Thursday, April 17, 2014

Let's get to the good stuff already

By Amanda LaBelle 

With the last season of Mad Men kicking off, its time for some advice from Don Draper.  No, not on lies, ladies, or Old Fashioneds. On selling.  And confidence.  And, in true Don Draper fashion, having a good time while getting what you want

Maybe Im all riled up because spring is finally kicking cabin fevers ass and how, but I am sick of the same old round and round.  Of seafood having to react, respond, rebut, apologize.  Of having to wade through fluorescent lighting and regulatory, regulation, regula-there'snowaymycoffeeisstrongenoughforthis and never quite getting to the part of the story where fishermen catch seafood and its fucking delicious.

Sure we need to talk management now and again and deal with unpleasantries like, oh say, climate change or ocean acidification, but its been all work and no play for far too long.  So how do we get to the good stuff?  Seems to me it might be time to take to heart one of Don Drapers more infamous pieces of advice:

If you dont like whats being said, change the conversation.

I was recently on a planning call for an event with a rockstar lineup of fisheries folks and one of the participants said something to the extent of If you can just frame the issues, thats where we come in, because we have the solutions.  Holy Toledo, what a breath of fresh air. 

In a related conversation, a colleague from the ag community pointed out that seafood businesses are starting to develop tools that could be valuable marketing tools for farmers.

Fishermen and seafood businesses have solutions and are poised to be leaders.  This shouldnt be so shocking.  Fishing is a constant game of adaptation and harnessing the power of Yankee ingenuity, but here on dry land fishing stories are predominantly disaster, doom, and gloom.
So lets get to it, tell some positive stories, get people jazzed to eat seafood and have some fun.  If not, whats the point of it all?

In closing, Id offer one other gem from Mr. Draper:

People want to be told what to do so badly that theyll listen to anyone.

So lets talk a little louder and say some exciting things.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lobsters, ovaries, and collaboration

I'm woman enough, and I've got my ego in check, so I can admit when I make a mistake or a blunder or am in need of a simple utter of my bad. This is a story of one of those times where I needed to say, my bad. To Chef Scott Conant, of all people.

My story begins with these two pictures:

These pictures were posted on Chef Scott Conant's Facebook page with statuses like... Check out what we're doing with the lobster roe. Isn't it cool how it cooks up red?

This is where I jumped to conclusions. I was all... Don't you mean TOMALLEY? The tomalley is the liver and it's green. Obviously, the chef was using the tomalley in the first picture and the red bread in the second picture.

Before we go any further let's clarify the vernacular:

Tomalley: The tomalley is the green stuff inside of a cooked lobster. It's the liver and can be found inside of the body. Old-timers and locals like to eat it on toast or straight out of the body with a spoon. I've also seen recipes for tomalley bruschetta that look pretty killer.

Red bread: The red bread is the roe or coral found in the lobster tail and part of the body. After a lobster is cooked it turns red. Before it is cooked the ovaries/red bread turn GREEN. (This is key to the story.) Again, some old-timers and locals like to just spoon it out and eat it, but the days of red bread being seen as a treat are not upon us.

Back to the story:

After a little back and forth, and even a few lobstermen backing me up with... Yup, tomalley is the green stuff. Chef Conant's peeps pointed out that they were using the raw lobster and the roe in its raw form was in fact green and cooked up red, the color we were all used to seeing. 

Lobster is a funny thing, eh? First of all, what person stumbled upon them and decided to eat them? Obviously, somebody that was pretty hungry. Lobstermen call them bugs for a reason, though for good publicity we're not supposed to be calling them that. No one wants to be reminded that they are just giant bugs on the ocean floor. Lobster has stayed delicious through the ages and it's cool to think that chefs are now using the product in ways that even those of us who handle them daily have not begun to think of. I'm pretty sure I've never cut a lobster open in it's raw form. Isn't that why we have Shuck's?

