NOAA Fisheries conducts world-class science to support sustainable marine life and habitats. Our podcast, “Dive In with NOAA Fisheries,” is about the work we do and the people behind it.
The U.S. Seafood Industry was hit hard during the pandemic. Of course, everyone was hit hard. But that pain was felt acutely by small businesses, fishermen, and seafood producers. U.S. seafood sales and production dropped precipitously in early 2020 as restaurants closed and ships stayed docked. But seafood demand didn’t go anywhere. And some reports showed that seafood consumption in the U.S. actually increased. People were staying home and cooking and trying a variety of new things. Not just sourdough. This is Dive In with NOAA Fisheries. I’m John Sheehan.
The U.S. demand for healthy, sustainable seafood was just one of the storylines I heard a lot recently at Seafood Expo North America, the biggest gathering of the seafood community on the continent. Everyone from small boat fishermen to oyster farmers to global distributors. And there representing U.S. policy, regulations, and strategy was NOAA Fisheries.
00:01:05:07 (Janet Coit)
At its core seafood is a critical source of healthy protein. We have the best, most sustainable (?) service in the world.
00:01:13:07 (John Sheehan)
That’s Janet Coit, the head of NOAA Fisheries and my guest today. She was speaking at a panel called. NOAA’s plans to ensure resilient marine fisheries and strengthen the U.S. seafood industry. It was a packed house. Janet was there with other members of leadership to talk about NOAA’s efforts. But also, to listen. They spent time meeting with members of the seafood community and walking the event floor hearing stories. Incidentally so did I.
00:01:42:01 (Tomi Marsh)
My name’s Tomi Marsh and I’m a commercial fisherman from Alaska.
00:01:45:01 (Angelina Manyak)
Hi, my name’s Angelina Manyak.
00:01:46:08 (Mike Manyak)
My name is Michael Manyak.
00:01:48:05 (Angelina Manyak)
And we’re with Sapidus Farms. We raise happy oysters.
00:01:51:02 (Andrea Tomlinson)
Hi. I’m Andrea Tomlinson. I’m the founder and executive director of the New England Young Fisherman’s Alliance.
00:01:57:05 (John Sheehan)
We’ll hear from them and a few other attendees during my interview with Janet Coit, who was generous enough to sit down with me on the last day of the Expo; held annually in Boston to chat about sustainable U.S. Seafood and some of the big takeaways she was hearing from the community. Janet Coit, welcome to Dive In with NOAA Fisheries. Thanks so much.
00:02:15:04 (Janet Coit)
00:02:17:00 (John Sheehan)
We’re talking at the Seafood Expo of North America. It’s a gathering of everyone from small boat fishermen to big companies, processors, regulatory bodies, NGO’s. Everyone across the U.S. greater seafood sector. And I thought this would be a nice moment to sort of take stock of the U.S. seafood industry and talk about some of the big themes that have been coming up. And the first one is kind of obvious; that U.S. seafood is an important resource and it’s nutritious and sustainable. And that might seem like kind of an “Of course” moment but I feel like I’ve been hearing a lot of appreciation that that is being acknowledged.
00:02:59:03 (Janet Coit)
That definitely was a theme. It was very valuable. And I think for everyone being back together after not having the event for a couple of years made it extra meaningful. One thing for certain was that U.S. harvested or U.S. farmed seafood is sustainable. And the people at the event kept encouraging NOAA to tell our side of the story more in terms of the scientific work that we do that underpins management and the strong laws we have in force in America. There was an acknowledgement that consumers want sustainably harvested seafood. They want to know where their food comes from, and they would like to know that the environment isn’t being harmed. And we’re a big part of why that’s true in the U.S. And we were encouraged far and wide to talk more about our role in the way that our seafood is handled.
00:03:50:03 (Mike Oesterling)
Just continue to promote “Eat local U.S. product home grown.”
00:03:56:00 (Tomi Marsh)
Sustainable fishing is important because it is the fabric of our communities.
00:03:59:06 (Ian Jeffords)
I think most of the guys and gals in our industry are pretty proud of being producers. And we are putting food out on the table.
00:04:07:01 (John Sheehan)
And this is the first in-person expo in a while, which was another big theme that COVID was sort of this subtext to everything; everything from exposing weaknesses in the supply chain to creating new opportunities for suppliers to go directly to consumers.
00:04:26:03 (Janet Coit)
It was a huge thing. People talked to me about all the great lengths they went to, to prevent COVID from spreading on their vessels or in their businesses and how expensive that was. And how grateful they were for some of the federal aid that then was channeled back into companies that had been affected by COVID. There were some surprising—so, a lot of talk about the disruption and what happened to people when suddenly restaurants weren’t buying, or you couldn’t ship to Asia. There was also kind of a silver lining in terms of both research and information that consumers turned to seafood during the pandemic. And I saw that in Rhode Island where it was previous to this role that people wanted to buy local food and they wanted to support local businesses. And they were actually concerned about food security. But also because of the health benefits and the interest in people cooking at home we saw that people were buying more seafood retail. And that certainly is a positive.
