A study conducted by researchers at the University of New Hampshire indicates that consumers “overwhelmingly” prefer local seafood over imported seafood and are willing to pay more and drive further to attain it.
Charlie French, UNH Cooperative Extension associate professor of community development and Kelly Cullen, associate professor of natural resources and the environment, recently presented the preliminary results of their N.H. Sea Grant-funded study to a small group of local fishermen, seafood retailers, local food organizations and chefs.
Their research indicates that despite a strong preference for local seafood in the Granite State, there is some consumer hesitation over trying and purchasing lesser-known species, referred to as “underloved” species that are plentiful in local waters but not common in cuisine. Species such as redfish, dogfish, hake and pollock currently make up the vast majority of the catch in gill nets and trawls in N.H. waters.
“Ten years ago, those were the species that got in the way of the rest of the more economically valuable fish like cod and haddock,” French said. “Now those underloved species are mostly what they are catching, so we have to absolutely figure out how to market and promote them.”
"If you can’t tackle that problem, N.H.’s small-fleet fishing industry is not going to be here much longer,” he added. Indeed, the state’s groundfishing fleet has declined from about 40 fishermen three years ago to a mere seven in 2013.
Most of the groundfish species caught in N.H. waters are exported out of the region, often to European countries, rather than kept for local consumption. And yet N.H. imports 96% of the seafood consumed in the state. “So why don’t we just eat what’s available here?” Cullen asked.
To answer that question, French and Cullen, along with their colleague Alberto Manalo, UNH associate professor of environmental and resource economics, have spent the last three years conducting research to identify alternative marketing opportunities for local underloved seafood species in New Hampshire.
They conducted surveys on consumer habits and found that approximately 75% of those surveyed eat seafood at least three times a month and are equally likely to eat seafood at home or at a restaurant. The surveys indicated that consumers are willing to drive up to five miles further to purchase local seafood than they would to purchase seafood imported from outside the region. They are also willing to pay an average of $2.25 more per pound for fresh, local fish.
“Those surveyed appreciated the freshness because seafood caught in other parts of the world is not as fresh and you can taste that,” Cullen said. “They appreciate supporting the local fishermen and supporting the local economy. If fishermen can get a fair price for their underloved product, it could be part of the solution, perhaps their lifeline.”
But not all underloved species are created equal. Dogfish in particular, a popular species that often fetches higher prices than cod in Europe, faces a marketing challenge in the U.S. despite positive taste-test reviews.
Cullen and French conducted three blind taste tests at the 2013 N.H. Fresh and Local Seafood Kickoff in Portsmouth, N.H., last May. A chef prepared dogfish and labeled the samples as “dogfish,” “codshark” and “whitefish” — the names that the USDA deems legally acceptable under which to market dogfish in the U.S. Attendees asked to rate the food in terms of taste, texture and smell. Despite the fact that all three samples were identical, whitefish rated highest, Cullen said.
“There’s a little bit of a stigma associated with the name “dogfish,” she explained. This finding indicates that fishermen and retailers will need to carefully consider how they choose to market dogfish if they want to sell it locally, French said.
The results highlight opportunities for improvement, including the need to build public awareness of local seafood choices and where to purchase it.
One survey sent to local seafood retailers and chefs indicated they have a strong preference for filleted products rather than a whole fish that requires time and effort to process. However, there are very few processing facilities in the state, but this is another opportunity for improvement.
Seafood turned into another food item and resold at a higher value, called “value-added products,” could help bolster income to local fishermen as well. Value-added products like lobster ravioli or fish chowder are popular, leading French to conclude this could also be an area for potential market expansion. He hopes the research will encourage others to create new value-added products and gauge the potential for their success, including a breaded frozen fish fillet for restaurants who want to have a local fish sandwich on their menus.
French said that the research team and NHSG/UNHCE commercial fisheries specialist Erik Chapman will work with the Yankee Fishermen’s Cooperative and the Portsmouth Lobster Company this winter to conduct a mini pilot to turn underloved species into value-added products like breaded pollock fillet, dogfish chowder and soft-shell lobster gumbo. He expects samples of those products will be available at local seafood retailers in the coming months.
Both French and Cullen hope their research can spur some activity in one or more of these areas quickly to provide relief for fishermen.
“If people don’t start trying something new right now, it’s going to be too late to save the N.H. groundfishing industry,” French said.
Find out more about the results of this research in our four-page information sheet.
Download our bookmark of the underloved seafood species of N.H.