It also makes me realize how important the fisherman-chef connection is. I've been geeking out hard on this season's Harvard Business Review dedicated to collaboration. In one article it says: "The reality is that true collaboration is difficult. It requires subordinating individual goals to collective ones; it means engaging in tough, emotional give-and-take discussions with colleagues about strategies and ideas; and it often leads to working in new ways that may not be comfortable or easy." OK, so it's weird that I bring up how difficult collaboration is after saying how necessary it is. But, if it was easy everyone would do it, right? And if we want to see some good changes and more people buying US-landed seafood it's going to take some effort, right? And that effort is probably going to take some hard-work and... collaboration. Collaboration amongst people that maybe don't usually love to collaborate or work with others (cough fishermen cough cough). And maybe with others that are very confident in their work and don't like to be told what to do (cough chefs cough cough). But with amazing new businesses like Dock to Dish that are finding a way for chefs and fishermen to collaborate in a meaningful, effective, driven way; and if Chef Scott Conant (or his Facebook peeps) and I can get past a little misunderstanding for the greater good of LOBSTER!... than I think we're headed in the right direction.

So, BIG shout out to Chef Scott Conant for using lobster roe in a such a cool way. Seriously, it's kind of a funny product to use and putting it in a gnocci makes it less yucky and more accessible for consumers. Like calling Patagonian Toothfish, Chillean Seabass; making red bread into lobster roe gnocci... I'd order that!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Amanda LaBelle's Kickass Slow Money Maine Presentation


Thanks Bonnie for inviting me and all of you for being here.  I feel very fortunate to have connected with these meetings and the entrepreneurial support and energy that exists here.  It is a pretty far cry from the tone of most fisheries meetings.  I am going to be speaking about integrating seafood into food systems and showing you some graphics to that draw comparisons across fishing and farming.  I included this picture of fish stew I made with Port Clyde Fresh Catch pollock delivered by the Oyster River Farm Express, because there’s a lot to figure out but I think it is good to keep in mind that, in small ways, some people are already just doing it.

I grew up in Maine and have spent most of my life here, but feel pretty legit now that I cobble together 2 or 3 jobs at any given moment.  In the summers, I farm and work for a mobile wood-fired pizza oven.  In the off season, and a bit in the summer too, I work as a consultant on projects related to seafood and its place in local food systems.  For me, food, harvesters, and community are necessarily tied.  If any one of the three falls out, the whole ship goes down.  I believe good eating and efforts to support local harvesters and food producers are restorative to communities, environments, families, and individuals.

Since September, I have been working through a mentorship with the Maybach Foundation and their Sustainable Food Systems Project.  My mentor is Monique Coombs, who founded Lobsters on the Fly and the Maine Seafood Marketing Network.  We set out to find opportunities to integrate seafood, look at the ways we support farmers to see if they have relevance to fisheries, and start to bridge the gap between how we think and talk about fishing and farming in Maine.

A handful of persistent folks have been working on this and in planning discussions, we have started adding “and fish” to the end of our thoughts and sentences, but what will it actually look like to make good on this and include seafood in a meaningful way?  We need to look at how to adapt approaches taken in ag so we don’t have to start from scratch, be aware of some very real differences, and remain open to opportunities where there might be room for fish.

Today I’m presenting work that is very much dynamic and in-progress.  I would love any feedback you may have and would welcome the opportunity to continue this discussion with any of you.  I am hoping some of this will prove useful context for thinking about seafood and foster more opportunities to make connections and collaborate.

I want to share a bit of fishy perspective with you and draw out ways seafood differs from, but also overlaps with, agriculture.  I’ve been developing visuals that illustrate some of these differences in hopes that they will help us to consider the fishing industry from right where it is and take an informed and realistic approach to including seafood.

I think it is important to start with an acknowledgement that even our feelings toward farmers and fishermen are different.  We are pretty secure in our love of farmers, but are often at best ambivalent when it comes to fishermen.  I suspect the reasons have something to do with how familiar, connected, and informed we feel about each industry.

The goals of agriculture and fisheries regulations are very different.  We regulate farmers as food producers, rural business enterprises, and land stewards, but, in the marine environment, regulations strive to maintain sustainable biological stocks of marine species.  It’s an important goal, but one that leaves us regulating fishermen as depleters of a resource, though they too are stewards and put food on our plates.  Furthermore, fisheries management is complicated because it manages a mobile fleet, migratory species, and a resource that is at best very difficult to measure.  It’s important to recognize both how we frame this discussion and the sheer complexity of the regulations fishermen navigate.

The words we use in regulation reverberate through our interactions with farming and fishing - defining funding streams and non-profit goals, media and public dialogue, consumer priorities and even how the industry perceives itself.  Some tools that can start to reconnect us with fishermen include Community Supported Fisheries and direct marketing efforts, partnerships with restaurants, and product traceability software.

