From Dock to Door
A sea change is happening in how we get our fish and shellfish. Think JUST caught, super-local and sustainable. Get hooked on the CSF movement.
A sea change is happening in how we get our fish and shellfish. Think: super-local and sustainable. Get hooked on the CSF movement.
One blustery October day, I opened my door to find a Styrofoam cooler perched on the stoop, within which lay two bags of plump, pearly scallops. I unboxed them and, that night, seared them in garlic and olive oil—90 seconds on one side, 60 on the other, just long enough to brown their nearly translucent flesh. My wife and I chewed with eyes closed. Somehow, we agreed, they were both briny and sweet: redolent of the Atlantic, yet so luscious they could’ve been dessert.
The scallops had come courtesy of Togue Brawn, the owner of a tiny Maine seafood purveyor called Downeast Dayboat. A few days earlier, I’d called her to ask when I could expect her shellfish.
The shipment had been delayed, she explained, first by storms and then by mechanical failures. “Fortunately, most of my customers are understanding, especially if they’ve tried my scallops,” said Brawn (who, like a true New Englander, pronounces “scallop” to rhyme with “dollop”). “They’re like, ‘OK, this is the trade-off: we can’t always guarantee exactly when we’re gonna get it, but the flavor is incomparable.’”
Brawn had come to the seafood industry from an unusual angle. In her past life, she’d worked for Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, crafting regulations that made fisheries more sustainable— closing certain stretches of ocean to allow depleted scallop stocks to rebound, for instance. Although the rules buoyed the scallop populations, fishermen were skeptical. They didn’t mind catching less, they told Brawn, if only they could be assured of receiving a decent price.
But the scallop industry, she learned, did not reward Mainers. Most Atlantic scallops are caught far offshore and spend days sitting on ice in a ship’s hold. As the ice melts, the scallops become waterlogged, a process that adulterates their meat. Maine’s nearshore fishermen, by contrast, ply the state’s rocky coastline for mere hours at a time, and thus don’t need to ice their shellfish. Inevitably, though, both pools of scallops—the soggy ones and the fresh-as-can-be catch—end up in the same warehouses and markets. That struck Brawn as sacrilegious. It was, she told me, “like pouring a bottle of Dom Pérignon into a vat of Barefoot Bubbly.”
Brawn was determined to rectify the injustice. She quit her government job and started Downeast Dayboat, a one-woman company that pays Maine’s coastal fishermen a fair price for a better product. She first sold scallops to local restaurants, then began to ship them around the country, a few pounds at a time, in coolers with gel ice packs—like the one that found its way to my door.
As Downeast Dayboat evolved, Brawn retained her intimate connection with
her suppliers. When she can, she pays them a “sustainability bonus” for abiding by the state’s fishing regulations. My scallops came hand-labeled with the names of the fishermen who had dredged them up and the places they’d been harvested. (The terroir of James West’s scallops, which were from the mouth of the Skillings River, struck me as a bit brinier than the sweet, mild flavor of Peter Taylor’s Cobscook Bay catch.) Her national customer base notwithstanding, you might call her operation a community supported fishery.
You are, by now, likely familiar with the concept of Community Supported Agriculture: the weekly box brimming with broccoli, carrots and other justpicked produce, grown by a local farmer. Community Supported Fisheries (CSFS) share this local, in-season ethos and, in many cases, the CSA business model— just substitute rockfish for radicchio, clams for cabbage and squid for squash.
And like CSAS, CSFS are diverse in their approaches: some allow customers to order fish a la carte, while others provide a fixed weekly share. CSFS also have a commitment to fair wages and ecological health. “The members know that their fish is being harvested by somebody who’s paying attention to the sustainability of the fishery,” says Philip Loring, PH.D., an associate professor of food, policy and society at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, who studies the local seafood movement.
Yet CSFS face challenges that their landlubber counterparts don’t. Fish is more perishable than kale, less predictable than lettuce and, to many consumers, even a little intimidating. We all know how to peel a potato; fewer of us can fillet a flounder. No wonder there are well over 10,000 CSAS in the U.S. and only 300 or so CSFS.
Now, though, their moment may at last be arriving. CSFS are swelling, both in scale and scope, sometimes in ways that strain our understanding of what it means to be local and communitybased. Their expansion has only been accelerated by the pandemic, which, by disrupting supply chains and closing restaurants, forced fishermen to find new outlets for their catch and pushed consumers to seek new ways of getting their seafood fix. In COVID’S wake, the local seafood movement has an unprecedented opportunity. Can CSFS transform the way Americans get their seafood—and at the same time, help protect our oceans themselves?
Beginnings of a Sea Change
Among all global commodities, perhaps none has a supply chain as opaque and convoluted as seafood. Every fish dinner begins on a hook, in a net or at a fish or shellfish farm, and ends on your plate. In between, though, it shuttles through a bewildering ecosystem of aggregators, processors, distributors and wholesalers. Simple transactions often conceal elaborate journeys. The wild Alaskan salmon that you buy at the grocery store in Seattle may well have been filleted in China, crossing the Pacific twice between net and counter.
The reasons for this complexity are many—labor costs, paper-thin margins, a uniquely ephemeral product—but the consequences can be calamitous. For you, the consumer, it means less-fresh, lower-quality seafood. For fishermen, it means depressed wages, as each middleman extracts his cut. And for the ocean, it may mean devastation. As any given fish bounces from boat to factory to warehouse to retailer, it’s commingled with others and processed into unrecognizable fillets, sticks or canned meat. Pretty soon it’s impossible to discern the yellowfin harvested sustainably off Long Island from the Indian Ocean stock whose population is deemed “at risk of collapse” by conservation organizations. As a result, fraud is rampant. One global review found that 8% of the fish sold worldwide isn’t what it claims to be, and mislabeling
rates for high-value catches are often far higher. In 2018, researchers from the New York State Attorney General’s office found that more than 1 in 4 fish in the state’s supermarkets were mislabeled; more than 85% of lemon sole, for instance, turned out to be a lower-value species like swai, an Asian catfish. And while nobody quite knows what all this duplicity is doing to the sea, it’s surely nothing good. A 2020 study showed that the “substitute seafood” on American fish counters—such as the giant tiger prawns masquerading as whiteleg shrimp—are more likely to come from poorly managed fisheries with more severe environmental impacts. Seafood mislabeling doesn’t just hurt consumers, then: it effectively launders unsustainable products into the supply chain and, eventually, into our stomachs.
Around 2007, CSFS began to emerge as an alternative to this system. Like many good ideas, the CSF seems to have had multiple, near-simultaneous points of origin, including Carteret Catch in North Carolina, Skipper Otto in British Columbia and Port Clyde Fresh Catch in rural Maine—whose founding fishermen first sold shrimp to parishioners at a Unitarian church. Early startups ran into a system geared to global markets rather than local distribution. Some were boxed out by competitors; one CSF founder told me he offloaded tuna from his boat via wheelbarrow because processors barred him from using dockside cranes. Others discovered they needed hundreds of members, rather than mere dozens, to cover costs.
“There were four or five times in our year of planning when we hit a brick wall, where most people concluded the project was done,” says Joshua
Stoll, PH.D., a fisheries researcher at the University of Maine who helped found a CSF called Walking Fish in 2009.
“And we’re not talking about building a rocket—we’re talking about moving seafood three hours from the coast.”
Early CSFS faced another obstacle: the milquetoast tastes of their own customers. Every year, the average American consumes just over 16 pounds of seafood, nearly two-thirds of which is shrimp, salmon, canned tuna and tilapia, irrespective of season or location. CSFS, however, compelled buyers to broaden their palates—to sample whatever plentiful, underappreciated creatures local fishermen happened to haul up. A Montauk, New York-based CSF called Dock to Dish, for instance, offered homely, bottomdwelling species like monkfish, skate and sea robin, to the occasional horror of subscribers. (See “Fantastic Fish and Where to Find Them” on page 93.)
“We would get people saying, ‘This was terrible,’ ‘It set off the smoke alarms,’ ‘How are we supposed to cook this?’” Sean Barrett, Dock to Dish’s founder, says with a laugh. But the skepticism ceased once the company began supplementing its direct-to-consumer business with restaurant sales, including to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the taste-making farm-to-table eatery. “When people started to see chef Dan Barber working with the same fish, there was suddenly this embracing of the underutilized species,” Barrett said. “Then it was, ‘Oh, don’t give us striped bass or fluke again— we want a challenge!’” These days, most CSFS offer recipes alongside their unconventional catches; California-based Real Good Fish, for instance, has tips for making abalone po’boys, slow-roasted cabezon and opah with citrus salsa.
Over time, the movement grew. In 2011, Stoll and others founded the Local Catch Network, a collective of fishermen and -women, researchers and nonprofits, who hoped to learn from each other and raise the movement’s profile, and by
2012 around 30 CSFS were operating in the U.S. Yet not even the seafood purveyors were quite certain what a CSF was. Because while other forms of direct-toconsumer food sales are governed by a litany of laws and certifications, CSFS
were loosely defined. Some sold fresh, others frozen. Some dropped off weekly shares at patrons’ houses, while others stretched the definition of local by shipping their product across state lines.
Eventually, the Local Catch Network agreed upon nine shared “core values”— including paying fishermen a fair wage, keeping supply chains traceable and ensuring that future generations inherit a clean, healthy ocean. What made a CSF a CSF, in other words, wasn’t a business strategy, but an ideology. It didn’t matter whether you were hawking bluefish fillets out of your van or vacuum-sealing thousands of pounds of salmon—you could be united by a mutual respect for the sea and the people who plied it. “It’s about doing something that’s meaningful and uplifting, that’s not just feeding you but filling your soul,” says Iris Nash, an Alaskan fisher who, with her husband Chris, trolls for coho salmon under the label Nash Family Fish. “This isn’t the most lucrative fishery, but it’s something we can be proud of.”
into the deep
Last fall, I went down to the waterfront in Garibaldi, a gritty fishing port on the Oregon Coast, to see a CSF in action. Stacks of crab traps teetered on moldering wharves, and a wheezy crane hoisted crates of oysters into a waiting truck. At the dock, I rendezvoused with Jeff Wong, a commercial fisherman with an entrepreneurial streak, aboard his 20-foot boat, the Double Down. As we motored beyond the gentle waters of Tillamook Bay and into the heaving Pacific, Wong told me the vessel’s name paid homage to his gambling-enthusiast mother. He’d recently bought a second, larger boat: the Black Jack.
Wong baited three rods with herring and let them unspool off the boat’s stern. Somewhere below us swirled chinook salmon, waiting for the tide to sweep them inland to spawn. The air was crisp and saline, and fog cloaked the shore. Wong, lean and tan in his chest waders, piloted the Double Down over the swells as I turned green at the gills. He’d grown up hunting and fishing at the encouragement of his father, a man who frowned at frivolous hobbies. “My dad said, ‘Son, you can’t eat a golf ball,’” said Wong.
In 2013, he began to dabble in commercial tuna fishing, hoping to turn his avocation into a career. Although he took meticulous care of his fish, bleeding and immediately icing them to improve their quality, he was dismayed to find that processors didn’t pay for the extra labor. He decided to strike out on his own, launching a CSF that he called CS Fishery—and, in a stroke of searchengine-optimization genius, he claimed the URL Communitysupportedfisheries. com. “If you Google it, what do you think comes up first—something like Jeff ’s Best Fish 4 U, or community supported fishery?” he said with a sly smile.
Although Wong first sold to high-end restaurants, he soon began to pursue more creative revenue streams for his tuna, salmon, lingcod and crab. By the time I visited him, he’d come to own two food trucks and a smoker—and had launched a canned-tuna line in partnership with a local saltworks and olive mill. But nothing beat the poundfor-pound value of direct-to-consumer sales at the dock or farmers’ market. Home chefs paid $18 a pound for whole chinook and $27 for fillets. “I could have a good day with one fish,” Wong said.
Today, unfortunately, was not a good day. The sonar screen showed dozens of little blips, indicating salmon galore. But they weren’t biting. The lesson was clear: fishermen subsist at the mercy of the ocean. Wong knew this well, which is why instead of selling guaranteed weekly shares in advance, he converted to a more impromptu business model. After successful trips, he sends out texts and emails to customers, who claim his catch—first come, first served. “Hitting any rhythm with an exact weekly CSA model is almost impossible,” Wong said as we steamed shoreward with an empty hold and the wind in our faces. Still, he’d come to love the freedom of his more ad hoc approach. “I do it on my time, and I call the shots.”
Despite the acumen of Wong and others, CSFS have long struggled to fulfill their potential. In a 2017 briefing, investment analysts found America’s CSFS were collectively worth around $8 million— yet the sector’s prospective value was
$3 billion. Most fishermen lacked the
marketing skills to cultivate their customer bases, and the high cost of equipment, like fancy cold-storage facilities, prevented many would-be CSFS from getting into the game. As a result, CSFS were then reaching a paltry 35,000 consumers; meanwhile, as many as 16 million possible buyers were going unserved.
The analysis was sobering, but came with a gleaming silver lining: CSFS, the analysts wrote, had “barely scratched the surface of their potential.” A vast market existed, if only fishermen could tap it. To realize their promise, CSFS would have to scale up—without compromising the values that groups like Local Catch held dear.
One of the outfits that accepted the challenge was Sitka Salmon Shares, now America’s largest CSF, which delivers monthly shipments of blast-frozen seafood to subscribers in the lower 48 states. Sitka Salmon Shares originated in 2011, when Nic Mink, an environmental studies professor in Illinois, spent a summer in Sitka, Alaska, researching the area’s food systems with students. There he met Marsh Skeele, a young hook-and-line salmon fisherman who’d recently shelled out for his first boat. Mink brought 750 pounds of Skeele’s frozen fillets back to the landlocked Midwest, where friends snapped them up. A business was born.
Like most CSFS, Sitka Salmon
Shares got off to a sluggish start. The Alaskan salmon industry, Mink and Skeele discovered, is an immensely capital-intensive one; one ice-making machine alone can run a million dollars. Seafood conglomerates overcome equipment costs by skimping on labor, freezing Alaskan salmon and processing it in China. Sitka Salmon Shares, however, was determined to keep its entire supply chain local—a goal that required multimillion-dollar investments in processing, packaging and distribution facilities. “It took us seven years to become profitable,” Mink told me ruefully.
As word-of-mouth grew back in the Midwest, however, membership ticked up, from around 2,500 subscribers in
2016 to 25,000 in 2020. The company reinvested its growing revenue in qualityimproving equipment and, better yet, in its fishermen—who get a premium for their catch, allowing them to make more money with fewer fish, a trade-off that can benefit suppliers and ocean alike. Kelly Harrell, its chief fisheries officer, said the company now pays harvesters 15 to 20% more than its competitors. And it’s hired a science director to ensure that its seafood—not only salmon, but now albacore, spot prawns, halibut, black cod and other species—is captured sustainably.
Add it all up, and the company’s experience presents a paradox. In fisheries, as in agriculture, small-scale has become synonymous with high quality. But Mink is adamant that expansion has helped the company fulfill its values, rather than jeopardize them. “For us to be able to do things right,” he says, “we had to get a size where we could make multimillion-dollar investments.”
The Future Is Local
In 2020, the pandemic threw our food systems into chaos, and the seafood industry was no exception. More than half of America’s seafood haul is exported, and around 80% of the remainder goes to restaurants. When COVID cut off international trade and shut down eateries, it imperiled the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen. The head of one seafood association called it “the biggest crisis to hit the fishing industry ever.”
But for Sitka Salmon Shares and other CSFS, the pandemic was a perverse blessing. With restaurants shuttered, consumers turned to home dining. According to one study, Google searches for the phrases “direct seafood” and “seafood delivery” spiked by 88% and 209%, respectively. More than 90% of CSFS reported increased demand. (COVID outbreaks in meat-packing plants and industrial ships may also have helped drive the trend.) Mike Domeyer, the founder of Tre-fin Day Boat Seafood in Ilwaco, Washington, told me that, prior to the pandemic, he’d sold only 15% of his albacore tuna directly to consumers, and the rest to restaurants. After COVID struck, he offered free delivery to customers within 90 miles, and the ratio reversed. “It was a dramatic change that we never saw coming,” he said.
