path the fish took to get to into their hands—from the boat, to the fish house, to the processor, to the charitable group—as well information on the fisherman who caught it.

Fishermen participating in the program will also help distribute the fish they harvest at events coordinated by food banks.

Mississippi fishermen took this approach at an event in June. The Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United (MCFU) collected 1,500 pounds of king mackerel left over from a Biloxi fishing tournament and teamed up with the hunger relief organization Extra Table to clean, fillet and distribute the fish. “Everybody pitched in . . . and made it happen,” said Ryan Bradley, MCFU’s executive director. “It was really good to see the fish go to people who needed it.”

Creating a Value-Added Product

The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance is the only grantee thus far to create a value-added product, a fish chowder made with locally caught haddock. The alliance will eventually introduce the chowder to retail outlets under the brand name Small Boats, Big Taste. Sales will go toward sustaining the program after the philanthropic support ends.

The group is purchasing 100,000 pounds of haddock from its members and paying a Boston fish processor to fillet the fish, and a Massachusetts food producer to produce the chowder, using milk and cream sourced from New England dairy farms.

Already, the group made its first donation of frozen chowder to Massachusetts’ four food banks. Created from about 33,000 pounds of fish, the donation included more than 18,000 containers, each with three six-ounce servings.

A fisherman inspecting freshly caught haddock. (Photo courtesy of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance)

The alliance hopes the Small Boats, Big Taste brand will gain recognition, like Newman’s Own, for both its quality and social mission. If they succeed and grow, other kinds of chowders, including quahog or oyster stew, could be added to the line.

Creating such a value-added product is an effective way to sustain efforts to bring local seafood into regional food systems, and make it more accessible to distressed communities over the longer term, Tyson Rasor, the fisheries and food systems program manager at the environmental and food systems nonprofit Ecotrust, told Civil Eats.

“We’re learning that this is more than just moving food around; this is about approaching human health in a more holistic way.”

Seafood products such as fish cakes, fishermen’s pies, or soups are generally more affordable than fillets because they’re cut with other, less expensive foods and the seafood portion is smaller, said Rasor. They’re also easier for institutions like schools or hospitals to handle than frozen fish fillets, and people are also “leaning into ready-to-go foods.”

Ecotrust, a member of the Wave coalition, is currently working with the Oregon State University Food Innovation Center and Health Care Without Harm to create seafood products that large institutions could purchase to bring in healthy, nutrient-dense fish in a way that’s tasty and attractive.

Opportunities for Systemic Change

Many of the fishermen’s’ groups have an eye toward USDA programs to sustain their donation efforts. The Cape Cod Fishermen’s Alliance, for example, is seeking to get the USDA to buy its chowder for programs providing food assistance to schools, food banks, and other institutions.

With the USDA recently committing to purchase $30 million of Gulf shrimp for its food assistance programs, Bradley of Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United similarly hopes to leverage the Catch Together effort to get into that program. He’s also eyeing a state program, Genuine Mississippi, that promotes food produced in the state.

Other groups, including the Wave, are seeking out private philanthropy to continue and/or expand their efforts, based on the needs they’re seeing on the ground.

“We’re learning that this is more than just moving food around; this is about approaching human health in a more holistic way and using food as the starting point when we’re delivering Alaska seafood to tribal communities,” said Herendeen. “We’re looking at how  we can bring in other partners and other resources to support these families in a bigger way.”

Wave executive director Justin Zeulner says the coalition’s approach to Catch Together is “a bit of an FDR model. We’re doing pandemic relief, and that’s important right now. It’s equally important that we’re looking at these opportunities for systems change.”

Zeulner envisions the food donation systems that the Wave is helping to create turning into a future revenue model for communities. He envisions cultural institutions stepping up and purchasing the local foods that are now being bought with grant funds, and selling them to their customers and employees.

“We’re paying culinary leaders to put food boxes together,” Zeulner says. Perhaps in the future, he adds, “we can work with a tribal leader and pay people to put boxes together. [Then,] when the pandemic is over, they’re set up to actually sell.

“Think about it: tribal, BIPOC, small-boat harvested seafood and local grains that we can offer via the Wave Coalition to the general public [could] create a whole new economic opportunity,” he says.

Meg Wilcox

Meg Wilcox is a freelance writer based in Boston focused on solutions-oriented stories about the ways people are fighting climate change, protecting the environment and making our agriculture systems more sustainable, including by addressing poverty. She formerly worked in communications at Ceres and Root Capital.

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