Nonprofit helping locals hook new fish markets

PAUL BILODEAU/Staff file photo/Monte Rome, right, of Intershell, right, talks with a client while Intershell sales manager Mike Orlando, in red, speaks with a buyer during the Seafood Expo North America  in Boston this spring. Money from the nonprofit Food Export USA Northeast was used to bring international buyers to the show.

Last year, as he contemplated a trip to the Seafood Expo Asia in Hong Kong, Monte Rome of Gloucester-based Intershell utilized an export program designed to reimburse half of his costs for creating a marketing and promotional presence at the immense international seafood show.

Rome and Intershell, like all seafood exporters, were looking to expand their reach out on the Pacific Rim and in seafood markets elsewhere around the globe. The program, administered by the nonprofit Food Export USA Northeast, seemed just the ticket for exploring new markets.

"Normally the cost of attending one of these seafood shows is pretty high," Rome said Tuesday. "But this program paid for half of our substantial costs. In doing that, it helped us get a couple of new customers, including a big one in Vietnam and another in Dubai that could end up being a big customer for us. So, on the whole, it was a very positive experience for us."

The program, which to date has parceled out $1.1 million since 1973 to approximately 30 New England seafood exporters including North Atlantic Pacific Seafood on the Everett R. Jodrey State Fish Pier, is open to all food exporters that meet its eligibility criteria.

But this year, thanks to a massive injection of funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help mitigate the choking impact of import tariffs imposed by China and the European Union, Food Export USA Northeast could emerge as an even more valuable tool for smaller Cape Ann seafood companies looking to expand their exports and presence in international markets.

The nonprofit, part of a network of trade associations that work with states to promote American food exports internationally, generally receives $9.5 million to $10 million annually from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's agricultural trade promotion program.

That money allows it to participate in 40 to 50 projects per year, including eight to 10 that are exclusively seafood, according to Tim Hamilton, executive director of Food Export USA Northeast.

This year, amid the swirl of tariffs and subsequent barriers to lucrative seafood markets in Asia and Europe, and partly in response to the billions set aside to help traditional agricultural exporters, that figure has jumped to $20 million.

Also, the program will operate with a particular focus on helping the New England lobster industry, which has largely lost the Chinese and European markets due to tariffs, make its way into new or untapped international markets.

It could be a valuable tool for re-energizing lost markets if the tariffs are removed and affordable access again granted.

It also contains new initiatives for fledgling export products, such as U.S. oysters and Jonah crabs.

The money can be used to bring international buyers to the U.S. to meet with domestic seafood companies at annual seafood shows such as the Seafood Expo North America in Boston, as well as funding trade missions for U.S. exporters to trade shows in other parts of the world.

"This is a really valuable program that has really benefited several of our local seafood companies," said Sal Di Stefano, the city's economic development director. "Programs like these, and the relationships they require, go a long way toward helping our small businesses understand the opportunities that are available to them."

Hamilton said his organization works directly with the departments of agriculture in 10 Northeast states, including Massachusetts through its Department of Agricultural Resources, to promote U.S. food exports abroad.

Hamilton said Food Export USA Northeast not only provides capital to offset major expenses, but it also provides export expertise and an international network of market possibilities.

"International markets are complex places," Hamilton said. "Currencies fluctuate, regulations change and people have to be nimble and be able to adapt to market situations."

Hamilton said the cost-share program reimburses companies for up to 50 percent of their promotional and marketing costs. A company applying for the first time  — and submitting an export promotional campaign that costs $50,000 — would be eligible to receive up to $25,000 in matching funds.

The funds can be used to pay for booth rental and attendance at seafood shows, social media costs, foreign-target advertising, shipping costs and in-store and restaurant promotions.

"It really benefits a whole range of companies, from wholesalers to more integrated seafood companies that own their own boats" said Bonita Oehlke at the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. "In Gloucester, we have a really good partnership network with the city and the state Division of Marine Fisheries and we've seen really good interest in the program."

That network, Di Stefano said, collaborated at last year's Seafood Expo North America to create Massachusetts Avenue — an expansive row of booths featuring a litany of Massachusetts seafood companies — that helped generate tangible sales leads for Intershell, North Atlantic Pacific and others.

"That was the first step of us trying to create a substantial brand at the show," Rome said. "It was really good for us."

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT

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