Fishermen reinventing the Atlantic fish market without demand from restaurants

BOSTON — Fishermen took a big hit when the coronavirus hit. They had no where to sell their catch.

Jamie Hayward of Portsmouth has not had trouble catching fish these past few months. The problem was what to do with them.

“It’s like the market was no longer there," Hayward said. "When the restaurants closed it almost flat-lined our business, and then we had all the problems in the metropolitan areas and it was really even worse.”

“Necesssity is the mother of invention,” said Gabby Bradt, Ph.D., of New Hampshire Sea Grant, an institute associated with the University of New Hampshire that supports responsible use of the region’s coastal resources.

“One of my jobs the past several years at New Hampshire Sea Grant has been to try and encourage them to think out side the box of normal distribution,” said Bradt.

Now, with the help of New Hampshire Sea Grant, fishermen are setting up “Off the Boat” markets which allow for sales directly to the public.

Learning how to sell like this is an adjustment, considering fishermen usually sell their catch in huge lots at an auction.

It’s an approach that is helping Dennis Robillard of Porstmouth get a fair price for his lobsters.

“I never really envisioned myself doing that," he said. "I’m a fisherman, not a salesman. But sometimes, you need to do what you’ve got to do.”

New Hampshire Sea Grant has published a step-by-step guide on how to sell directly while being corona compliant. There is also and emphasis on marketing on social media.

Bradt believes this “Off the Boat” model will last long after the pandemic end, particularly as shoppers continue to value locally sourced foods.

“They’ve tapped into, 'Get to know your fisherman...get to know where your food is coming from, and oh by the way, it didn’t have to go to China first and then come back, and be defrosted,” Bradt said.

The local fishing industry has had to navigate some choppy waters in recent years, but it remains a resilient way of life.

“The fishing industry here in New Hampshire is sort of iconic, and has a long history, in the last decade or so it has not contributed quite as much to the overall local economy, but but it is the heart and soul of the coastal communities here,” added Bradt.

Just before the corona virus hit, the fishing industry was dealing with another big problem with reduced demand from China due to the tariff dispute.

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