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Community-Supported Fisheries: A better way to buy fish?

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

It’s about five o’clock on an unusually warm Wednesday evening when I’m driving back home from a friend’s house a few towns over. When I’m nearly home, I pass a particularly pretty strip of beaches and marinas somewhere on Long Island’s North Shore.

Some combination of the salty ocean breeze, softly lapping waves and convenience of a fish market on my ride home makes me decide something from the sea would be a good choice for dinner tonight. I decide the fish market would be a good place to get dinner.

Inside the market I’m presented with an array of fish, from Alaskan salmon to Chilean sea bass. I stare at the fillets and wish there were a way to get more local, fresher fish. And I should be able to do so—I live on an island, after all.

According to ocean experts, there is a way, and that is community-supported fisheries.

dock to dish
Montauk-based Dock to Dish at New Amsterdam Market’s 2013 Gathering of Fisheries. Credit: Cesar Kastoun for New Amsterdam Market.

Community-supported fisheries, or CSFs, as they’re known, replace the typical seafood-purchasing model, which is largely based on importing seafood from other parts of the world, with one that is almost entirely local. CSFs are based on the same basic concept as community-supported agriculture (CSAs) their land-based brethren: consumers, restaurants, institutions or wholesale buyers pay local fishermen and fisherwomen a seasonal sum (sometimes through a CSF organizer), in return receiving a regular share of a fisher’s catches each week.

“Consumers know who caught their fish and when/where/how it was landed,” says Josh Stoll, PhD candidate in ecology and environmental sciences at the University of Maine and founder of LocalCatch.org, an online platform that connects American consumers with local fishers participating in CSF programs.

Stoll adds that CSFs also facilitate communication between consumers and those who catch the fish they eat, which is “something that does not exist in the broader seafood economy where most product is detached from its history or its underlying socioeconomic or ecological implications.”

Sustainability is a key goal of CSFs, in both the ecological and economic sense.

Ecologically, consumer demand for sustainably caught seafood can incentivize participating fishers to fish in a more sustainable manner, helping keep species safe from depletion.

Clam digger in the Long Island Sound
Clam digger in the Long Island Sound. Credit: Jennifer LaCava.

Currently, CSFs are a relatively niche market, according to fisheries expert and Safina Center Writer in Residence Paul Greenberg, and though they’re likely to always remain that way, the CSF-model of fish buying is growing in popularity. He says this is a positive trend in consumer buying and marketing, one that significantly reduces stress on the environment.

“From a food miles POV there’s a better carbon footprint compared to shipping seafood around the world especially air-freighting seafood,” says Greenberg. “From a fisheries-based perspective, the U.S. has pretty good fisheries management compared to other countries. If you’re buying imported fish, it’s more likely to have been caught under a different, less sustainable management regime.”

Economically, those who buy fish from community supported fisheries benefit because they pay lower prices for higher-quality fish. Plus, fishers benefit because they are paid directly—rather than by fish markets—for their hauls.

“CSFs keep fishing communities going,” says Greenberg. “Having a specialty market where [fishers] are getting a higher price per pound helps keep them in business.”

Greenberg adds that another benefit of CSFs is the opportunity for communication between fishers and consumers. He says this kind of dialogue could push fishers to redouble their focus on sustainability, catching only hyper-abundant or unexploited fish as opposed to species facing high environmental stress.

As far as my options go, there are a few CSFs on or near Long Island. These include Dock to Dish out in Montauk and Mermaid’s Garden in Brooklyn. And, says Bianca Piccillo, co-founder of Mermaid’s Garden, I may have many more CSF options in the future: “I will say confidently that the CSF movement is gaining momentum. I think it’s a very exciting time to be in the seafood business. The more we think creatively about improving our food systems, the better off we’ll be.”

With their multiple benefits, CSFs could serve as a piece of a more sustainable future for seafood in America and beyond. To find a community supported fisheries program to participate in, visit LocalCatch.org’s CSF locator at: http://www.localcatch.org/locator/.