Heroic Endeavor: Community Supported Fisheries

You, dear Ecocentric readers, have heard us sing the praises of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model of supporting local, sustainable farmers. One main point of joining a CSA is that income is guaranteed to the farmer upfront, providing support through the entire growing season. The value of such investment was particularly evident to us last fall, when severe damage from Hurricane Irene devastated farms throughout the East, including the CSA we'd subscribed to. This upfront payment is invaluable to be able to withstand such weather fluctuations and pest-related realities of farming.

Much like an organic farmer, small fishermen face a similar risk - their livelihoods are at the mercy of the ocean, where there is no guaranteed steady income (not to mention the immense challenge of competing with the big distributors). Back in 2007, the Mid-Coast Fishermen's Cooperative, the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and the First Universalist Church in Rockland, Maine, created the first Community Supported Fishery (CSF) to distribute local shrimp to their neighbors. They called it the Port Clyde CSF, and the pilot program proved to be a successful endeavor. It continues today as Port Clyde Fresh Catch, delivering shrimp as well as fish like halibut and sole, to nearby locations in Maine.

"The advantage of a CSF is "that you have complete traceability; you know what boat it came from and where it was caught" -Bianca Piccillo, Mermaid's Garden

And as we've seen over the past few years, more and more fishermen are embracing the CSF model - with great success - to provide communities with sustainable seafood. There are currently about 25 organizations calling themselves CSFs around the country and more are popping up all the time. Most are on the east coast of the US, in communities across New England and the Mid Atlantic but central California, San Francisco, Alaska and Louisiana are in it too.

In general, CSFs are geographically confined to the coasts, but we're also seeing CSFs that source from recirculating farms, like Local Oceans, a model which, if replicated, could provide more inland communities with fish grown aquaponically. The sky is the limit when it comes to aquaponics operations - many are located in cities, and new models are being constructed. Some communities are combining CSA and CSF models, like Maine's Maple Farm and Fishery which features seafood, maple syrup, organic vegetables and herbs.

I had the opportunity to speak with Bianca Piccillo and Mark Usewicz, two seasoned restaurant professionals and the organizers of a brand new CSF, Mermaid's Garden, which launched this spring in Brooklyn.

Bianca's passion for sustainability and supporting her Brooklyn community and local fishermen were palpable. She explained that the advantage of a CSF is "that you have complete traceability; you know what boat it came from and where it was caught. It's super high quality, getting to you in two days as opposed to two weeks. And the fishermen we work with are paid fair wages."

"Six years ago we moved to Park Slope, and I personally have a background in marine biology. We were seriously thinking about opening up a sustainable fish market eventually, and the CSF came about to get us started. We began reaching out to local fisherman [Mark works with them through his position as executive chef at Palo Santo] and are now working with about five to ten fisherman in Long Island, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. We are aware that people don't want the same thing every week, so we have a diversity of fisherman to guarantee diversity of fish."

When asked how she defines success and how she will reflect on this inaugural CSF season, Bianca said, "We want to build awareness and a customer base making people happy doing what we love and taking things slow." Mermaid's Garden is facilitating the relationship between consumers and producers adrift in a sea (no pun intended) of problems with factory farmed fish and open ocean aquaculture, making this model a welcome alternative.

Interested in joining a CSF? The Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA) has been working for the past decade to sustain small fisheries and have a CSF list. You can also find a CSF near you using this map of drop-off locations from Local Catch.