PORTLAND, Maine — Whether it’s East Coast swordfish, Alaska king crab or Louisiana shrimp, seafood sellers have their own hook to pump up sales: a celebrity.
For swordfish this fall, sellers didn’t turn to an actor, athlete or chef to push their product. Instead, it was the boat captain who caught the fish.
Swordfish sales soared at the Hannaford supermarket chain when the fish was promoted as being caught by Linda Greenlaw, a well-known Maine boat skipper featured on the Discovery Channel reality show “Swords: Life on the Line.”
Seafood hawkers say using the names of well-known fishermen or fishing boats is a powerful marketing tool, especially in these days of oil spills, food-borne illness and increasing consumer awareness.
By attaching a name to a product, consumers get a better idea of who’s catching the food, where it’s harvested and how it was caught, said Rod Mitchell, president of Browne Trading Co., a Portland seafood distributor and retailer who sold the Linda Greenlaw-branded swordfish at his store and to several dozen restaurants nationwide.
“People nowadays want to know where their eggs are grown and where their meat comes from,” Mitchell said. “People now have no clue where their swordfish comes from. But as soon as you attach a name or a vessel to a product or a fish, people become more trustworthy of it.”
Greenlaw, who lives on Isle au Haut, earned renown in the 1990s after being featured in the best-selling book “The Perfect Storm” and the blockbuster movie of the same name. America’s only female swordfish captain, Greenlaw has written several books and been featured on a Discovery Channel series the past two years.
In a promotion from September into this month, swordfish caught by Greenlaw’s boat was sold in more than 170 Hannaford supermarkets in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont, as well as in restaurants in New England and New York City, and as far away as Florida, the Virgin Islands and Las Vegas.
In Alaska, a seafood company sells “Time Bandit” king crab legs and “Captain Johnathan’s Private Reserve” king crab legs caught by the Time Bandit fishing vessel. The boat and its skipper, Johnathan Hilstrand, were made famous on the popular Discovery Channel reality show “Deadliest Catch,” which follows fishermen on fishing trips in the wild and dangerous Bering Sea.
Some restaurants and retailers market Louisiana shrimp fisherman Lance Nacio’s catch under the name of his 55-foot boat, Anna Marie. Williams-Sonoma once put photographs of Nacio and his boat in a catalog while selling his shrimp in 5-pound boxes.
For other products, well-known people who aren’t fishermen are also attaching their names to seafood, using their celebrity status to drive sales.
Celebrity chef Emeril Legasse’s frozen shrimp and other seafood products can be found in retail stores under the Emeril label.
Linda Bean, the granddaughter of L.L. Bean, founder of the Maine-based outdoors outfitter that carries his name, owns the Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Lobster Roll chain with six restaurants in Maine, and others in Massachusetts, Florida and the Virgin Islands.
Swordfish sales at Hannaford stores grew sharply during its Greenlaw swordfish campaign, which ended this month. The chain promoted Greenlaw in ads, on its website and with in-store promotions.
In the first week of the campaign in September, Hannaford sold 20,000 pounds of her fish, which was about four times what it sells in a typical September week, spokesman Matt Paul said. It was the chain’s best-ever week for swordfish sales.
“The sales impact has been pretty enormous,” Paul said.
For her part, Greenlaw and the owners of her boat received a premium price for the catch. The fish sold fast because consumers knew that it was caught off the East Coast, on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, using sustainable fishing practices rather than from some faraway place halfway around the globe using environmentally poor fishing techniques, Greenlaw said.
“If I can use my celebrity or name recognition to promote a healthy seafood source — it’s good healthwise and it’s 100 percent sustainable — it’s good news,” Greenlaw said. “There’s so much bad news in the [fishing] industry, and if I can use my name to get the good news out, I’m thrilled to do so.”
The names of the fishermen and boats featured in the “Deadliest Catch” were first put on their crab catches several years ago.
Rob George, president of The Crab Broker in Las Vegas, said when he sold crab legs caught by boats featured on the show a few years ago, he used to fly the skippers to restaurants around the country to meet fans and sign autographs. Customers, he said, would treat the fishermen like rock stars.
“It was almost like the Beatles coming to the U.S. that first time,” George said. “It was crazy.”
Putting a name or a face to a seafood product instills consumer confidence, said Nacio, who over the years has appeared on Food Network and PBS shows in his ongoing effort to have consumers connect to his seafood. It’s even more important now in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf, he said in a phone interview while aboard his boat fishing.
“What we need to do is send the message that even though we had an oil spill, we still have an awesome, abundant resource,” he said. “It’s good, it’s clean. People should cherish it, not look away from it. We need to celebrate what we have.”
Seafood sellers have long tried to make a connection between the consumer and the fisherman. The Gorton’s fisherman — a bearded boat captain in yellow oilskins and fishing hat — is an iconic figure for the 161-year-old Gorton’s seafood company in Gloucester, Mass.
CleanFish, a San Francisco-based seafood broker and marketing company, attaches a Gloucester fisherman’s name to its new lines of “Blackburn’s Day Boat” cod and haddock.
Never mind that Howard Blackburn died in 1932, he was a legendary fisherman who became a hero when he lost his fingers after surviving a storm in 1883. Forced to give up fishing, he later became a successful saloon keeper.
Using Blackburn’s name is intended to convey an image of a fisherman at sea. The Blackburn’s Day Boat brands are caught by Massachusetts fishermen who use an environmentally friendly hook-and-line fishing technique.
“We’re about creating that people-and-fish connection,” said CleanFish spokeswoman Alisha Lumea. “It’s a similar experience if you go to a farmer’s market and buy from a farmer or rancher. Having a person-to-person connection is something you’re lacking in seafood.”