When we use the word local to talk about seafood, we are talking about an inherently different scale from that of agricultural products.  The point on the google map is Hope’s Edge, the farm I work on. I’ve heard 50 miles thrown around as a distance for local products, but the blue area with a 20mi radius more closely reflects the area our produce moves within.  The overlay on the nautical chart was made by Justine Simon who runs Salt + Sea, a Portland-area CSF, and shows the fishing grounds her product comes from.  As you can see, it is a much larger area, but is arguably as local as a commercial groundfish operation can get.

For seafood, local is relative on a very broad spectrum.  90% of seafood consumed in the US is imported as compared with less than 20% of all food.  Eating domestic seafood is a big first step toward supporting our coastal communities and knowing you are eating seafood caught under regulations with very explicit sustainability goals.

I also want to talk about chain of custody.  At Hope’s Edge, the veggies we grow go primarily to CSA members and restaurants, but in theory we have relatively equal and direct access across a number of types of markets.  For seafood on the other hand the supply chain is much more fragmented and convoluted.  This is just a draft, with some best guesses and missing pieces, but you can see fishermen are hardly ever connected to the end consumer through less than a couple degrees of separation.  Fishermen who fish through a coop have the ability, as a group, to access a wider array of markets, but the vast majority of their product still goes through dealers or the auction.
In most cases, fish moves like a commodity, undifferentiated and priced at the lowest denominator.  Fishermen know very little about where their product goes after they offload it, how it is handled, where it is sold, and for how much.  And looking at this supply chain as a well-meaning consumer wanting to support your local fishermen can be just as perplexing.  Increasingly alternative business models are cropping up, but this is the starting place. 
[CalendarIslands Maine Lobster is an example of one business where fishermen have integrated vertically and own their product through processing into value added goods like lobster mac n cheese and lobster bisque.]
Seafood seasonality hinges on both species migration and regulations.  Many fisheries have established fishing seasons or catch limits that create seasons by default.  This makes it hard for fishermen to forward plan for markets in the way a farmer might or sell to institutions that set menus years in advance.  But seasonality might be a good opportunity for education. For example, Maine Sea Grant put together a seafood guide that includes seasonality, along with information about how different species are caught, and how to shop for and prepare each.

Many fishermen put in a long hard day, fuel up their boat, purchase bait, and pay their crew without knowing what they will be paid for their product.  Given the volume of product being landed, it’s unreasonable to think we will move entirely away from commodity markets for seafood, but the more we can coax out opportunities to reconnect ourselves to local seafood that supports fishing families and our coastal communities the more opportunities we will start to create for those businesses and the more we will have access to fresh, delicious seafood.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why I love aquariums.

My family and I just got back from a lovely trip to California that included a wonderful day at SeaWorld. Before I left I mentioned to a few friends that we would be visiting SeaWorld, and they all asked if I had seen Blackfish. I hadn't, and haven't. (And I still don't think I want to.) I asked those friends if they would still go to Sea World after seeing Blackfish and a couple of them said no.

So while I was at Sea World snapping pictures of my happy kids and totally geeking out, I found myself hesitating, nay, avoiding putting pictures on Instagram because I didn't want to get any: "OMG, you're at Sea World? Animal hater. Didn't you see Blackfish?" I know I wouldn't have gotten exactly that, but vacation was not the time when I felt like having to defend myself and my actions.

I didn't see Blackfish and I don't want to see it. I'm not against the movie and I'm not anti-animal rights, but I will tell you that I do not anthropomorphize animals. I don't believe that animals have the same emotions that human beings have. I don't think turtles get sad and I don't think whales feel lonely, at least not the same way that humans- a highly-intelligent, evolved species- do. Furthermore it's highly egotistical to think how one thing/ person feels an emotion is the exact same way another person/thing feels that emotion.

Cue the orca. Even standing behind the two-foot thick glass (I don't really know how thick it was.), every time that damn whale swam by I jumped. The thing is majestic, lovely, totally menacing, mysterious, full of presence; it's like my heart even knew it was swimming by and stopped beating so the whale wouldn't notice me. It is a fierce and beautiful creature. And I am so very happy that I got to see it so close. I could have sat there for hours and hours and just watched it swim. I noticed other people actually put their cameras and phones down to just watch, too. (And that was pretty fantastic considering I watched some people literally walk around the park with their cell phones out in front of them just filming everything.)

