PORTLAND, Maine — The meat industry has its "Beef, It's What's for Dinner" promotion. Pork producers market their product as "the other white meat." Now, the U.S. seafood industry is preparing to cast its own marketing net in a bid to reel in more consumers.
More than 50 fishing and seafood organizations from 24 states have signed on to the National Seafood Marketing Coalition, a group that's working on a national plan to better market American seafood and is hoping for help from the federal government.
Organizers say promotion, new product development, education and other marketing means will strengthen the U.S. seafood economy and generate jobs.
"Our experience is that a little bit of marketing goes a long way," said Dane Somers, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council who has been active with the national group. "Since nobody's doing much, when you do a little bit it's noticeable."
Americans eat a lot of seafood; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates they spent about $75.5 billion on fishery products in 2009.
In 2009, they consumed 4.8 billion pounds of fish and shellfish, or 15.8 pounds per person. However, 84 percent of that seafood was imported, up from 68 percent in 2000 and 54 percent in 1995, NOAA says.
But it's not just imports that domestic seafood producers are up against, said Bruce Schactler, a Kodiak, Alaska, fisherman who's serving as the coalition's volunteer director. The industry also competes against other proteins, such as meat, chicken and pork, as well as other foods, he said.
Fishermen and seafood processors are no different than farmers who are trying to market their products, he said.
"They're Americans producing food, and so are we," he said.
There are regional seafood marketing groups around the country, such as the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and the Maine Lobster Promotion Council. But there's no unified national marketing program or organization.
The coalition has been in the works for more than a year, with about 40 supporters from around the nation meeting in Seattle last month to agree a plan.
The coalition, the group agreed, would be made up of five regional marketing boards representing New England and the Great Lakes; the Mid-Atlantic; Florida and the Gulf of Mexico; the Pacific coast; and Alaska and Hawaii.
Each region would develop marketing programs for its areas depending on the need. The boards would also collaborate to address national marketing issues.
The industry could have used a national campaign following last year's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Schactler said.
"You saw it all summer long, there were people thinking 'Maybe I ought to just quit eating seafood altogether. I can't figure it out, I'm confused, I'm going to become a vegetarian or eat chicken or something else,'" he said.
For funding, the coalition intends to line up a sponsor for a federal bill to establish what it's calling a National Seafood Marketing Fund. The goal is to get up to $100 million a year, with one possible funding source coming from duties and tariffs that are already imposed on seafood imports, Somers said.
An effort by the government 25 years ago to promote the industry didn't last.
The National Seafood Marketing Council was established by Congress in 1986 to encourage the consumption of domestically harvested seafood. It featured a national "spokesfish" dubbed the "sturgeon general."
But the government money ran out, the industry voted against paying for the program out of its own pocket and the council was disbanded.
Coalition members say the idea this time around is to create a framework with steady funding year-in and year-out.
NOAA Fisheries Service head Eric Schwaab said he's behind the effort.
"We strongly support industry working together to promote our healthy, sustainably produced U.S. seafood," he said.