Our Heroes: Sean Barrett of Dock to Dish

It's been just over a year after since the first deliveries of fresh-caught, local fish started making their way to eastern Long Island locals and restaurants. In that short time, Sean Barrett’s Dock to Dish has made it possible for a growing number of seafood lovers to reestablish their bond with fishermen, and opened up local markets to area fishermen. Dock to Dish is Long Island's first Community Supported Fishery, where members sign up for a season’s worth of local, seasonal and sustainable seafood. That alone is impressive, but the company has gone a creative step further and established the first Restaurant Supported Fishery in the US, providing chefs on Long Island and in New York City with some of the freshest fish they could hope to cook. Sean spoke with us recently about the childhood origins of Dock to Dish and the future of community supported fisheries. Bonus: he also shares a rare glimpse into the underground world of open-ocean spearfishermen.

Tell me about what Dock to Dish does.

Dock to Dish is a community-supported fishery based out of Montauk, New York. And we've launched the first restaurant-supported fishery in North America. We took a community-supported agriculture mode and applied that to local fisheries here and then took that membership model from community-supported fisheries and just bumped it up a level to have a division with high-volume, forward-thinking restaurants. We launched the first restaurant-supported fishery in North America so we have two divisions of the company that keep us really, really busy.

It's same-day sourced sustainable seafood. We work really closely with NOAA and with the Concerned Citizens of Montauk. They basically oversee all of our environmental best practices and we use NOAA's Fish Watch program, which is a very trustworthy, science-based sustainability rating system to ensure all the species that we feature and the gear types are all advocated as the most sustainable methods and the most sustainable species. So we have formed this alliance, essentially a network. We have over 100 members of our community-supported fisheries spread from Montauk to Amagansett to Sag Harbor to Mattituck.

When you say members, is that individuals or restaurants, how does that work?

There are three levels of membership. There's the basic level, which we call the individual or couples level, which is two pounds of filleted fish per week. And then there is a family level share, which is a step up, about 4 pounds of filleted fish per week. And then there is the next level up, the restaurant membership level, which is anywhere between 60 and 100 pounds of whole fish per week. We incentivized the most traditional and least environmentally impactful gear types. And we know before our fishermen leave the dock exactly how much fish we are going to need for the cooperative or the restaurants or the community side, so they are not overfishing.

There's a whole traditional chain of custody in fisheries where between a fisherman and a consumer there may be 10, 20, 30 sets of hands that touch that chain – in every step of that chain basically the quality lowers and the price raises. So the end consumer is typically left buying a very high-priced, low-quality good. By eliminating that entire chain, essentially reconnecting our local communities directly with the fishermen, we are able to deliver the highest dollar at the dock to the fisherman, which really incentivizes them to not overfish, to really play 100 percent by the book. By eliminating that whole chain of custody our market price is actually less than what people would pay at a supermarket. So really it's a win-win.

From the get-go we began working with Concerned Citizens in Montauk, who were commissioned by the National Fish and Wildlife foundation to keep a very close eye and work closely with us.

Is that a model that you want to share with others to get other CSFs going around the country?

Yeah. Community-supported fisheries really should be the solution – it appears to be certainly working as the solution to a lot of problems in fisheries. At a fundamental level we think that it's being caused largely by people surrendering to the demands of society, where people expect that we want swordfish 52 weeks out of the year and have a favorite species that they just target and harvest, and really we've seen that over many, many years in this country that’s led to depleted stocks. So at Dock to Dish people have surrendered. It's become a supply economy and not a demand economy. The public is no longer demanding of fishermen, "Go catch me this." They are now asking the question, "What have you caught today?" I think that that simple turn right there, and then being able and willing to accept underutilized species that they are less familiar with but that are very local and very abundant, is relieving the pressure.

Our hope is to start helping some other CSFs by giving them all our paperwork, all the how-to and how it works kind of stuff. Just to help them get going because it really is a movement. I will lend the blueprint to whoever is willing. The current system is so opaque and dangerous that it's like just this little tiny shimmer of light.

We have over 36 different local species of fish and shellfish that we feature. We have an ecosystem-based management approach to sustainability where we try to apply light harvesting pressure to the entire ecosystem as opposed to a very focused, species-specific harvesting method. A lot of people are totally surprised and excited about these local species that they didn't even know were available in this area. In the larger picture if you look statistically, over 90 percent of our seafood in this country is imported right now. 50 percent of that is aquaculture and then of what's here 33 percent is mislabeled, and you've got a certain percentage of American domestic fish that's landed here and gets shipped overseas, processed and reimported. But we don't track that once it leaves here, so we don't know if it's our own fish coming back in.

It's kind of a circus. It's a great example of a food system gone awry. So we've really reconnected our community to what's local, what's seasonal, what's abundant and what's available. To the delight of both our members and our fishermen, everyone agrees, this is the way it's really supposed to be.

It's interesting because again that's a parallel to what the land food movement is doing. It's about eating seasonally, it's not the menu determining what should be caught or raised.

Right. It's what's coming off the farm today that's in your CSA basket. Exactly. People ask me what I do for a living and I tell them preventative medicine. It really is! You know, we have the cleanest, safest, healthiest local seafood coming to people.

We have a few nutritionists that we work with who say this really is the healthiest heart food, brain food. It has all these kind of benefits. And underneath there's the planet. We have received a lot of accolades for our triaging, our priorities; which is people first, planet second and profits last. So we are really looking at the ocean, the dock, the fishermen at the dock, the fisherman's families, the packaging, the food miles…that’s another great example. The average seafood dish in this country travels over 4,000 miles on average from boat to dish. That's staggering when you think about it, from Alaska to Key West.

Tell me more about the genesis of Dock to Dish and how you got everyone on board.

Jeremy Samuelson (of Concerned Citizens of Montauk) and I sat a couple of years ago and just put our heads together and we were kicking around the idea. And then the networking began in our pilot program where we brought together about a dozen local, influential, knowledgeable, dedicated community members who we knew would get it, who understood. And then out of the gate, I think this concept, not only that it's time was here, but it was probably overdue because we had such an unbelievable response.

Word travels fast on land, but it travels even faster in little harbor towns, across the water and over walkie-talkies on boats. The local press took to it really quick. I think that it was – the concept was just so ripe that it immediately attracted the attention of National Fish and Wildlife. And then it was really through word of mouth. At church and the hardware store, people are like, "Take a look and go check these guys out." And that's a small-town – you know when something's good people find out about it pretty quickly.

How many years ago was this then?

2012 is when we really put it together. And then in 2013 we launched the first community-supported fishery in Long Island. Later that summer we did a pilot program with a couple of restaurants. I should say also that the restaurants served a very big part in networking for us because they're front of house. People not only get served Dock to Dish through the restaurants, but also get the message. Because at every table at every one of our 12 restaurants, on every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday night, the waitress or the bartender is explaining that that venue is a member of the first restaurant-supported fishery, and what that means and why it's important.

Are you interested in moving beyond Long Island or are you interested in keeping it a Long Island company?

I'm already working with some folks in Vancouver and Santa Barbara and a couple guys down in Florida who are like, "We would really love to learn," especially about the restaurants because there's a couple dozen other community-supported fisheries of different shapes and forms that have sprung up over the last few years, but the restaurant-supported fishery really solves a lot of the problems that the community-supported fisheries experienced. There's a lot of labor in the community-supported fisheries, there's a lot of administrative stuff going on. The restaurants, their labor handles all the breakdown and at a much greater efficiency. And then there's a lot less food waste.

In our community-supported fisheries our members get fillets, so we get left with a lot of scraps. If we are breaking down 1,000 pounds of fish we will have sometimes 600 pounds of scrap. So we found a way, we call it the Squanto Project. Squanto was an American Indian who taught the pilgrims, if you put a fish underneath your corn when you plant the corn -- the Thanksgiving legend is that Squanto saved the pilgrims with this technique. But what we did is we started working with Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. We usually box freeze all of our leftover scraps from the community-supported fishery and then transport them up to Stone Barns where they then break that down into compost. From the fish to the filet to the scrap to the compost, getting creative and innovative and more efficient ways so that there is as little waste as we can possibly have. And we found that the restaurants really were the key to that type of efficiency.

So really we're just trying to make it replicable. Our hope is to start helping some other CSFs by giving them all our paperwork, all the how-to and how it works kind of stuff. Just to help them get going because it really is a movement. I will lend the blueprint to whoever is willing. The current system is so opaque and dangerous that it's like just this little tiny shimmer of light. 

And clearly the system you use is really hard work.

There's long hours in this racket! It's a lot of hard work. I remember a cold December night and I was using a walk-in cooler on the dock to warm up, if you can believe that. We used a walk-in cooler to get out of the wind and I was in there with one of the dock hands, and I hurt my back I had a strained lower back and my knee was banged up a little bit, and a week before I realized I had a new hernia. And I winced and he looked at me and was like, "You know, it's December, it's a week before Christmas, and you're telling me there's nothing more in this world that you'd rather do?!"

I'm curious about your background personally. It sounds like you were definitely fishing for a while. Were you also in the restaurant business too? How did it all come together for you?

I grew up fishing, from my earliest age where I could walk and talk and fish. My parents say that you could send me to basketball camp and I would come home with the best fisherman trophy. So my earliest memories are fishing right down the block here on the rocks in Montauk when I was seven or eight years old. I also learned at a very early age what a same-day source of seafood was like. And what a lot of our members are experiencing now in their 30s, 40s and 50s for the first time in their lives – that was seafood to me. That was what fish was as a kid. You see a lot of kids in this country are turned off by fish because they walk by the fish section in the seafood market and it stinks. I never grew up with smelly fish. From my earliest age my friends and family were like, anytime we couldn't find you, you were lost in the tidal pool or figuring out new reels and rods and going offshore. So that's definitely where the kind of idea first began. But simultaneously my parents had a tavern in the city where I grew up and I learned. That was the other place where I spent all of my time. I wasn't ever doing anything else. I was just fishing or in restaurants.

I think that was also a big part of it, being in the restaurants and getting to know behind the scenes, getting an insider's look at the industrial food system – when you are like, where is this coming from? Where are the ethics? This is food. It's the most sacred relationship you can have with a person, to give them safe food. They are coming to you with that expectation that you are serving them fresh food. 

If we were to land fish here in Montauk, it would go to the city, get frozen, get put on a ship, get sent to China, get processed with God knows what. There's really no Department of Health there. Get refrozen and shipped back here and then I would see “local Montauk squid.” But I could see the Chinese writing on the box and I'm like, oh my God. But the consumers don't know that that's 9,000 miles around the globe and often cleaned with bleach and all this other kind of madness. So I just really I think at one point I got angered. Enough was enough. I saw that I had the tools and network and the drive to make a change. I have no trouble going to work in the morning. It's the fulfillment of a lifetime dream.

I was laughing with the guys the other day. If you look, fishermen are very independent, rugged, a tough type of an industry – and everyone is armed with knives. And in the restaurants, in the kitchens you've got a lot of independent-type minded kind of rough guys also all armed with knives. Dock to Dish is kind of marrying those two industries which historically would be like two pirate ships, fishermen and sous chefs, cut from the same cloths, just on different maps.

What would you say the biggest challenge is for Dock to Dish? Is there anything that you've thought, if we could change this, CSF's could take off everywhere?

Dock to Dish is kind of marrying those two industries which historically would be like two pirate ships, fishermen and sous chefs, cut from the same cloths, just on different maps.

I would say the number one is going to be price. People in this country are accustomed to really, really cheap frozen shrimp. Farmed shrimp from Vietnam that's filled with – it doesn't say this on the bag – but filled with antibiotics and crap. And so wild-sourced local, sustainable, American seafood, fresh, especially as fresh as we are doing it, is very labor-intensive. It's very, very strict harvest, catch limits that we have because there's a very limited supply. But I think the biggest hurdle for us to overcome is that the industrialized food, however toxic it may be, it's also just ridiculously cheap. So we are the opposite end of the spectrum in that we focus on extraordinarily high quality and not a lot of quantity. So there's a learning curve there but there's also been so much traction and progress with agriculture and with know-your-farmer and CSAs. They blazed a wide path for us. I don't think we would be able to exist if it wasn't for the work that has been done in the last 10 to 20 years. I say that often about Scott Chaskey and Dan Barber, my two biggest sources of inspiration.  Scott is at Quail Hill which is like the oldest CSA in this country. He's a very genuine pioneer in community-supported agriculture. And then Dan Barber is at Blue Hill, so between Quail Hill and Blue Hill it's like the tale of two hills!

I'm blown away to see that you use spear divers. Tell me more about them.

One of the highlights of our restaurants and our community-supported fisheries is we also focus very much on, I guess it would be a vegan or a Buddhist sense – the spirit of the fish and how the fish is killed. We really looked at the guys who were doing the fastest most humane methods – even our rod and reel guys. These are the top, the best of the best.

So we reached out on Facebook and through the network of commercial spear divers. Historically a lot of these guys were licensed but were sitting on their licenses because the existing market doesn't care how your fish was caught. It all just goes into one big pool – there's no grading. And it's curious, your beer has a born-on date and your butter has an expiration date, but fish is just on the honor system. So spear gun divers – we were able to give them a much higher price, or dollar at the dock as it's known, which reinvigorated a lot of these guys. And not only that but they get featured in the newsletter and are getting pats on the back. They're finally getting valued for the work they’re doing. I had a couple guys come out of retirement.

A lot of them use hand spears and things, and they are almost always head shots and gill plate shots; it's instant death. So the filet comes out almost translucent when there is no fight, there's nothing in it whatsoever. And that's where you we get "My God, what is this?" Even from the chefs. "I've never seen a fish filet like this before." And it's beyond delicious.

So the spear divers like Capt. Miller, you know it's amazing, last week for example he had 25 blackfish. But it took him like 92 dives. He's a free diver and he's looking at his watch and he's like, 92 dives. Why that's really, really important is he could go down and he could get 25 fish in 25 dives. But probably half or more would be females, egg-laden females. So he is more than tripling his energy and exhaustion to go down and harvest probably 95 percent males, and leaving all the egg-laden females. He can easily have gone out for an hour and a half and back and have his haul and have gotten paid the same. And for a free diver in the ocean who just has fins and he is just coming up, breathing and going back down and scouring. It's remarkable – I remember just sitting and looking at him going, wow. These guys really are going above and beyond the call of duty to operate in the most sustainable way that they can.

That's really amazing.

It's cool to see, especially the free divers. It's probably one of the most ancient – you think about the man in the ocean with a spear swimming to the bottom. And by limiting that whole chain of middlemen – so no one would have known that those were speared blackfish, who caught them, how they caught them. They just would've ended up in a big old basket with all the rest of the blackfish and no one would've known the difference. But now by inputting in the full transparency by Capt. Miller you can see the Gramercy Tavern will be tweeting to him and their guests are talking about Capt. Miller and liking him on Facebook. It's cool.

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