Sea to Table

Consumers are increasingly getting to know their local fish—and fishermen—through companies that cut out the middleman.

February 05, 2015

On a recent stereotypically gorgeous Wednesday morning at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, Ren Ostry is breaking the bad news with a smile. “I’m so sorry, but we’re out of fish,” she says—while standing next to a cooler packed with fillets of yellowtail and halibut caught within the last 48 hours.

She isn’t lying; the fish are spoken for. Ostry is the accounts director for Community Seafood, a two-and-a-half-year-old community-supported fishery, or CSF, based out of Santa Barbara, California. CSFs operate a lot like community-supported agriculture: Members pay for a regular share of the harvest, but in this case the food comes fresh from the ocean rather than a field. CSFs have been around for some time on the East Coast, and more are popping up out West. “In the last four years, the number of CSFs [on the West Coast] has grown exponentially,” says Barbara Walker, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. She and her colleagues, with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other resources, have been studying direct marketing of seafood, which includes CSFs. 

These programs can help foster better marine stewardship on a local level by supporting small-scale operations that employ sustainable fishing practices. For instance, they might target less popular but more populous types—often called “trash fish”—thereby reducing the pressure on overfished species and broadening consumers’ palates.

Photo: Courtesy of Community SeafoodKeith and Tiffany Andrews, two fishermen who sell fish through Community Seafood

Community Seafood works with more than 60 fishermen and distributes both (delicious) trash fish as well as more commonly known species at over a dozen locations in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, including various farmers’ markets and a biweekly pickup at Google (for employees only, of course). Memberships start at as little as $11 per week for a half-pound of seafood. “We try to always have extra to sell at farmers’ markets, but it goes fast,” Ostry says with a shrug at the Santa Monica market. Indeed: It’s only 10:15 in the morning.

Over the next hour, a steady stream of members stops by to pick up their shares. College students who have gone in on shares with roommates; a mom with one baby strapped to her chest pushing a toddler in a stroller; an elderly couple whose tote bags are brimming with fresh produce procured from other stalls. Some have been a part of Community Seafood from its early days, while others just joined in the last month. All gush about the freshness of the fish, the company’s e-newsletters with delicious recipes and preparation tips, the fair price, and the fact that they know exactly where their seafood comes from.

“I like knowing that this halibut was caught by Keith and Tiffany Andrews,” says Rae Huang, a new member who previously belonged to a CSF in North Carolina. She points to a nearby picture of the couple—he burly and bearded, she blonde and smiling, both clad in bright-orange waterproof overalls—on their boat. Accompanying text explains that unlike enormous commercial trawlers, their small operation doesn’t tear up the seafloor with its nets. “I’m really into sustainable seafood,” says Huang.

Sarah Rathbone started Community Seafood after seeing “a complete disconnect between the person catching fish and person eating fish.” While earning her master’s in marine fisheries management at UCSB, she made connections with fishermen to collect data for her research. She later used those contacts to gain a full-time position on a lobster boat (the captain might have had ulterior motives—the two are now married). “I really loved my time out on the water and saw things from a fisherman’s perspective,” says Rathbone. “It’s exhausting. It’s all-encompassing. There’s no time for anything else.”

That includes fishermen selling the fish themselves. Rathbone learned that 90 percent of seafood caught around Santa Barbara is exported. “That was completely shocking to me,” she says. “Seeing how hard they work, and then seeing them have to resort to a wholesale buyer, and all these hands between the person catching fish and person eating it.” So Rathbone quit fishing and launched Community Seafood to make locally caught fish available to locals.

Walker, of UCSB, says that impulse is what drives many people to start CSFs. “It seems like a great way to cut out the middleman and get more profit for the fish,” she explains.

But while CSFs are becoming increasingly popular, Walker says they don’t appear to be upsetting commercial fleets, whose practices have led to the decline of many fish species. “They’re barely putting a dent in traditional fish marketing,” she says. “We’ve interviewed a lot of regular middlemen—local buyers, wholesalers, processers—and they say it isn’t taking a chunk out of their profits or causing any revolution in the way fish is typically bought and sold.”

As for Community Seafood, it continues to expand. In December it launched a Shore to Door program, where members can sign up for once-monthly deliveries of frozen fish directly to their homes. And, of course, employees and volunteers continue to man the stalls at farmers’ markets, handing over seafood and answering any questions—including how to prepare unfamiliar species.

“I remember the first time I got ridgeback shrimp,” a prawn with a sharp spine on its back, says Paul Wysocan, who’s been a member for about a year. “I’d never seen them before. I had no idea what to do with them.”

He got a little guidance. “I cooked them in butter, and they were delicious,” he says. “Duh.”

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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