Blue crab and oyster landings in Virginia are surging, yet dinner plates in Hampton Roads are often filled with imported seafood.
That could change depending on the results of a study that aims to determine if the region will buy seafood — potentially at a higher cost — from local watermen.
“We’ve been hearing from the local community: ‘How do you get local seafood’” said Troy Hartley, director of the Virginia Sea Grant at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point.
The agency has partnered with the College of William and Mary to conduct the study, which will gauge interest in a “community-supported fishery.”
The idea is modeled after community-supported agriculture, in which consumers pool their resources to support local farmers. Sharing the risks and benefits of food production, consumers pay a set fee and receive weekly shares of fruits and vegetables.
The fishery model has worked, on a small scale, in college towns in North Carolina and California, Hartley said.
It follows a trend in which consumers are seeking locally grown food. With more than 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States imported, according to the Food and Drug Administration, locally harvested seafood could really catch on, Hartley said.
“More and more people want to know where their food comes from and who grows it,” he said.
In response to the trend, grocery chains have started listing the origin of seafood, whether it was farmed or wild caught and whether it was previously frozen. Fresh or canned, though, most comes from the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean and Asia, according to a VIMS statement.
Imported seafood is often cheaper and more widely available than U.S. products because foreign countries tend to have less stringent fishing laws and pay their workers less. The scenario, combined with declining stocks in the U.S., has hurt many domestic fisheries.
Ken Smith, president of Virginia Watermen’s Association, said he is in favor of a community-supported fishery.
There is a similar venture underway involving Chesapeake Bay oysters. The Oyster Company of Virginia plans this year to begin a co-op style oyster farm in which salaried watermen grow the bivalve in cages. W. Tolar Nolley, Jr., the company’s founder, said there is room for both his company and a community-supported fishery.
“We’re not necessarily going after the local market,” he said. “We’re reaching out to the nation.”
Johnny Graham, president of Hampton-based Graham & Rollins, one of the state’s largest crab processing plants, also said he doesn’t see a community-supported fishery affecting his business.
Sea Grant and William & Mary finished the first part of the study in February. They plan to reach out to a broader section of Hampton Roads this spring with results forthcoming later this year, Hartley said.
While supermarkets may be stocked largely with imported seafood, there are seafood dealers in Hampton Roads that sell mostly local products. For example, Capt. Harrells Seafood & Retail Market in Poquoson offers Virginia crabs, oysters and fish.
“It’s all local stuff. Only the shrimp is frozen,” owner Harold Moore said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun