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Rhode Island squid are offered for sale at the Sea Well Seafood fish market in Pawcatuck on Thursday, July 2, 2020. These squid were processed in Galilee, but most are shipped all the way to China for processing. Now, the Rhode Island Food Policy Council is trying to attract businesses which could help the Rhode Island fishery expand its processing capacity. Harold Hanka, The Westerly Sun

POINT JUDITH — The longfin squid, more familiar to most as calamari, can be found on restaurant menus throughout North America and Europe.

Also known as loligo, squid is Rhode Island’s most valuable fishery, worth about $28 million a year. More than 22 million pounds of squid are landed each year, most of it at the port of Galilee. 

But while the official appetizer of the Ocean State may arrive at a fishing port just a few miles away, most squid is shipped to the other side of the world, and all the way back again, before anyone gets to eat it.

What happens to squid after it’s caught may come as a surprise. About 80% of the Rhode Island squid catch is frozen, loaded onto trucks, then onto container ships, unloaded in China, thawed, processed, re-frozen and shipped back to Rhode Island. It’s a journey that can take several months.

Kate Masury, of the sustainable fisheries advocacy group Eating with the Ecosystem, said lower labor costs in China make processing cheaper there, even when transportation costs are factored in.

“The cost of labor is less expensive and there’s more people that are willing to do that job,” she said. “Cleaning squid can be a little bit messy, especially when you’re doing it in big, big quantities, so there’s not a lot of Americans who want to do those kinds of hands-on, somewhat dirty jobs.”

Diane Lynch is the chairwoman of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, a nonprofit group that brings together organizations representing diverse segments of the food system to promote more environmentally sustainable, economically viable and equitable local food systems.

“One of the reasons that food policy councils exist, and there are some 350 food policy councils around the country, is to promote the growth and strength of local food systems,” she said.

A small portion of the squid catch is processed at Galilee, Quonset and Johnston. Lynch said one factor preventing Rhode Island facilities from processing more squid is the waste water produced during the process. Treating that wastewater is the current focus of a Food Policy Council project called “Fishing for Success.”

“There’s a lot of nutrients that come out of the wastewater when you process squid that are tough for your normal municipal waste-water treatment facility to handle,” Lynch said. “So most seafood processors need to pre-treat their waste water. They need to take some of that high nutrient content out before they dump it back into their local municipal waste water facilities, and that process is expensive and there hasn’t been enough of it in the state.”

The council has approached private companies with expertise in waste-water treatment to help Rhode Island processors.

“There are a number of businesses that have perfected the business of removing these high biological elements, taking out from them whatever can be recovered and resold, and it’s usually some form of a protein, and then cleaning the water that way and selling the protein, or using it in some other application and then releasing the clean water,” she said.

That technology, Lynch noted, is already in use in China as well as Alaska. It is not available in Rhode Island yet, but a growing public awareness of which ocean fisheries are local and sustainable is prompting a second look at the viability of processing fish here.

“Twenty-five years ago, no one talked about ocean sustainability, but now, a lot of governments and a lot of policy-makers are talking about it,” Lynch said. “… People are starting to understand that food sourced in other countries is not necessarily regulated and as safe as the food sources in the United States. So when there are supply disruptions and plants get closed down and toxic materials get found in food samples, people don’t want to buy from that source, and that’s part of what’s happening, too.

"So we feel that to the best that we can predict, in the next 25 years, this system is going to evolve and people are going to want to bring processing back to the United States. They’re going to want to know that it’s processed locally.”

Lynch noted that state officials also like the idea of bringing the processing of Rhode Island-caught fish back to Rhode Island.

“They understand the importance of the commercial seafood sector to the state, not only in terms of the jobs and the revenue but we are the Ocean State and it is a big part of our identity,” Lynch said.

Masury said she would welcome more local processing.

“I would love to see more processing for local seafood in general here in Rhode Island, including squid,” she said. "I think that when we strengthen our local resilience and are less dependent on foreign markets, whether it’s for processing or for just purchasing seafood … being able to have processing in our own state, I think, would definitely be a boost to the industry.”

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