Until recently, Spencer Montgomery knew nothing about seafood and fishermen. To him, fish meant the precut fillets his mother bought at the supermarket, "faceless fish" as he calls it. "It's all my generation has ever known," says the 26-year-old, currently studying nutritional science and eco-gastronomy at the University of New Hampshire (UNH). But the Slow Food Youth Network member has been on a steep learning curve over the last year and a half, and is now working to bring sustainable seafood to campuses all over the northeast United States and Canada.
"A lot of people my age are involved in Slow Food," he says, explaining the disconnect that he is trying to fix. "Maybe they're connected with farmers and farmers' markets. But they're still not connected to fish and fishermen." Spencer had been leading the Slow Food UNH campus chapter for a year when he surveyed its members to find out what issues they most wanted to focus on. "60% expressed an interest in seafood sustainability," he recounts. "I knew nothing about it, and I was so intimidated about where to start. But I began talking to fishermen in the community, and met Brett Tolley from the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), which has also been part of the Slow Fish network since his first Terra Madre encounter, in 2008. Soon I wanted to know everything about the subject and what we could do to help be a part of the solution."
New Hampshire has just 18 miles of coastline, but its fishing industry dates back four centuries. Five years ago, the state's fishing fleet was four or five times the size it is now, says Spencer, but with recent cuts to the cod quota it is now down to just a handful of boats, and may lose its entire inshore fleet by next year. The remaining fishermen are close to retirement, and expensive permits are preventing newcomers from joining the industry. "It's a similar narrative to most of New England," says Spencer.
He's using food as a way of approaching the fisheries issue. "People can really connect to it through food, through something they can taste and feel," he says. "We want to promote fish as food, not just a commodity." His activities are focused on reconnecting young people with fishermen and with fish itself, and encouraging the use of "underloved" species: locally abundant fish that often struggle to find a market.
Working with NAMA, Spencer organizes "seafood throwdowns," in which two young chefs are presented with a mystery fish-local, seasonal and underused-and have a set amount of time to prepare a dish for an audience and a panel of judges. "It's a big festival-like party at the farmers' market," he says. "The fish is presented whole, with head, tail and scales. The chefs have 15 minutes to run around the market and choose their ingredients, then they have to start filleting. They're judged on how well they use the whole fish-even the eyeballs." Judges include fishermen, politicians and other local stakeholders in fishery policy.
Another "gateway to learning about slow and sustainable seafood" that Spencer is promoting at his campus and others around the United States and Canada is the Slow Fish workshop model. "Students learn how to source whole, local fish from community fishermen, how to fillet them and how to use them. They turn the bones and heads into stock, reducing food waste." Chefs and fishermen help lead the workshops, and Spencer says that for most of the students it is the first time they have ever talked to a fisherman from the community. The workshops focus on underloved fish like dogfish, which features in unusual recipes like dogfish ceviche or smoked dogfish and potato cakes.
Spencer is also hoping to convince more campus dining halls to sign up to Slow Fish principles. After lengthy negotiations with dining hall executives, UNH has agreed to work with local fishers and seafood processors to source more locally caught fish and underloved species in season. The pricing is a challenge, but the Slow Fish campus activists are trying to identify abundant local species available at the required price point.
In the future, Spencer hopes to identify grants that can help fund organizers to take the Slow Fish campaign to more campuses. "Hopefully the message will continue to spread," he says. "This is just the beginning."