New international study shows alternative seafood networks provided resilient diversity during pandemic

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By Milthon Lujan

Ontario, Canada – In a new peer-reviewed study published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, research led by the University of Maine shows that local “alternative seafood networks” (ASNs) in the US and Canada, which are often regarded as a niche segment of the overall seafood economy, experienced unprecedented growth during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic while the broader seafood system faltered.

The researchers argue that the spike in demand is reflective of a temporary “relocalization” phenomenon that appears to occur during periods of systemic shock, highlighting the need for greater functional diversity in supply chains. The study also lays out potential policy changes and opportunities for investment to strengthen local and regional seafood networks, and comes on the heels of US President Biden’s Executive Order on America’s Supply Chains establishing a policy to strengthen the resilience of America’s supply chains.

The study was led by Dr. Joshua Stoll, Assistant Professor of Marine Policy at the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences; Dr. Philip Loring, Associate Professor and Arrell Chair in Food, Policy and Society at the University of Guelph; Dr. Hannah Harrison, Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Guelph; and MA student Emily De Sousa at the University of Guelph, with contributions from colleagues at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, the University of Vermont, the North American Marine Alliance, and eleven community supported fisheries from across the US and Canada.

“This research shows that alternative seafood networks help to make seafood supply chains more diverse,” said Dr. Joshua Stoll. “In doing so, it brings attention to the critical role that local seafood systems play in supporting resilient fisheries in times of crisis.”

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“ASNs emphasize shorter supply chains and direct-to-consumer models,” said Dr. Philip Loring. “They’re not locked into a single system. They have access to diverse fisheries, they know how to get straight to the consumer. All these things came together and made a unique ability to pivot quickly.”

Seafood is a highly perishable commodity that demands utmost speed and efficiency in distribution and cannot afford even temporary disruptions. Alternative seafood networks distribute seafood through local and direct marketing, conducted by the very people who caught it, as opposed to the long and complex supply chains of their global counterparts. According to the study, this physical and social “connectedness” may help to insulate local and regional seafood systems from the deadlock caused by systemic global shocks that disrupts the broader seafood trade.

The researchers drew their conclusions from four lines of quantitative and qualitative evidence: national Google search term data, website analytics data from ASN, SafeGraph foot traffic data for more than 3,000 fish and seafood markets, and in-depth interviews with practitioners from 16 ASNs across the US and Canada.

Funding for the study came from the Oak Foundation, the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the COVID-19 Rapid Research Fund from the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont.

Key Takeaways

• The globalization of seafood has made food systems more vulnerable to such systemic shocks, which can have devastating impacts on those who are dependent on seafood for sustenance and employment.

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• Data suggests a seafood “relocalization” phenomenon occurs during periods of systemic shocks, and that this inverse, yet complementary relationship between global and local seafood systems contributes to the resilience of regional food systems and the global seafood trade.

• Policy changes and greater investments in data collection and infrastructure are needed to support ASN development, increase functional diversity in supply chains and bolster the resilience and sustainability of regional food systems and the global seafood trade.

Reference (open access):
Stoll Joshua S., Harrison Hannah L., De Sousa Emily, Callaway Debra, Collier Melissa, Harrell Kelly, Jones Buck, Kastlunger Jordyn, Kramer Emma, Kurian Steve, Lovewell M. Alan, Strobel Sonia, Sylvester Tracy, Tolley Brett, Tomlinson Andrea, White Easton R., Young Talia, Loring Philip A. Alternative Seafood Networks During COVID-19: Implications for Resilience and Sustainability. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, Vol 5.


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