Local seafood once provided a major economic and cultural link between the Chesapeake Bay and the people in its watershed. Today—with a few exceptions—the crabs, oysters and fish on your plate are more likely to come from the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean or the Far East.
A new partnership between Virginia Sea Grant and the College of William & Mary—including the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Mason School of Business and Marshall-Wythe School of Law—is exploring a community-supported fishery as a possible means to help reverse this trend by promoting greater consumption of locally harvested fish and shellfish.
Project leader Troy Hartley, director of the Virginia Sea Grant program at VIMS, explains the idea, which is similar to the more familiar co-op programs that provide farm-direct produce and other foodstuffs to consumers.
“Community-supported fisheries—‘CSFs’—connect fishermen directly to local markets. Consumers pay for a share of the fishermen’s catch and in return receive fresh seafood on a regular basis,” Hartley said. “CSFs are based on the model of community-supported agriculture, which provide subscribers with shares of produce and other products from local farms.”
In addition to Hartley, the project team includes Michael Luchs, assistant professor of marketing in the Mason School of Business; VIMS graduate student Gar Secrist, head of the VIMS “Green Team;” law students Nicole Benincasa and Michael Boyer; M.B.A. students Rustam Arstanov and Tom Innes; and William & Mary undergraduates Matt Faust, Zander Pellegrino and So-Jung Youn.
A sustainable practice
Funding to study the feasibility of a community-supported fishery in Hampton Roads comes from the College’s Committee on Sustainability. Established in 2008, the committee uses funds from the Student Green Fees to promote sustainable practices throughout W&M and nearby communities.
The first part of the feasibility study—telephone and in-person interviews with William & Mary students, faculty and staff—wrapped up in late February. The goal was to assess the respondents’ current seafood choices, knowledge of sustainability issues, local-seafood preferences and willingness to pay for local fishery products.
The study was conducted by undergraduates in Luchs’ Marketing Research class. He says the experience “provided a valuable opportunity to apply what they’re learning in class to the real world.” He notes that the preliminary results “show significant interest within the William & Mary community in support of locally harvested and sustainable seafood.”
An on-line survey
The next step in the project began in mid-March, when Luchs and his students build on the interview findings by launching an on-line survey that will expand the study into the local community and provide more quantitative results.
Secrist says the goal of the survey is to “identify the factors that would make people more or less likely to participate in a community-supported fishery, including important details such as how often they eat seafood, whether they prefer finfish or shellfish, what day and time would be most convenient for pick-up, how much they’re willing to pay for fresh local products and the criteria they use to decide what counts as ‘local’ and ‘fresh.’”
If the findings of the on-line survey confirm the positive comments from the interviews, the project team will move on to create a detailed business plan that identifies how to best proceed in terms of staffing, storage, transport, finance, legal arrangements and other factors. Law student Nicole Benincasa is leading this study of the “organizational design” needed to run a successful CSF, with help from undergraduates Faust and Youn.
The team will incorporate lessons learned from a small but growing number of community-supported fisheries at other campuses around the nation, including Duke University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. They will also work closely with LocalCatch.org, a national network of fishermen, organizers and consumers committed to the growth of CSFs.
Participation is key
A keystone of any community-supported fishery, is of course, the buy-in and participation of those who provide the seafood—fishermen, watermen and shellfish growers from the Chesapeake Bay and adjacent waters. Secrist says the CSF project team has not yet approached specific seafood suppliers, but is “in the planning stage of engaging the industry through a focus group and meetings with key informants.”
Hartley stresses that market conditions and product supply are unique to every CSF location, but that all CSFs share what he calls “triple bottom-line business goals.” These include increasing the viability of local economies, cultivating healthy ties within and between rural and urban communities and encouraging an ethic of environmental stewardship.