Image: Lobster
ROBERT F. BUKATY  /  AP
A "certified Maine lobster" is seen in Portland, Maine, in this 2006 file photo. Regional fishing industries have benefited from the newfound appreciation for local, sustainable food sources.
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updated 5/14/2010 3:23:22 PM ET 2010-05-14T19:23:22

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has raised concerns about that region's shrimp harvest and underscores the perilous nature of seasonal fishing industries, perennially at the mercy of disasters natural or manmade, as well as the fickle appetite of the American diner.

Ask any fisherman: It's not an easy way to make a living.

Still, from Alaskan wild king salmon to lobsters plucked from the chilly waters off Maine, the industries have for the most part survived, many benefiting from the newfound appreciation for local, sustainable food sources.

"Small U.S. fisheries understand now that marketing and promotion are as important as ever and there is a niche of consumers out there that are willing to spend more for a product that may be local or has more of a story behind it or is caught in a particular manner," says Steven Hedlund, editor of Seafood Source, an online publication following the industry.

A handful even have borrowed a page from small farming's Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs, starting Community Supported Fishery programs, contracting to sell directly to retailers, restaurants, even consumers.

That's something fifth-generation lobsterwoman Sheila Dassatt and her husband, Mike, are exploring as they wait for the lobster season to start in June.

Finding new markets
For the lobster industry, trouble started with the collapse of Icelandic banks in the fall of 2008 — a time when lobster fishermen make the most money. That meant less money for Canadian lobster processors, reducing demand at a time when recession was cutting into consumers' food budgets. Prices dropped precipitously, at one point reaching around $2 a pound, less than it cost to harvest, says Dassatt, executive director of the Downeast Lobstermen's Association based in Belfast, Maine.

"The fellows that had big bills, the big boats, they are having their boats repossessed," she says. "Some of the guys that owned their boats and kept low overheads are surviving."

The Dassatts, who own their boat, stayed in business, though last fall they caught more lobsters, but made less money than in previous years.

The industry has been hard at work promoting its product and finding new markets — lobster pizza anyone? — and members are now looking at ways to band together with other independent providers ranging from local farmers to The United Fishermen of Alaska and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

Wild king salmon is one of America's most popular regional catches, with the excitement starting when the first catch of the season is flown to Seattle, something that happened this week.

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But 12 years ago, the industry saw hard times when bad harvests collided with the rise of farmed salmon, says Jim Browning, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation in Anchorage.

Since then, there's been an upsurge in demand.

Browning says Alaskan fishermen believe their product will ultimately outshine a farmed fish. Wild salmon is "a good thing. You can just feel healthy when you bite into one," he says.

Babies, too, though maybe not the biting part. One of the industry's ventures was to pair with Beech-Nut to create a sweet potatoes and wild Alaska king salmon baby food.

Close to the source
One challenge for regional fishing industries is the abundance of inexpensive imports. For instance, it's estimated that 90 percent of the shrimp eaten in the United States is imported, Hedlund said.

Another issue: America isn't really a fish-eating nation. Consumption has been flat for the past few years at about 16 pounds per person. That's up from about 15 pounds a decade or so ago, Hedlund points out, an increase fueled in part by interest in the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids found in some fish.

Getting diners to eat more fish is a challenge, says Las Vegas chef Rick Moonen, a strong advocate for sustainable fishing.

"Most people that consume seafood are comfortable with about five species," says Moonen, who aims to change that and encourages other chefs to do the same. This week, for instance, he had wreckfish from Florida on the menu at his RM Seafood restaurant. "We need to target some new things."

A piece of good news on the regional fishing front comes from the East Coast, where blue crabs have made a comeback in the Chesapeake Bay, a recovery credited to fishing restrictions implemented a few years ago, says Hedlund.

That's good news to Aliza Green, author of the "Field Guide to Seafood," and a blue crab fan.

She sees regional fisheries as having "incredible cultural importance." Now at work on a new book, "The Fishmonger's Apprentice," chronicling the people behind the industry, she's interviewed people who have been in the business for three, four, even five generations.

She notes that, metaphorically speaking, "fishy," denotes something not quite right, whereas "meaty" means something of substance.

That might change if more people had better information on what's in season and how to cook it along with access to fresh, local seafood, she thinks.

"The closer you can get to the source, the better it is," she said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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