My research at the University of Rhode Island focuses on perceptions of products and production in New England’s seafood system. Though slightly beyond my comfort zone, I’m trying to take a more qualitative, anthropological approach in an attempt to address some key aspects of food system dynamics that consumer preference research, grounded in econometric theory, misses. I’m less concerned with hypothetical price points and what people are buying than I am with how stakeholders perceive their roles in the system, how they interact with products and other stakeholders, and what drives people to diversify their diets and menus, leaving old buying habits behind. I don’t believe that change in the market is created solely by price fluctuations.
To quote Elspeth Probyn’s Eating the Ocean, we are intimately “entangled” with the sea and our seafood This topic is larger than the individual consumer and challenges are not recent. Demand is not the sole driver of a system that is unbelievably complex. Ignoring history that helps explain some of the complexity within the seafood system would invalidate my work.
The following is an excerpt from my Master’s thesis proposal.
Food production systems have long histories of shaping the world and influencing “the economic, social, and political [destinies]” (Mintz 1985; p. 151). When Europeans and Americans “transformed sugar from a rare foreign luxury to a commonplace necessity of modern life…it changed the history of capitalism and industry;” sugar, woven into the slave trade, has a lasting effect on the world. Mark Kurlansky suggests that the Basque people, in search of cod, discovered the New World long before Columbus and that the iconic species fueled the growth of colonial New England. Historic appetites have shaped landscapes and altered ecosystems. A study following Hurricane Sandy posited that natural oyster reefs, which were depleted by the early 20th century, may have lessened the impact of a storm that cost New York City nearly $40 billion in repairs (Brandon et al. 2016).
Prior to the 1840s, consumers and fishers in New England considered Atlantic halibut a worthless bycatch species. However, robust stocks, advances in refrigeration technology, and shifting consumer tastes caused the once-scorned fish to rise to prominence in the mid-nineteenth century (Grasso 2008). Halibut’s ascension in the market, coupled with inadequate management of the fishery, led to a series of stock collapses from which the population in the northwest Atlantic has never fully recovered (Pauly and MacLean 2003). Today, halibut is one of the most expensive species of fish on restaurant menus in New England. Similarly, Bluefin tuna, one of the most valuable fish species (per pound) in the world (Mylonas et al. 2010), was once sold as cat food by fishers from Maine to Italy (Bestor 2000). Even lobster, perhaps the most iconic seafood species on New England menus was once deemed unfit for consumption by anyone but children, prisoners, and indentured servants (Gulf of Maine Research Institute 2012).
These seemingly unrelated species share a common history in their relationships with the human palate. Cultivated and malleable tastes helped drive halibut and Bluefin tuna stocks to the verge of extinction. And though the lobster fishery in Maine is still strong thanks to effective management (and ineffective management predatory species) and changing environmental conditions, Steneck et al. (2011) argue that consumer tastes and the high value of American lobster have created a gilded trap for the region; a collapse could drastically disrupt social and economic networks. The shared histories of these three species, along with the collapse of cod in the northwest Atlantic and global declines in shark populations due to the fin trade demonstrate the direct impact of preference, taste, and stakeholder relationships with and within production systems on the marine ecosystem (Mintz 1985; Pauly et al. 1998).
However, histories of fishery collapse do not provide full context for my research. This study would not be valid without addressing the growth of the aquaculture sector. While harvests from capture fisheries have remained steady since the 1980s, global aquaculture production has increased steadily and now comprises roughly 50% of the world’s seafood production., Seaweed aquaculture alone has expanded a 8% per year in the last decade (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization 2016). In New England, the value of aquaculture increased by 98% between 2012 and 2015, shellfish aquaculture is a $45-50 million industry, with potential future growth (Lapointe 2013) and several aquaculture operations are attempting to supplement their shellfish harvests by growing kelp.
While kelp hasn’t fully caught on in the United States – there are few dishes that feature kelp as the primary ingredient – perhaps the lessons learned from the histories of halibut and tuna provide insight into its potential. History tells us that a technological innovation could spur the growth of the kelp industry and diversification of palates. But growth could also be borne of necessity or a combination of initiatives and market conditions coalescing at the right time.
I believe that many people are ignorant of the role that food has played in history, despite the fact that history plays an important role in what we eat today. Food contributes to identity and identity helps shape our perception of the world. Food has the power to make us “different” from others, from those who might be eating something that we do not consider food. My previous blog post discussed the importance of thinking about the impacts of your buying practices. Historical context makes that a bit easier.
Bestor, T.C. (2000) How sushi went global. Foreign Policy 121, 54.
Brandon, C.M., Woodruff, J.D., Orton, P.M. and Donnelly, J.P. (2016) Evidence for elevated coastal vulnerability following large-scale historical oyster bed harvesting. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 41, 1136–1143.
Grasso, G. (2008) What appeared limitless: The rise and fall of the nineteenth-century Atlantic halibut fishery. Environmental History 13, 66–91.
Gulf of Maine Research Institute (2012) Lobstering History. Available at: http://www.gma.org/lobsters/allaboutlobsters/lobsterhistory.html.
Kurlansky, M. (1998) Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world. Penguin Books.
Lapointe, G. (2013) Northeast Region Ocean Council White Paper: Overview of the aquaculture sector in New England.
Mintz, S.W. (1985) Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books.
Mylonas, C.C., De La Gándara, F., Corriero, A. and Ríos, A.B. (2010) Atlantic Bluefin tuna (Thunnus Thynnus) farming and fattening in the Mediterranean Sea. Reviews in Fisheries Science 18, 266–280.
Pauly, D., Christensen, V., Dalsgaard, J., Froese, R. and Jr, F.T. (1998) Fishing down marine food webs. Science 279, 860–863.
Pauly, D. and MacLean, J. (2003) In a perfect ocean: The state of fisheries and ecosystems in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Steneck, R.S., Hughes, T.P., Cinner, J.E., et al. (2011) Creation of a gilded trap by the high economic value of the Maine Lobster Fishery. Conservation Biology 25, 904–912.
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (2016) The state of world fisheries and agriculture: Contributing to food security and nutrition for all. Rome, Italy.