  As you can see in the picture on the right, I wore my super cool shark t-shirt from Threadless that features megalodon front and center, and then had my picture taken in front of megalodon's jaw bone. #nerdalert I was that guy. But I was just that excited. And what's cool about being at an aquarium is that everyone else seems pretty excited about it, too. I am more than thankful every day that I live near the ocean. I am so happy that I get to go out on the water; that I can take my kids fishing; that even when it's cold out today I can look out my office window and peek at the water. I know I'm lucky. It bums me out to think there are people in this world that have never seen the ocean before. Enter: aquariums. Granted, they are not usually located too far from the ocean, these parks give people an opportunity to experience the ocean and all it's wonder. (That sounded cheesy.)

Think about it. Farmers grow food and if you want to dabble in farmdom you can grow a garden. Not at all similar to owning acres upon acres and waking up at dawn (or before dawn) to care for animals, but you can begin to know what it feels like to have dirt under your nails and sunburn on your shoulders and produce veggies in return for your hard-work. Now let's take fishing. Little more expensive. Little less accessible. Unless you have a body of water nearby it's a bit more difficult to experience. And the feeling of getting out on the water so far where you can't see land anymore and sitting quietly waiting for the water to break nearby hoping that some porpoises or, even better, bluefin tuna swim by is, first of all,  unbeatable; and second, you can't go to the store and buy it in little bags like you can buy seeds. Hey! Good thing we have aquariums!

It's pretty cool to watch other people at the aquarium get just as excited as my family, a fishing family, about the ocean and its wildlife. How do we expect people to really care about the ocean and its species if they can't experience them in some way? I mean. People go kooks for polar bears, right?

Also, I'd like to give SeaWorld a big shout out. They had this sign posted:

You know what made me so giddy about this sign? They said people! Not fishermen! They didn't put the blame on one specific group! Especially not the US fishermen who are well-regulated. Well done, SeaWorld!

The San Diego SeaWorld also just opened a new portion of their park. Right when you walk in there are now a number of touch tanks with cleaner fish, crabs, sea cucumbers, and other small, harmless species. I love touch tanks for kids. Anything they can get their hands on is awesome. Who wants their kids growing up and thinking sea life is yucky?  I had to laugh, though. People sure were obsessed with washing their hands after having their hands in the touch tanks. I wonder if they knew there were millions more grosser germs on everything else in the park than there were in those touch tanks?

OK. So, I am going to say one last couple of things about Blackfish & SeaWorld. I do wonder if maybe an orca (Killer whale, hello?) is not the right species to have in captivity. I mean. I wouldn't exactly want to get in the water with a great white, and uh, word is that orcas can be just as fierce. So even though they look sorta snuggly, maybe it's time to come up with another game plan for this one, SeaWorld? And to Blackfish I would say... why the shaming? I don't understand when everyone became so obsessed with showing the negative and shaming others into doing the right thing. From parents to news channels to, apparently, ENGO-type groups. What the hell? The world would not be a happier place without aquariums, and movies like Blackfish only create divides between those who like aquariums and those who think they are horrible-- and leave little room for learning, improvement, or education.

I would highly recommend SeaWorld to anyone visiting any of its locations. We visited the SeaWorld in San Diego. It was amazingly clean, like surprisingly clean, and all of the staff was very friendly and polite. The trainers were very patient, even with assholes like me who did not step back when asked and were soaked by the dolphins seen on the left, making her 4-year old cry. Either a PR person worked with some of these people lately, or they really do love their jobs and these animals. We loved our experience at SeaWorld, and will definitely go back next time we're in SoCal.

I've also been to the New England Aquarium in Boston; the Booth Bay Aquarium in Boothbay, Maine; and the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. The Shark Reef used to be my favorite because they used to have a hammerhead. It has since been demoted and SeaWorld and Boothbay are tied for #1. I hit the Boothbay Aquarium with my kids every summer, often more than once. I am even planning a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the future, despite my feelings towards Seafood Watch. And, because of my comments on shaming, I'm even considering toning my grrr down a bit. I believe it was my favorite president Abraham Lincoln who said, "Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?