Fish local. Now more than ever. That’s the mission of Colby Dining Services.

Since 2003 Colby Dining Services has been a leader in serving sustainable seafood, but this year the College stepped up its commitment. Colby pledged to serve only locally sourced seafood from sustainable fisheries whenever whitefish is served in Foss, Dana, and Roberts dining halls.

By serving what are called “under-loved species” caught in the Gulf of Maine, Colby will buy literal tons of fish that local fishermen might not otherwise even try to catch. Perhaps more importantly, fish dishes served in Colby dining halls will introduce these species to students and employees who can learn to love them for being both sustainable and delicious, leading to long-term changes in consumer choices. People will learn to look for plentiful species instead of overfished or endangered stocks. Goodbye cod. Hello dogfish.

Tyler Clevenger ’16 serves himself "shark bites" in Foss Dining Hall. The fish entree is dogfish, an abundant species in the Gulf of Maine.

Tyler Clevenger ’16 serves himself “shark bites” in Foss dining hall. The fish entree is dogfish, an abundant species in the Gulf of Maine.

Seafood markets are hard to fathom. Cape shark, AKA dogfish, are in the Gulf of Maine, but last year only 39 percent of the quota was landed, and almost all of that was shipped across the Atlantic to sate Europe’s appetite for fish and chips, according to Colby Associate Director of Dining Services Joe Klaus. Meanwhile most of the haddock, a preferred species in New England, comes west across the ocean from Europe and Iceland.

When Foss dining hall featured deep-fried dogfish, served with the moniker “shark bites” in mid-November, many students took the bait and were glad they did. “Delicious!” said Erik Wilson ’16. “It’s a little different than other whitefish, but it’s good.” Two other students praised the fillets; another took a bite, called it “interesting,” and pushed it around his plate, admitting he was having trouble with the notion that it was shark.

“It’s a crazy industry. It’s a crazy system,” said Kyle Foley ’05, now a seafood brand manager for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute who’s been working closely with Colby on its new commitment to locally sourced fish. Her job is to generate consumer interest in plentiful hake, pollock, cape shark, and other species. Colby, she said, “is taking a leadership role,” buying and serving under-used species, from regional waters. Food-service provider Sodexo has a goal for this academic year to increase locally sourced seafood from 25 percent to 75 percent of Colby’s seafood purchases.

Kyle Foley ’05 of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute speaks with Hannah Twombley ’16, a former GMRI intern, in Foss Dining Hall. Colby Dining Services has teamed with the institute in encouraging consumption of sustainable local fish.

Kyle Foley ’05 of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute speaks with Hannah Twombley ’16, a former GMRI intern, in Foss dining hall. Colby Dining Services has teamed with the institute in encouraging consumption of sustainable local fish.

The impetus for the change comes from various sectors, including academic research. When Loren McClenachan, the Ainslie Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and a leading fisheries scientist, gave a lunchtime talk on sustainable fisheries in Dana this fall, students and faculty were packed into the Fairchild Room like, well, sardines. She talked about catch diversification and the socio-ecological benefits of consuming locally caught fish. She noted that the first Community Supported Fisheries (analog to Community Support Agriculture or CSA farms) were in Maine.

Taylor Witkin ’14, an environmental studies major with a concentration in marine science, studied under-utilized species in New England seafood systems—pollock, hake, dogfish, and Atlantic mackerel—to test people’s willingness to buy fish they’d never heard of. People already familiar with those less popular species proved more willing to buy them in place of cod, salmon, or tuna, all of which come wrapped in environmental issues.

Witkin published his findings, with McClenachan and Assistant Professor of Economics Sahan Dissanayake as coauthors, in the journal Fisheries Research. But he didn’t leave it at that. He scheduled a couple of meetings with Klaus, in Dining Services, and pushed for the consideration of sustainability in fish purchasing. Witkin is now in Washington, D.C., tracking the behavior of global fishing fleets at the conservation nonprofit Oceana.

Now, including the whitefish covered in the new initiative and other seafood, 95 percent of seafood served by Colby Dining Services is either certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or verified as Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested® and meets Sodexo’s Sustainable Seafood Policy.

Colby serves almost 20 tons of whitefish in student dining halls each year. So if Colby chefs want to offer shark bites, they can order enough of the species to make it worth Maine fishermen’s efforts to go catch a boatload. Otherwise it’s the same old news: lower quotas for the popular and increasingly scarce fish like Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod, as announced in early December.

“So much news about seafood is negative, we’re trying to tell the positive stories,” said Foley, while promoting shark bites in Foss this fall. “We’re trying to help fishermen diversify and help the ecosystem.”