By now, most consumers have heard about community-supported agriculture, or CSA. With a CSA you purchase a share in a local farm at the start of the growing season and, in return, receive a weekly allotment of fresh produce. This system, which arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s, ensures farmers earn fair wages for their harvests and guarantees fresh, often organically grown, vegetables and fruit for their supporters.
While CSAs may have become commonplace, the public remains less aware of community-supported fisheries, or CSFs. Granted, CSFs have not been in existence as long. The first, Port Clyde Fresh Catch, began in Maine in 2007. As of September 2015, the number had grown to 39 in North America.
Supporting local fishermen
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Applying the CSA premise to seafood, CSF subscribers buy a share in a fishery. This payment goes directly to local fishermen. Direct payment usually cuts out costly middlemen such as processors and distributors. It also offers income stability for the anglers.
In return for this money, the fishermen provide a weekly or biweekly supply of fresh-from-the-boat seafood for their patrons. They also give peace of mind about food sourcing. With this system people know who caught their fish and where, when and how it was obtained.
Along with promising information and a steady market for their catches, CSFs allow fishermen to seek out unusual and abundant seafood. “They honor the diversity of catch of smaller-scale fisheries. These are the mainstays of fishing communities and have the smallest ecological footprint,” said Niaz Dorry, director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Dorry has been a driving force in the creation and continuation of community-supported fisheries.
Dorry points out that while New England fishermen bring in roughly 60 species of fish and shellfish, supermarkets carry, at most, 12. As a result, only the longstanding favorites get purchased and consumed. Deemed bycatch or unwanted by consumers, the remaining species are discarded.
Instead of fixating on overly popular, exploited seafood, CSF fishermen seek out healthy sustainable stocks and sell all the fish they catch. They also target invasive species such as green crabs and Asian carp. They work with, rather than against, the environment, allowing overfished populations to rebound and reducing, if not eliminating, predatory alien marine life.
Regardless of the good that a CSF can do, consumers may still shy away from joining one. Intimidated by the thought of by receiving an exotic crustacean or whole carp to cook, some may opt for the usual imported shrimp or filleted farmed-raised salmon from the grocery store.
Although store-bought offerings may feel more familiar and manageable, they won’t be as fresh. Rarely are they local; according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fish Watch, 90 percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S. has been imported. Along with possessing a bigger carbon footprint than locally sourced goods, seafood shipped in from overseas tends to come from less sustainable fisheries.
Community-supported fisheries aim to educate
To combat this reliance on a chosen, foreign few, consumers must be educated.
“People haven’t had enough exposure to other fish. This is why we give a suggested recipe each day, so that people know what to do with their pollock, hake, sole, redfish or monkfish,” said Donna Marshall, director of Cape Ann Fresh Catch, a 4,500-member CSF in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
For members who feel squeamish about looking their fish in the eye, Cape Ann provides the choice of receiving whole or filleted fish. For more daring cooks it offers truck-side filleting demonstrations. On designated pickup days it sends all participants an email detailing the seafood and on which of the 17 participating fishing boats their portions were caught.
Whether you belong to a community-supported fishery or not, Marshall says the public should become informed and know where their seafood comes from. “Go to any restaurant and ask where your fish is from. If it’s not local, why isn’t it? We must start insisting that we eat fresh local fish,” she said.
CSFs part of the local food movement
Demanding access to local seafood seems like a no-brainer. So, too, does backing a community-supported fishery. It helps a region’s fishing community, fosters working waterfronts and boosts the area’s economy. It embraces seafood diversity, reduces the likelihood of overfishing and delivers extremely fresh food. Ultimately, it can provide a win for fishermen, consumers and the oceans.
For those curious about whether a CSF exists near their town, LocalCatch.org has created an online interactive map of “boat-to-fork seafood.” LocalCatch.org is a network of North American fishermen, researchers, organizers and consumers devoted to the growth and maintenance of community-supported fisheries.
Its locator presents information on CSFs, farmers and fish markets, boat-to-school cafeteria programs and small fishing crews that sell dockside and directly to the public.
Main photo: Fresh mackerel. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt