An era ended in the history of New England fisheries with the recent retirement of Kenelm Coons, the longtime executive director of the New England Fisheries Development Association, and the closing of the organization’s doors.
Coons was the first and only executive director of NEFDA, the organization that worked for more than 20 years on projects to improve the quality of New England seafood, promote underutilized species, encourage innovative technology, turn fish waste into economically viable products and assist the industry to adopt the HACCP food safety standard.
His visibility and expertise led to Coons’ being appointed to the National Fish and Seafood Promotion Council and then elected as its first chairman. The council was established as a three-year federal experiment in the late 1980s to try a generic seafood marketing and public relations campaign.
“It was my biggest honor,” said Coons. “It was also a big frustration that industry didn’t pick up the ball.”
The highly successful generic marketing program with its $8 million budget created a cartoon character to speak for the industry. The original character was intended to be the “Sturgeon General” and bore a great resemblance to the readily-identifiable Surgeon General at the time, Everett C. Koop. Koop refused to sign off on the spoof, so the character became the “Spokesfish.”
When the experiment ended, the seafood industry could not agree on a format for continuing the promotion and ultimately refused to come up with funding. Opinion within industry was divided primarily into camps favoring either generic promotion or promotion by species or region.
The International Boston Seafood Show owes its existence, at least in part, to the efforts of Ken Coons. He was one of the original founders of the show that began in Rhode Island, moved to Boston and finally to its current home, the Hynes Auditorium. For the first several years, NEFDA ran the seminar programs for the show.
“It was exciting in those days. The participants were enthusiastic about it and it was affordable,” said Coons. During the startup, founders worked closely with the Canadian Consulate in Boston.
The Association started its life late in 1980 as the New England Fisheries Development Foundation, one of several regional foundations started to attract and administer federal Saltonstall-Kennedy grants with money from taxes on imported seafood. The S-K grants were designed to help promote U.S. fisheries following the passage of the Magnuson Act, which banned foreign fishing within the new 200-mile limit.
At the time, Coons was director of the Rhode Island Seafood Council and one of the NEFDF founders charged with finding an executive director. When their search proved unsuccessful, the other founders turned to Ken. “I hung around the hallway in the Logan Hilton for a half an hour, while they deliberated. They met my terms, so I had to take it!”
NEFDA’s longest-running effort was the Quality Project, a four-year program that included ports from New Bedford to Rockland. Eugene Connors, former New Bedford fishing skipper, ran the program that encouraged boxing-at-sea and short-shelving in the fish hold. The project resulted in the “Quality at Sea” manual, written by Connors and Jim Ostergard of Thomaston, which delineated good fishing and handling practices and gave scientific evidence for cod’s extended shelf life when properly handled and iced.