BY: LISA CAVANAUGH
PHOTOGRAPHY: JULIA CUMES
What’s better than fresh, local seafood? Buying it direct from the people who catch it. Last year, when the pandemic upended traditional markets, numerous Chatham fishermen pivoted to selling their catch right from the harbor to consumers. These direct sales programs proved popular enough to now have become a fun and reimagined way to buy your favorite fish and support local fishermen.
CHATHAM HARVESTERS COOPERATIVE
Chatham Harvesters, a fishermen’s cooperative, was formed a few years ago with the mission to rejuvenate the regional seafood economy, ensure a fair price for family fishermen in Chatham and build community relationships. So when the opportunity to sell fresh seafood straight from the boats presented itself last year, the organization embraced the new opportunity to connect with consumers.
“We have previously done some direct sales with pre-ordered weir-caught squid, mackerel, scup, butterfish and more,” says Shareen Davis, a fishing industry expert and consultant with Chatham Harvesters. “But last year, we saw how local fishermen were challenged by restaurant closures and the fish auction houses not running at peak capacity, so we implemented a way for consumers to directly source fresh fish from them.”
Davis worked with participating fishermen on obtaining the state permits for direct sales, created an online ordering system and launched a social media campaign. “It is a great program that supports the community,” says Davis. “Both the consumer and the fishermen benefit. Fishermen are getting fair pricing for their catch and customers are able to get good quality, healthy protein directly sourced from local waters.”
Participating fishermen landed their catch, such as sea scallops, at Bridge Street (near Stage Harbor) and an organized system was implemented for customers. Safety in all areas was a priority, says Davis. “We limited the number of customers at any time, staggered the pickups and insisted on masks and social distancing, so everyone could feel safe while still making great connections with local fishermen.”
“People just loved coming down to the dock, getting their scallops, seeing the captain and talking to everyone,” says Davis, who was joined in the effort by volunteers, including Ginny Nickerson, another native Chatham resident. “Folks shared recipes, brought bouquets of flowers or fresh tomatoes from their gardens. It is a really nice community experience.”
With plans to continue direct sales in 2021, Davis says one of the additional benefits is consumers gaining a better understanding about the seafood they love. “People were really enthusiastic to learn about the fisheries,” says Davis. “Our direct sales customers are supporting a working waterfront. They value quality food and local availability and they end up knowing so much more about what goes into harvesting fresh seafood.”
CHATHAM SHELLFISH COMPANY
When restaurants across New England closed in early spring of 2020 because of Covid-19 restrictions, Stephen Wright, owner of Chatham Shellfish Company, knew he would have to adapt quickly. “We had to pivot away from our wholesale accounts to another sales channel,” he says. “We saw that people were still coming down to the Cape in droves from their city dwellings, and we had the opportunity to offer them fresh local shellfish directly.”
Selling product from a retail location on Barn Hill Road adjacent to the town landing on Oyster River meant that not only could Chatham Shellfish harvest off their own farm, but they could enable sales for other local fishermen. “We work with a select group and we were able to accommodate them as they started to get back to work—fishing for oysters, mussels, steamers and littlenecks.”
“It felt good to contribute to a local supply chain, by buying directly off boats and providing a very fresh product to consumers,” says Wright, who notes that shellfish needs to be purchased through a licensed seller, such as Chatham Shellfish.
“People that came down to purchase knew they were getting the freshest shellfish they could get in town,” he adds, “and they also knew they were helping local people whose businesses were severely impacted by the pandemic.” Wright found that everyone was very supportive of the program, and open to trying new shellfish recipes and preparation methods. “We sold three different grades of our own oysters, and it was a good outlet to move our larger oysters.”
While their retail shop closed up after the holiday season, Wright is planning on returning to direct sales in the spring of 2021. “It is very popular, and hopefully we can also bring the oyster farm tours back,“ he says. “We are really grateful to the community and I hope the trend continues for all involved.”
Visual and sculptural artist Faye Anderson was ready to expand the lobster business that she and her fiancé, commercial fisherman Brock Bobisink, had been running for four years by offering direct-from-the-dock sales. “I eventually wanted that part to be what I focused on for the business instead of being a mate all the time on the boat,” says Anderson. “We decided to get the permit, but hadn’t quite started yet when Covid happened.”
Anderson and Bobisink quickly realized that sales avenues for their lobsters were shutting down, so as soon as they began catching lobster in the late spring of 2020, they launched a social media push for customers. Working from the dock at Ryder’s Cove, Anderson quickly learned the ropes of direct sales, including building a better website, taking pre-orders, and hand picking lobsters for buyers. “On the boat, I knew what my orders were for the day, so I’d gauge the sizes—I got pretty good at that, in fact—put them aside in a cooler on board and then met the people at the end of the day at the dock.”
Eventually, she and Bobisink got an additional permit that allowed them to keep the lobsters in a refrigerated truck, making it easy to keep the lobsters fresh and available for clients. “The whole process was really appealing to the customers,” says Anderson, whose father Mike Anderson is a longtime commercial fisherman. “I enjoy teaching people little things about lobsters. Kids were excited to learn how to tell a female from a male, and things like that. Being an artist, I’ve had to sell myself and my work, so I like being around people, and the lobster customers were all happy and appreciative.”
She notes that the life of a fisherman and the life of an artist are not dissimilar in that they generally work by themselves. Anderson also found that the direct lobster sales helped keep her busy during a tough time in the art world. “Last year, all the art shows were canceled, so I was happy to turn my sights to the lobster business, especially the website and communication end of things. I was able to use my own photography on our website and combine my two passions.”
She and Bobisink—who focuses on the other end of the hard work, i.e., running the boat—are looking forward to keeping the direct sales going indefinitely. “I really enjoy it and so do the people who get incredibly fresh, off-the-boat lobsters from us.”
Photo Credit: Faye Anderson