While most people are focused on turkey and locally-harvested fall vegetables this week, others are instead finding ways to get more fish onto peoples’ plates. Seafood is traditional New England fare, but it often gets lost in the fall shuffle as people gravitate to hearty meats and root vegetables. But, there is great local seafood being harvested all year long in Maine and lots of ways to prepare it in the winter to provide good, healthy protein.

The holidays often highlight efforts to provide food for those who might not have enough to eat for their celebrations and into the winter. School lunch programs, public suppers, and food banks all provide options for those in need. Typically, these programs rely on donations from local farms, grocery stores, and individuals. There are a lot of non-perishable items along with a variety of meats, dairy and produce. But, one thing that is often lacking is seafood.

Maine waters produce an impressive array of fish, shellfish, and other seafood and this offers and opportunity to help meet the food security needs of many families. But, seafood is tricky. Freshness is a challenge, as it doesn’t keep long without being frozen. Processing is another hurdle since your average consumer isn’t skilled at fileting a fish. And preparation can be intimidating for those not accustomed to eating seafood.

But, a local organization, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA), is sifting through these complex challenges in order to utilize Maine’s fresh seafood to meet food security needs. They are building the relationships between fishermen, food pantries, and Maine families necessary to get local fish to those in need. With the help of a generous start-up grant, MCFA created a program called “Fishermen Feeding Mainers”. It isn’t simple to get fresh fish off the dock and to the table. As MCFA’s Executive Director, Ben Martens, says, “There are lots of weird logistics. It has been very revealing what the barriers are between the fishermen who catch the fish and the people in Maine who eat it – how to move the fish, cut it, process it, pack it, freeze it. We are really seeing all the pieces of the equation and the pressures in each of those at different points in the year.”

There’s a fair amount of education as well. “It is mind-blowing for some people to find out that you can freeze your fish,” says Martens. MCFA has been meeting with food banks and school districts to show people how to properly freeze and defrost fish – and of course, also how to prepare it.

Each of these pieces of the equation means another logistical puzzle to sort out, but it also means including more partners along the waterfront. From the Portland Fish Exchange to processors like Nova Seafood to Vessel Services to the people who repair nets. There are so many parts of the waterfront infrastructure that benefit when there are fresh fish coming ashore – and when there is a market for those fish. The groundfish fishery was struggling even before the pandemic. And, the downturn in restaurant and wholesale business pushed many fishermen to tie up their boats. The Fishermen Feeding Mainers program has gotten some of those boats fishing again.

The program has not only provided a market for fresh local fish, but it has provided a market that is much more predictable for the fishermen. Normally, fishermen don’t know what they’re going to land and when. They might fish in less than ideal conditions to get back to shore on quick notice for a buyer. Or, they might stay out extra long in order to catch the highest valued species. MCFA’s program guarantees fishermen a more predictable income and also makes use of many otherwise underutilized species like hake and pollock.

There are non-financial benefits as well – like the newfound connection that fishermen have with those consuming their catch. Typically, much of what is landed in Portland goes straight to places like New Bedford, New York, or Chicago. “Most fishermen don’t ever know who eats their fish. They lose contact with who they’re providing with food,” says Martens. “It is meaningful for the fishermen that it is now going to people in their community.”

After the initial grant, MCFA has continued to fund raise to grow the program. They’re currently working towards a goal of 100,000 donated seafood meals by December 31st. But, as Martens says, “the program has been so positive that the goal is to keep it going as long as we can. It is something we hope will have a longer impact for the fishermen and the working waterfront – and hopefully those that are eating fish.”

The Fishermen Feeding Mainers program is just one way to celebrate a season of gratitude and thankfulness for the resources that we have in Maine. And, to find ways to share that bounty with those in need.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: