Another Way to Eat Local

Another Way to Eat Local

How do we make food production more sustainable for the health of the planet and its residents? One answer often given is to cut down on cattle farming, given its high rates of water use and methane production, as well as the health risks associated with a diet high in red meat. But another route that’s often overlooked—perhaps because it’s underwater—is to support local fisheries.

Kyle Foley, N12, is doing just that in her new role as senior program manager at the Portland, Maine-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute, where she has worked for nearly seven years. The GMRI focuses on stewarding the ecosystem, cultivating science literacy, strengthening coastal communities, and supporting sustainable seafood—and that last point is where Foley comes in.

As the head of the Sustainable Seafood Program, Foley oversees a number of initiatives involving New England fisheries, restaurants, retailers, seafood processors, and consumers, all of which aim to strengthen local fishing and boost sales of local seafood.

“Seafood tends to have a much lower carbon footprint than other animal proteins, and buying local lowers that footprint even more,” Foley said. “Local seafood is a good choice for the environment and a good choice for the local economy, and it’s good for us—seafood is really healthy.”

Yet over the past half century, as consumption of beef and other land meats has gone up, seafood consumption has barely changed, Foley explained. Today, Americans eat little seafood compared with other animal proteins.

That’s what Foley and the Sustainable Seafood Program are trying to change, starting with building awareness around what fisheries around the Gulf of Maine have to offer. One program Foley oversees, the Trawl to Table Workshop Series, brings in fishermen, seafood processors, and buyers to discuss important topics in the industry.

“We educate people about the opportunity to buy more regional seafood, and talk through the challenges and opportunities each of them has around buying and selling it,” Foley said. Another program advises East Coast grocery stores on policies for sourcing local and sustainable seafood.

On the consumer side, Foley works to build awareness and enthusiasm for local seafood. “In the U.S., we import 90 percent of the seafood we eat, even in New England when people assume they’re getting local fish,” Foley said. “Part of what we’re trying to do is let people know we do have plenty of fish harvested right in our backyard, and they could be buying and consuming a lot more local seafood.”

One part of this campaign bringing what Foley calls “underutilized” or “under-loved” fish to restaurants and college dining halls, including Acadian redfish, Atlantic pollock, and a type of hake called whiting.

“Our grandparents were eating a greater range of seafoods, but we mostly eat a very limited number of species: shrimp, canned tuna, salmon, tilapia,” she said. Introducing people to other white, flaky fish species will protect the ecosystem, help connect consumers to local seafood in new ways, and diversify local fishermen’s income, leading to more stability.

“Rather than asking the ocean for what we want,” Foley said, “we should think about what’s available and what fishermen can provide for us, and be more flexible about what we eat.”

Foley also oversees the GMRI’s Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested label, whose five main criteria are based on government rules and the fisheries data that informs those rules. “This helps the fishing industry in this region to differentiate themselves, and addresses the lack of awareness many consumers have about responsibly harvested seafood,” Foley said.

By encouraging consumers to support fishermen abiding by regulations on where, when, how much, and what species people can fish, the label also ensures helps ensure that enough fish will be left for the future, according to Foley—which is especially important as the Gulf of Maine warms at a rate faster than 99 percent of the Earth’s oceans, causing many fish species to change behavior or seek other waters. “We’re looking toward the future of seafood and how fishermen, fishing communities, and consumers can adapt to the changing climate,” Foley said.

A Massachusetts native, Foley has always been interested in finding ways to bring more New England region food into the marketplace. In her previous work with the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, she worked with oyster and shellfish growers in Cape Cod.

“Growing up here, seafood was one of the local foods that I always ate and always identified with. It is a really important touchstone for me and a part of our local food culture and history,” Foley said. Ultimately, boosting seafood sales and promoting local buying and selling is a worthwhile mission when it comes to sustainable food production, she said. “It’s a renewable resource, and it’s a win for everyone.”

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