Despite its storied tradition, the New England fishing industry has entered a vulnerable state. Following decades of overfishing during the previous century, NOAA and other governmental agencies have implemented long-term management plans that severely constrain the harvesting of iconic species such as Atlantic Cod. This situation has been further aggravated by anthropogenic climate change, which has undermined the productivity of lobsters, sea scallops and other important species by increasing sea-surface temperatures. Cimate change has also helped generate more frequent and more intense storms, limiting the number of days smaller fishing vessels can operate each year and creating volatile supply and demand relationships.
Compounding difficulties for regional fisheries is a troubling consumption pattern. In recent years, Americans have begun purchasing increasing quantities of cheaper, imported seafood. This move away from locally caught fish has negatively impacted employment trends in the New England seafood industry, which has lost roughly 20% of its jobs over the past two decades.
In spite of these obstacles, the research of NE CASC fellow Amanda Davis suggests that that the region’s fishing industry may have cause for optimism. An environmental conservation graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMASS), Davis has begun investigating the possibility that lesser-known but regionally abundant fish species have the potential to reinvigorate consumption of fish harvested in the Northeast.
Working with a multidisciplinary team of collaborators that includes the UMass Department of Food Science, UMass Dining Services, the seafood distributor Berkshore, and NE CASC science coordinator Michelle Staudinger, Davis is exploring consumer perception of fish species such as haddock, hake, Atlantic pollock, dogfish, and scup. To do so, she has conducted surveys and sensory experiments evaluating knowledge of these local seafood options as well opinions of their taste, texture, aroma, and appearance. Preliminary results indicate that factors such as familiarity with and availability of these options explain their seeming unpopularity.
“Lack of awareness and inaccessibility appear to be the main factors preventing consumers from supporting their local seafood options,” Davis says. “When given the opportunity to taste and rate local species, most panelists respond favorably to them, even species that they have almost no knowledge of.”
For Davis, these findings suggest that changes in the way seafood is marketed and distributed can significantly shape consumer purchasing decisions and thus positively impact the regional seafood industry. Given the far-reaching implications of Davis’ research, it is not surprising that it has garnered support from a wide range of sources. Her work has been made possible by funding from an NSF Advanced Award, a UMass Social Science and Environment Seed Grant, and a 2018 Division of Marine Fisheries’ (DMF) Seafood Marketing Pilot Grant received by Our Wicked Fish, a nonprofit organization founded and directed by Davis.
“Transitioning to abundant local seafood is a win-win scenario for consumers, the New England seafood industry, and especially the environment,” Davis says. “In our region, a fraction of food miles is attached to local catches compared to imported seafood. The ‘boat-to-table’ system is a desirable way to both significantly reduce our carbon footprint, strengthen our local economy, and support our communities. And, as my research has begun to show, such a transition lies within reach.”