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map showing groundfish supply chain The supply chain for groundfish. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC Social Sciences
map showing sea scallop supply chain The supply chain for Atlantic sea scallops. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC Social Sciences
map showing monkfish supply chain The supply chain for monkfish, also known as goosefish. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC Social Sciences
map showing herring supply chain The supply chain for herring. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC Social Sciences

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June 20, 2017
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

Following the Fish: Where New England’s Catch Goes and Why It Matters

Ever wonder where the fish landed at the dock ends up, and what it is used for? For some species the trip is short and direct and for one purpose, while other species travel thousands of miles to their final destination and have multiple uses. Besides food for humans, seafood could be used as bait for other fisheries, in pet food, as fertilizer, or in nutraceuticals – products derived from a food source that claim to have a health benefit.

As the public becomes more interested in where the food they eat comes from, NEFSC’s social scientists have followed the fishery supply chain from harvest to its final destination. They looked at where fish and other seafood are caught, where they go after they are landed, how they get there, and what they are used for. Following the fish means following a route that can be local, regional, national or international, depending on the species. It leads to a better understanding of the sustainability of regional fisheries and their social, economic and cultural relationships.

“Many fish species caught in New England are primarily used for food,” said Patricia Pinto da Silva, a social policy specialist in the Center’s Social Sciences Branch and one of the study researchers. “Some are processed and distributed nationally and internationally, such as scallops, while others are sold in parts or whole in more limited markets, such as monkfish. Groundfish is one of the few fisheries that is primarily consumed regionally.”

Pinto da Silva and colleagues looked at species in the New England Fishery Management Council’s fishery management plans. They examined self-reported fisheries data and data collected by at-sea observers as well as data from dealers. They also spoke with fishermen, seafood dealers, staff at processing plants and others with knowledge of different aspects of the fishery, including harvest, processing and distribution.

Current and historical Information about each fishery, the gear types used, its supply chain, emerging markets, and how the information was gathered and from whom were included in a summary of each fishery along with a map of its supply chain. The only exception was American lobster, due to a lack of the kind of data that were available for the other fisheries.

“This study is a first step in characterizing New England fisheries, including where fish are caught, what they are used for, and where they go once they are landed,” Pinto da Silva said. “We did not include aquaculture or the regional recreational harvest, which is something we would like to do in the future.”

Fish caught in New England vary widely in where they are sold and how they are used. Monkfish, for example, is primarily sold as a food fish, and largely destined for an international market. Vessels supply a small domestic market through restaurants, wholesalers and small retail fish markets, but most monkfish is exported to Europe and Asia by container ship and airplane, with parts of the fish sold for different uses in different countries.

Atlantic herring, once a canned food product supporting a regional canning industry that has since disappeared, is now primarily used as bait for the regional lobster fishery. Some herring is also used as bait in the tuna or longlining fisheries, and a few herring are pickled or smoked for specialty products or sold as pet food.  

One of the highest valued fisheries in the nation, Atlantic sea scallops are sold as food in domestic and international markets. Most are shucked at sea and generally only the adductor muscle is harvested and sold.  Only a small percentage of landings remain in the region, where local dealers sell directly to the public and to small regional retailers and restaurants. More often, large scallop processors sell directly to large industrial food companies that sell to grocery stores and restaurants nationwide. Flash-frozen scallops are sold to domestic and European export markets.

Many of New England’s groundfish, including cod, haddock, pollock and several flounders, are used as food fish, sold to local restaurants and fish markets and to domestic grocery stores. Depending on the species, groundfish that stays local travels from the boat to a dealer to fish markets, local restaurants and community supported fisheries.

Most of the groundfish caught in the Northeast stays in the Northeast, but it is also trucked to large seafood markets on the East Coast or shipped by air to the Midwest and other distant markets. Processors export some groundfish species to Europe, Canada and Japan for use there or to be processed and re-imported to the U.S. Use varies by species, but includes processing as fillets, for fish and chips, salted or smoked, or used for bait, in pet food, fertilizer or in nutraceuticals.

While many fish species are landed in the Northeast, the high demand for fish means much of it is imported from other countries, or caught in the U.S., exported to another country for processing, then imported back into the U.S. for sale.  

“More than 90 percent of the fish consumed in the U.S. is imported, much of it farm-raised or aquacultured salmon and shrimp, and canned tuna,” Pinto da Silva said.  “In some ways we know more about tracing our imports than we do about the fish caught in our own federal waters. This study was an attempt to describe the broader food system in the region beyond harvesting so we are more aware of all the connections between fishing, markets, and communities and can begin to address the socially-valued outcomes from fisheries management.”

In addition to Pinto da Silva, other researchers on the study were Julia Olson, Sharon Benjamin, Ariele Baker and Meri Ratzel from the NEFSC’s Social Sciences Branch. This research is ongoing and is part of a larger body of work which includes a paper published earlier this year in the journal Agriculture and Food Security on better integration of policies related to fisheries management, aquaculture and public health to support sustainable domestic seafood production and improve American's access to healthy seafood.

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