00:05:28:01 (John Sheehan)
Yeah. Yeah, demand went way up.
00:05:31:06 (Ian Jeffords)
Our food service business was definitely impacted during COVID but the retail side of it definitely started picking up. And now that food service is coming back the overall demand is larger as well.
00:05:42:07 (Mike Manyak)
We started focusing on social media and doing direct-to-consumer retail sales. And we had a great response when we started doing that.
00:05:52:05 (Angelina Manyak)
What a tragedy or a tragic situation does is it forces you to figure out to figure out an alternative. It forces you to pivot. You know, we were kind of stuck in our ways for a while. Then all of the sudden we’re like, All right we can’t be stuck in our ways anymore.
00:06:06:00 (John Sheehan)
Another hand-in-hand issue with the pandemic is the acceleration of climate change and the same kinds of challenges that it’s exposing.
00:06:18:04 (Janet Coit)
It’s interesting how we saw the world take on COVID in a coordinated, well, sometimes herky-jerky, but people really changed behavior quickly during the pandemic. And I think a lot of us thought, Hmm we’ve been talking about climate change which is threatening and here and causing long-term harm in many, many ways. Why aren’t people changing their behaviors quickly for that? I think that’s more of a short-term/long-term conversation about human behavior. But certainly, it was a theme and is a theme every day at NOAA in terms of how climate change is affecting oceans, habitat, fisheries. And for the vendors and the people that are investing in facilities, vessels, they want to know that sound science is underpinning the management. And they’re very concerned about climate change too.
So, I would say that fisheries and aquaculture; people involved in that, they’re seeing changes in the water, and they want to be certain that NOAA and the government is taking steps to understand and mitigate those changes. The critical piece that was discussed at hearing is, Well how do we change or alter what we’re doing to both minimize impacts. And that’s all the way from reducing greenhouse gas emissions and that came up as something that we should be focusing on in the marine side. But also, of course, how is that changing things in the water. This was the first time that the current head of NOAA, Doctor Rick Spinrad, came to the expo. And it was exciting for me, and I think for all the folks that he met to see that the head of NOAA; someone who really is devoted to science and scientific integrity and working on climate issues. We’re trying to work together in a climate ready nation.
And that includes climate ready fisheries. So, having him there also to listen and learn and talk to people was terrific.
00:08:21:04 (Hannah Heimbuch)
Climate is shifting our ability to access the resources that we rely on an increasingly we need to look at our fisheries management with an eye to whether or not it has the ability to adapt and shift with that ecosystem. Which, I fully believe it can.
00:08:37:07 (Tomi Marsh)
When you see some of the heartache that happens in western Alaska where there’s, you know, a lack of fish stocks that come back. And so, it’s like, What is happening in the oceans. And I think there’s, you know, a lot of things we don’t know and glad that we have some resources to keep looking into what’s happening out there.
00:08:56:00 (John Sheehan)
You spent a lot of time walking the floor and having these conversations person to person. Did any of them sort of stick out to you as particularly impactive?
00:09:04:04 (Janet Coit)
Walking the floor was so much fun. We had a good session with Dick Jones, who’s the head of Blue Ocean Mariculture. And that is the only U.S. based open-ocean aquaculture operation in existence where they grow fin-fish. Those are cutting edge, risk-taking type ventures. But his message was that there is quite a bit of opportunity to grow fish and to expand aquaculture. And that’s a message that we’re taking to heart. And we talked to Dick Jones about providing food to the Hawaiian Islands and doing more to have locally sources seafood support the people that live there. That was actually a theme too; making sure coastal communities have access to seafood.
There’s so much seafood exported from America. There’s so much seafood imported into America. Can we do a better job of making sure that people who are near the sea are actually benefitting from that seafood for its nutrition. But also, so that they can be part of harvesting seafood in a way that supports their economy.
00:10:12:04 (Tomi Marsh)
Fishing is something that Indigenous people practiced forever, all over the world. And up in Alaska it’s the foundation of many communities.
00:10:20:04 (Hanna Heimbuch)
And I think what we have to do is also pay attention to the health and sustainability of the small communities that actually provide a lot of seafood and rely on it themselves.
00:10:31:00 (Janet Coit)
I especially enjoyed our visit to town dock. That’s a Rhode Island based and that’s where I’m from. We talked to them about infrastructure, you know, how do you maintain working waterfronts, then work that needs to be done to ensure that the fishing industry isn’t squeezed out through gentrification. I mean here we are in the Boston seaport, an area that used to be mostly about fishing is now filled with hotels and all sorts of development. And it’s expensive real estate.
00:11:00:00 (Sebastian Belle)
As real estate prices go up it gets more and more difficult for people to hang on to working waterfront. Those working waterfronts get converted to residential use. Once it goes out of the working waterfront base it never comes back.
00:11:14:01 (Bob Rheault)
They’re practically making it illegal to site a new farm because the people who sail boats and who have waterfront homes don’t want to look at us.
00:11:21:07 (Andrea Tomlinson)
U.S. fisherman is on their way to becoming an endangered species. That is a reality. When I started going out with commercial fishermen as a young researcher in the 1990’s there were a hundred ground fishing boats in our New Hampshire ports. We’re down to six ground fishing boats. And the average age of those captains is well over fifty.
