Local program helping to keep commercial fisherman employed while feeding the needy

CAPE COD, Mass. — The waters off Cape Cod and all along the Massachusetts coast have been a source of protein-rich food for generations.

“The Cape Cod fleet is a small boat independent fleet and really prides itself on being resilient and smart and great on the water and working really hard to make a living on the water,” said Seth Roblein of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.

Commercial fishing was yet another business that was battered when the pandemic hit. “When COVID struck, thinks changed dramatically,” added Roblein. “Nobody knew what the next phase was going to be. The market crashed. Restaurants had closed.”

When life gives you lemons, you’re supposed to make lemonade. The Alliance thought it was a better idea to make chowder instead.

The Small Boats, Big Taste program was launched in the fall to keep fishermen on the water while helping feed the growing number of people who were facing hunger issues explained Stephanie Sykes from the Alliance.

With a new grant, the Alliance created a system to buy local fish at a fair price and then turn it into New England’s signature soup.

“We have distributed 70,000 lbs. of haddock chowder to food banks and food pantries all around the state,” said Roblein.

The Alliance is working with a fillet processing house in Boston and a chowder maker in Lowell. “I like to think of the program as being done completely boat-to-bowl in Massachusetts,” said Sykes. “It’s such a local effort and we received such strong support.”

The chowder is made from small haddock that is abundant but usually doesn’t command a good price.

Christine Menard, Executive Director of the Family Pantry of Cape Cod, loves being able to offer her clients a different source of protein, particularly as demand has grown astronomically.

The chowder has become very popular according to Menard. “You can always get folks to take it the first time. It’s will they take in the next time, right? What we found is that it’s going out like wildfire.”

Everyone involved sees the program as a win-win.

Hungry people are eating good food today, ensuring an industry vital to the region will be here tomorrow.

“This is the historic beating heart of our communities,” said Roblein. “The fishing community is as old as this country, older.”

The Alliance is hoping to create a business model that will be self-supporting when their grant runs out.

Right now, they’re distributing chowder beyond the Cape, to food banks in the Merrimac Valley and Worcester. They believe they could expand nationally down the line.