When Mainers hear the term “local seafood,” a few words come to mind more than others — healthy, fresh, good, “Maine” and lobster. But ask those same people what they think when they hear the term “sustainable seafood” and the answers are less clear, varying from “I don’t know” and “nothing” to “it takes a long time to get” and “harvested.”
University of Maine Associate Professor Laura Lindenfeld and doctoral student Brianne Suldovsky, who are affiliated with UMaine’s Department of Communication and Journalism and Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, are conducting a social research project to understand how consumers, especially in inland Maine areas, perceive seafood, and whether they view local and sustainable seafood as important.
The research team, along with Teresa Johnson, assistant professor of marine policy at UMaine’s School of Marine Sciences, also hopes to learn what infrastructure exists for Maine’s seafood market, and how communication can be improved between producers, distributors and buyers.
The one-year Seafood Links Project, funded by Maine Sea Grant, focuses on surveys and interviews with consumers, restaurants, culinary schools and grocery stores in the Bangor and Portland areas.
Lindenfeld says the project is targeting the Bangor area and its connections, as well as looking at Portland as a model city supportive of local seafood.
“By comparing the Bangor area with the Portland area, we can look at a city where restaurants and markets are advancing seafood in interesting ways, with a lot of conversation across the industry,” Lindenfeld says. “What could we do in Bangor that would make sense and how could we learn from that experience to transfer that to other inland areas?”
With a large network of people involved in the seafood industry, the researchers decided to focus on looking into the decision-making process at restaurants, culinary schools and grocery stores.
Lindenfeld says it is important to come into the project with an open mind and not presume to know how the network is working and what consumers want. To get a sense of what questions to ask whom, the team started with a round of consumer surveys.
The team found people were interested in the question of where their seafood comes from.
“People said ‘Wow, I’ve never thought of this before. You’re right, we market beef, we market potatoes and vegetables and fruit with an origin, but we don’t talk about where the seafood comes from in our restaurants.’ Why should seafood be treated differently than other kinds of food?” Lindenfeld says.
Lindenfeld and Suldovsky have found the issue of food origin is complicated when it comes to seafood.
“It’s not as simple as this steer came from that farm in The County,” Lindenfeld says.
Suldovsky says from what she has learned of the process, fishermen come to a dock to sell their product to buyers who then send the seafood out to be processed, most of the time to Canada. Packaging then says the seafood came from Canada when it was actually caught in Maine.
“How do you successfully market that or communicate that it’s processed in Canada, but it’s caught in Maine?” Suldovsky asks. “And do consumers even care? To them is Canada the same thing as local?”
The preliminary round of surveys gave the team a look at the public’s perceptions of sustainable seafood, which is seafood that is either caught or farmed in ways that consider the long-term effects on oceans and the environment.
“There’s just no cohesive understanding or meaning with the word ‘sustainable’ and yet you have grocery stores like Hannaford marketing sustainable seafood because consumers are demanding it,” Suldovsky says.
Lindenfeld stresses the importance of knowing how people feel about terms such as “sustainable” and whether it matters for marketing.
“We may be promoting products in ways that absolutely do not resonate with what people care about most,” Lindenfeld says.
The next set of interviews for the project will include a representative sample of people in Maine’s inland areas that remain underserved as opposed to coastal areas.
Lindenfeld says they hope to understand which terms imply what, and what people value and communicate the findings to the seafood industry.
They also hope these interviews will give them a picture of the network of fishermen, buyers and distributors looks like and how these relationships and communication between them can be improved.
Lindenfeld sees communication within the network, especially in the Bangor area and near coastal communities such as Bar Harbor and Belfast, as a possibility for improvement.
“A lot of people (in the Bangor area) will order from Portland or the midcoast area. Individual trucks will drive up, drop the seafood off once a week and go back down when there are suppliers on the coast right here who may not even know who to talk to,” Lindenfeld says. “So to us it’s this big gap in communication that can be overcome. There’s remarkable resources, there are incredible people, well-meaning people who want to support each other, who care about the state and the region. A little bit of communication research could go a long way.”
Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.381.3747