00:11:40:05 (John Sheehan)
You mentioned your home state of Rhode Island. And for years you were a state official there dealing with a lot of similar issues to what you’re dealing with now nationally. And I’m wondering if there were any issues or challenges that you remember from the days in Rhode Island on a local level that are having particular resonance now.
00:11:59:06 (Janet Coit)
Yes. There were. So, for ten years I was the head of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. And for ten years before that I was head of the Rhode Island Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. So, twenty solid years looking at conservation issues including in the marine area. First were competing uses for our ocean. So, Rhode Island had the first offshore wind farm off of a little tiny island called Block Island. And as the offshore wind industry has increased it was one of a number of examples that came up when we had discussions about other uses of the ocean. That it’s a busy ocean. It feels vast. But when you’re actually out in it there’s a lot going on. And the industry is concerned about making sure that as we develop offshore wind or expand aquaculture even that we do it in a way that is protective of the habitat and the ecosystems and that isn’t pushing out fishing.
Another theme, I worked a lot in Rhode Island on seafood marketing. And at the time we were looking to market Rhode Island seafood. And I think that actually is, is not discordant with what we heard here, which was a broad message about the benefits of seafood and the way we harvest seafood off of which states or companies can use the information that we’re providing; the science-based information, the work we’re doing, at a broad level. And market it basically so that it highlights what’s special about your state or your product.
00:13:32:01 (John Sheehan)
I’ll echo that. I, one of the big messages that I thought was so heartening and also really inspiring was that yes, seafood; it’s good for you, it’s good for the environment, it’s good for the economy. It’s sort of a slam-dunk.
00:13:44:05 (Janet Coit)
Yeah. Probably the biggest theme was that the benefits of seafood are something worth touting. That eating seafood as a regular part of your diet multiple times a week is good for you. We heard from all sorts of people about the nutritional benefit. I know a fisherman in Rhode Island who talks about the ocean as the strategic protein reserve. We also talked a lot about climate change and that having strong, sustainable local food systems is important. Seafood and aquaculture. Aquaculture can have a particular role in terms of resilience because it’s something that can provide local jobs. Also, in some of the shellfish aquaculture there’s multiple benefits to shellfish to water quality.
00:14:28:07 (Ian Jeffords)
Shellfish is a good example of what can happen in terms of sustainable production.
00:14:33:06 (Tomi Marsh)
There’s a lot of interest in seaweed farming as being another opportunity to enhance the seafood community, the seafood industry. And to help with our working waterfronts and coastal communities.
00:14:44:07 (Bob Rheault)
If we could double the planet’s, you know, shellfish and seaweed production it would have magnificent impacts on water quality and habitat. And I’m all over that story. This is just wonderful news to break.
00:14:56:03 (Janet Coit)
Another part of the seafood marketing message, so to speak, is that in the U.S. that we manage seafood sustainably, that we have strong laws, that we make sure that any harvested seafood is well within quotas that are sustainable in the long run, that we’re expanding our science so that we can make sure that we understand what’s happening in the ecosystems. And as we see stocks respond to warming water that we’re being prudent and smart in basing management decisions on the best available science. So, these are the types of messages that we want to broadcast so that the American consumer can understand what they’re eating and how it’s sourced and that it’s good for them. So, that was really—I think there was a lot of positivity. And after so many blows in regard to the pandemic maybe a very hopeful feeling around this expo.
00:15:52:04 (John Sheehan)
I agree. Janet Coit, thanks so much.
00:15:54:07 (Janet Coit)
Thank you, John. It was great to talk to you.
00:15:57:05 (John Sheehan)
Janet Coit is the Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries. We talked in March 2022 at the Seafood Expo North America held in Boston. We also heard from:
00:16:10:03 (Sebastian Belle)
Sebastian Belle from the Maine Aquaculture Association.
00:16:11:06 (Hannah Heimbuch)
My name is Hannah Heimbuch. I’m a commercial salmon fisherman.
00:16:14:05 (Ian Jeffords)
My name’s Ian Jeffords and I’m the general manager of Penn Cove Shellfish.
00:16:17:04 (Angelina and Michael Manyak)
Hi, my name is Angelina Manyak. My name is Michael Manyak. We’re with Sapidus farms, we raise happy oysters.
00:16:24:02 (Tomi Marsh)
My name’s Tomi Marsh and I’m a commercial fisherman from Alaska.
00:16:27:03 (Mike Oesterling)
Hi. I’m Mike Oesterling. I’m the Executive Director of the Shellfish Growers of Virginia.
00:16:32:01 (Bob Rheault)
Bob Rheault. I’m the Executive Director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association. Quite a mouth-full there.
00:16:37:01 (Andrea Tomlinson)
HI. I’m Andrea Tomlinson. I’m the founder and Executive Director of the New England Young Fishermen’s Alliance.
00:16:42:03 (John Sheehan)
And I’m John Sheehan. This has been Dive In with NOAA Fisheries.
00:16:51:01 (Podcast ends)