Staying Alive in a Dying Industry: The New England Fishmongers

Being a small local fisherman is not easy in today’s age. The dying industry is a shift in coastal American like never before: putting in place a system that leads to consolidation. If things can’t turn around for Capt. Tim Rider, the owner of the New England Fishmongers, he and his partners will be out of business by the end of the season.

“We chose to go this route to survive,” said Rider. “Missing time with family. Shaving years off your life… It’s life or death every day and you can’t live that way indefinitely.”

Rider says that raising awareness about his fresh-off-the-boat seafood is a big step towards changing current policy and helping more small-scale commercial fishermen succeed.

This September, the team debuted their documentary, “Last Man Fishing” at Newburyport's Annual Documentary Film Festival followed by screenings at Portsmouth and New Hampshire’s Film Festival. The documentary is based on the harsh reality of staying alive in this dying industry through revealing intimate footage of the challenges they face in today’s commercial fishing environment in New England. The film shows the evolution of the Fishmongers, with an emphasis on how the policies they battle often go unrecognized with the idea that people aren’t convinced the industrial food model is the best for their communities. It’s ultimately threatening a part of cultural extinction.

Rider said that the most heartbreaking part of the whole thing is that his son, Paxton, who is 7-years-old, will likely never have a shot at commercial fishing under the current mentality of “Go rich, go big, or go home.”

“We can’t beat these people alone,” said Capt. Rider. “The average person doesn’t believe this is right. After the ‘Last Man Fishing’ release, it’s not a surprise that people reach out and say, ‘How can we help?’ These are the people that can help make a change.”

The New England Fishmongers are founded on the principles of supporting small scale fisherman with fair prices and providing chefs with high quality, fresh seafood. What makes this team unique is that they manage the entire process starting with catching the fish and ending with delivering it to chefs and consumers along the Seacoast, ensuring that their seafood is properly cared for from the boat, right to the dinner plate. They strive to flourish a working relationship between producer and consumer to create a better understanding of this part of the food system and strengthen the voice in the fishing community.

Working alongside researchers and non-profits, they are able to give back to the community through valuable data sharing, educational workshops and fundraisers as well as fresh fish donations to local food banks. The biggest economic hurdle for Rider, who still uses a rod and reel to bring in most of his fish, is catch shares. That’s when part of a share of a species of fish is allocated to individual fishermen or groups. In most cases, fishermen or groups can buy or sell or lease shares.

“It’s a dirty business,” said Rider. “We pay a fee for every fish we catch. We have to buy the rights to catch those fish, and we have a landlord who takes 20 to 30 percent of what we make.” Government run systems make it hard for small business owners, especially fishermen to make a living. There are quotas for fish that are set, so only so much is allowed to be caught to maintain the stocks.

“These guys are doing much more than being victims of a broken system,” said film Director, JD Schuylar. “It’s about paying attention, and understanding the value. Consumers need to be more aware of the trend… If you look at it broadly, the seafood is fragmented and when you think of a company like them, it really restructures that.”

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