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Which Fish Is Better? It’s a Matter of Opinion

Community Supported FIshery

By Janet Krenn

Which is better: wild-caught or farm-raised seafood?

The answer depends on what “better” means, says Troy Hartley. The Virginia Sea Grant Director, joined forces with Michael Luchs, William & Mary business school professor, to research consumer attitudes towards seafood.

What they found: If you ask consumers what is more sustainable, most think that farm-raised is better, but if you ask them which is tastier or fresher, they say wild-caught.

“Many consumers feel they’re making a trade-off,” says Hartley. “If they buy sustainable, they think they get less quality or performance.” This trade-off is not unique to seafood. Other researchers have found that from cars to appliances to food, consumers believe that buying green products means they’ll miss out on other quality features.

In many cases, there are no differences in quality or performance between sustainable and unsustainable products. However these perceptions, says Hartley are important regardless: “We make many decisions based on perceptions and opinions, independent of the facts.”

The research was part of a study to determine whether a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) could be successful in the Williamsburg area.

CSFs are the seafood equal to Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs). In CSAs customers pay upfront for regular deliveries of farm products, such as vegetables, fruits, or meats, throughout a season. A CSF offers fish instead of those terrestrial foods.

Customers who buy-in to CSAs typically tout knowing and supporting a local farmer and reducing food transport or agricultural chemicals as major benefits. Yet, the research team found that for Williamsburg CSF consumers, having access to fresh, tasty product somewhat trumps sustainability and local economic benefits.

“In addition to advertising seafood as sustainable, there’s another message in consumers’ minds too that you’re going to want to include in your branding,” says Hartley. “Pitch the freshness and tastiness of local caught products too.”

However, teasing apart the survey respondents reveals that a person’s stage of life plays a role in how likely they would value knowing and supporting a local waterman. Undergraduates and professionals were less likely to want to get to know the waterman supplying their fish, while graduate students were more likely to want to connect with their supplier.

More than 600 area residents responded to the survey, and a majority of those respondents were students, faculty, and staff from The College of William and Mary and Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The study was lead by researchers and students at Virginia Sea Grant, The College of William and Mary, and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The research indicated that more than 554 households in Williamsburg would join a CSF, if one started in the area.