The Fishermen’s Forum brings all the different parts of Maine’s fishing and seafood industries together, whether it’s to purchase the latest technology or just to catch up over a few beers. That makes it the perfect place for discussions about how to bring harvesters, buyers, and consumers together. This was the topic covered by of one of the final seminars at the 2017 Forum, entitled “Maine Seafood for Maine People: Connecting Producers and Buyers to Increase Access and Sales”.
The seminar, hosted by Togue Brawn of Downeast Dayboat Scallops and moderated by Sandy Gilbreath of the Maine Food Strategy, focused on the diverse experiences of its four panelists in Maine’s seafood industry. The panel was comprised of Jeff Nichols (Director of Communications, Maine DMR), Kerry Altiero (chef/owner of Rockland farm-to-table restaurant Café Miranda), Tim Rider (Captain, F/V Finlander and owner, New England Fishmongers) and Abigail Carroll (owner, Nonesuch Oysters).
The panel discussion was kicked off by Nichols, who provided an overview of Maine’s laws of licensure for becoming a dealer and/or seller of various types of seafood. More information on that subject is available on the DMR website here (http://www.maine.gov/dmr/commercial-fishing/licenses/index.html). Altiero then discussed his mission to expand the farm-to-table philosophy of his restaurant to include ocean-to-table local Maine seafood. As a restaurant owner, he described the challenges of being a seafood buyer trying to support local harvesters: rather than working with one single dealer, buying from many smaller local harvesters takes up much more time and energy and requires more contacts in the seafood industry. He urged harvesters who hope to sell their products to local restauranteurs to try their best to “make it easy” to compete with the convenience offered by larger out-of-state dealers.
Rider, the captain of the F/V Finlander and owner of his own seafood company, New England Fishmongers, told the audience about the importance of working with the media when it comes to building a brand and attracting more customers. He shared the story of how he has achieved success in marketing and selling his own fish to restaurants in Maine and New Hampshire, which he catches on his vessel using traditional rod-and-reel gear. While his business model makes it impossible for him to guarantee a certain amount or type of product will go to a restaurant on any given day, he said that having good business acumen and passion for what he does has enabled him to make a good living. Rider emphasized the importance of finding seafood buyers who are equally passionate about sustainable sourcing and quality, and building strong relationships with those buyers.
Abigail Carroll, the owner and head oyster farmer at Nonesuch Oysters, brought an aquaculture perspective to the panel conversation. The young company is based in Scarborough and grows three varieties of “free range” oysters. Carroll discussed the pros and cons of selling oysters directly to buyers. On the pro side, she can get marginally more profit per oyster since she doesn’t need to pay a dealer. She also has total control over the distribution of her product, and therefore over her brand identity and consumer base. On the con side, there are large financial and opportunity costs associated with selling direct-to-consumer: Carroll and her employees must do all the work needed to get oysters to buyers, including delivering all their products by truck. The direct-to-consumer model also works for a small company, which Nonesuch is now, but presents challenges for scaling up and growing their business in the future. Eventually, the marginal profits they can make by selling direct-to-consumer may disappear if they continue trying to grow without the help of a wholesaler.
Overall, the panel discussion presented a wealth of information on what it’s like to work in the direct-to-consumer seafood market in Maine. If you are passionate about local, fresh, sustainable seafood and you are prepared to work very hard, this might just be the opportunity you’re looking for.