Port Clyde Fresh Catch: The First Community-Supported-Fishery, Bringing Sweet Maine Shrimp to You

Sweet Maine shrimp: small size, big flavor
Sweet Maine shrimp: small size, big flavor

I once ate the most delicious whole fried shrimp at La Fonda del Sol. When I asked the server what kind of shrimp they were, he explained that they were sweet Maine shrimp, only available in the winter, and hard to find in New York. But for members of a new community-supported-fishery, it won't be hard to get the crustaceans this winter.

Port Clyde is a small fishing town on the wild Maine coast, about 90 miles north of Portland. Port Clyde Fresh Catch's website calls it "one of the last traditional fishing villages in Maine." Low prices and diminishing stock has made it increasingly difficult for the town's fishing fleet to survive. So the 12-boat group decided to adapt a terrestrial idea to the water, and started a community-supported-fishery. Together, they bought a processing facility, so that the group of fishermen controls every aspect of production.

For members, the CSF is just like a community-supported-agriculture (CSA), but with fish instead of produce: Pay $216 dollars up front, and get 30 pounds of sweet shrimp, doled out monthly in 5-pound increments, January through May. Sign up on the Port Clyde Fresh Catch website, or at the New Amsterdam Market this weekend.

CSF manager Jessica Libby answered our questions about the CSF, the group's relatively eco-neutral fishing gear, and the shrimp themselves.

So tell us about the Port Clyde Community Supported Fishery: How did the idea come about?

Basically, the fishermen are not able to survive with the market structure that's in place right now. They go out and catch as much as they can, and don't know how much they're going to make on it. It's ruining the fishery, because if all the fishermen fish as much as they can, we'll run out of fish. The market structure is set up for overfishing, and fishermen can't afford to sustain themselves.

So taking a cue from the community-supported-agriculture idea, we took a liking to the idea of a community-supported-fishery. Why not bring sustainable fish to the local and surrounding communities? The goal is to save the fleet in Fort Clyde, because if this doesn't work out, a lot of the fishermen won't be able to continue fishing. This is their last hope.

So we decided to invest in a processing facility. Originally, we were selling whole fish and whole shrimp, but now we own a building where we can pick [shell] shrimp, lobster, and crab, and fillet fish. It's the same idea, but it appeals to a wider customer base, because a lot of people don't want to deal with picking their own shrimp or filleting their own fish.

The fish at a grocery store have been out of the water for up to 16 days. Here, the fish come in off the boat, and the fishermen have probably been out on the water for four days, so they take the fish off the dock, process it the next day, fillet it up, and delivery it the day after. So it's out of the water six or eight days max. We also offer traceability--we know where each fish came from and who brought it in.

So how is this new CSF model helping to stop overfishing?

The fishermen generally get a higher price, and a stable price, for their catch. Most of the money is made in processing, so that's why this whole idea started: Cut out the middleman so that the money goes to the people catching the fish. Our co-op pays 50 cents a pound for whole shrimp, and then we are hoping to be able to return to the fishermen an additional 50 cents per total pounds at the end of the season.

So is that more than what they would normally be paid by processors?

It varies, and changes all the time. The Portland Fish Exchange would give you a better idea, day to day. Sometimes it's more than we're offering and sometimes less. But we're hoping the extra that we'll give at the end of the season, plus the fact that we're steady at 50 cents a pound, that it will end up averaging more.

People think: Oh you're only paying 50 cents a pound for the whole shrimp, but just to put it in perspective, we retail whole shrimp for $1.30. But that's only going to yield 40 percent meat.

So you're starting the CSF in New York this year?

We are hoping to, yes. We've got to get a certain number of people signed up, though, to cover our delivery costs. We can't afford to go there if we don't have a minimum of 50 people. But we have every intention of doing it.

What about the equipment you use: Is it better for fish populations than the gear others use?

Yes, we have really cleaned up the Port Clyde fishery. We use modified shrimping gear and nets to help make what we do more sustainable. The nets we use allow bycatch and smaller fish to go through.

What about the shrimping gear, does it drag the ocean floor?

Yes, it's basically a dragger. I'm not going to say it isn't. But we use a different kind of rope so that it doesn't rest directly on the bottom, so disturbing the bottom is minimal. That's not to say it's totally gone, but compared to what it used to be, it is extremely clean. We also use a different shrimp grate that allows smaller shrimp and fish to pass through. There's a lot being done, and a lot has been done voluntarily.

What are the Maine sweet shrimp like?

They're small. A lot of people are familiar with the gulf jumbo shrimp, and they're completely different. The Maine shrimp are smaller, sweeter, and they're pink. Sometimes they're called pink shrimp. The big gulf shrimp have no flavor in comparison. Anyone who tries them, loves them..

With a CSF share, in what form do you get the shrimp? Do they have their heads and tails?

No, it's just the uncooked meat. The shrimp meat is vacuum-sealed and frozen in 1-pound packages, which is just as good as fresh, but easier for travel. A lot of people like the heads and tails for stock, and for those that are interested in that, we'd be happy to put together a custom order and bring it down with the CSF delivery.

You sell groundfish like cod and haddock in the summer, but everything I've read indicates that we shouldn't eat Atlantic cod because the population is so low. What's your take on that?

We have heard that, but a lot of the stuff that goes around isn't 100-percent accurate, because they don't do studies every year. The fish I would be more worried about this year is haddock.

Really, why?

We used to have an abundance of haddock, but this year it was scarce. People wanted it, but we just didn't have it to sell. The cod was more plentiful than the haddock this year. But so many things can affect the way the fish are--the temperature of the water, the gulf stream, any of that can change what fish we have available. The fish we get the most of are dabs, monkfish, and gray sole. And we also get quite a bit of red fish.


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