Operators like Domeyer thrived thanks to their agility: it’s a lot easier to pivot when you’re not a link in a sprawling supply chain. Take San Diego’s Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, an open-air seafood bazaar that purveys lobsters, crabs, urchins, halibut and other marine morsels. Tuna Harbor compensated for dwindling restaurant business and reduced foot traffic by starting a curbside pickup service, which allowed customers to order seafood directly from the person catching it and claim it on Saturday mornings. “Honestly, it was a saving grace for a lot of people,” says Jordyn Kastlunger, the fisher who runs the curbside deliveries. Demand skyrocketed so quickly that the market had to impose limits. “People were panic-buying, like, 100 pounds of tuna,” she adds.
Whether the “pandemic bump” will outlive the pandemic is an open question. At Tuna Harbor, the initial rush began to slow within a few months of COVID’S arrival (allowing them to lift purchase limits), although curbside sales remain solid. Nic Mink told me that Sitka Salmon Shares benefited from “exponential” growth in 2020. “The new plateau has been reached,” he says.
Whatever happens, seafood researcher Philip Loring believes the pandemic granted CSFS a new legitimacy. For years, he says, the industry regarded them as “kind of quaint.” But today it’s harder to deny their significance. For CSFS to truly come of age, though, they must surmount one last hurdle: their price tag.
Industrial-sized competitors keep costs low through economies of scale—after all, you can afford narrower profit margins when you’re selling 50,000 pounds of scallops than when you’re selling 50. Most CSFS haven’t had that luxury. Instead, they’ve targeted high-end restaurants and well-heeled gastronomes. If you’re not a member of the Whole Foods set, well, enjoy your freezer-burnt tilapia.
But that, too, is starting to change. In 2016, Talia Young, PH.D., then a fisheries researcher, was attending a seafood conference when a speaker claimed that American consumers needed to embrace species besides salmon and cod. “I thought, you’re not talking to the right Americans,” says Young, who’s Chinese American. “Asian and Black people eat a lot of fish. We eat whole fish, not just fillets; we eat shellfish, we eat jellyfish—and we’re also Americans.” She began pondering ways to link fishermen with less affluent—and more open-minded—buyers.
The result was Fishadelphia, a CSF that sells twice-monthly shares to consumers around Philadelphia. One-quarter of its subscribers pay only $12 per share, a steeply discounted “community rate” that’s available to Medicaid or food stamp recipients and anyone who’s referred to Fishadelphia by an existing community-rate member. Its diverse customer base revels in offbeat species, like eel. “I tell fishermen that we want to buy their bycatch, the stuff they would otherwise sell for bait,” says Young.
Fishadelphia has sought to connect its suppliers and buyers not only through seafood, but in person. Every year Young takes groups of subscribers, many of them non-english-speaking, on tours of the New Jersey fishermen’s coops and oyster farms that furnish their shares. Fresh fish, to Young’s mind, can bridge our divided society, uniting urban Chinese mothers with rural white oystermen—solidarity through seafood. With COVID, those relationships proved their worth. Families turned their front porches into pickup sites so that nearby members would have easier access to seafood. Others donated their shares. And when one member lost a relative to the virus, Fishadelphia’s subscribers pitched in for the funeral.
The company’s success suggests that, at their best, CSFS do far more than peddle mackerel. Yes, they’re convenient. Yes, they help diners achieve their Usda-recommended seafood allotments. Yes, they’re a lifeline for fishermen bobbing in the tempestuous seas of global markets. “But people also participate for reasons that we’ve dubbed ‘relational,’” Young says. For all their fiscal growth, the true value of Community Supported Fisheries may not be monetary at all.
BEN GOLDFARB is an award-winning environmental journalist and author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter.