Community Supported Fisheries Prove Seafood Can Be Local, Too

by Lela Nargi

Published: 2/27/23, Last updated: 3/03/23

In the earliest days of the pandemic, as global supply chains faltered, Americans found ways to source fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy from local producers. Farmers’ markets were swarmed, families flocked to u-pick operations, and community supported agriculture operations (CSAs) saw a spike in demand for the first time in years.

People also rediscovered the local fishers hiding in plain sight, giving local seafood operations a “pandemic bump.” “For about six months it was completely off the charts,” says University of Maine marine policy professor Joshua Stoll. He’s also the co-founder of the Local Catch Network, which offers “resources and services to help foster and catalyze innovative [seafood] business models,” he says, to its 2,000 or so members. (It also offers a local seafood finder.)

These include about 200 small family fishers looking to expand their operations by supplying local schools or food banks, for example; or forming co-ops to pool marketing and processing resources; or starting community supported fisheries (CSFs), which follow the CSA model in delivering locally caught fish to local folks who sign up for a season’s share (although models differ).

That pandemic bump has flattened but demand for local fish remains higher than it was previously. The better news: federal funding “that was put in place around supply chain resilience is just coming online and those programs are becoming established,” Stoll says. And perhaps best news of all: “Five years ago, the idea of buying fish on the internet — people would laugh you out of the room. But for those [fishers] who are doing novel community-based distribution models, that’s a permanent change that creates new opportunities.”

CSFs Build Community

Those community-based models aren’t without their challenges. USDA has tracked where and how land-based farm foods are sold, “which has been fundamental to building the case that local and regional food systems are important,” Stoll says. But there’s been no corollary for fisheries, which is why Local Catch Network has embarked on a two-year project to track impacts of direct seafood marketing practices among 40,000 seafood harvesters. For the first time there will be national data on the importance to communities of things like CSFs and although Stoll can’t yet share numbers, he says there are currently thousands of independent direct-to-consumer seafood businesses across the U.S. — likely just a whiff of what’s to come.

One such is Local Catch member Fishadelphia. Founded in 2018, it offers annual and monthly memberships of either filets or whole fish, picked up by customers every other week at one of 18 locations in Philadelphia; there’s also an option to pay extra, to subsidize a membership for someone who can’t afford it. Fishadelphia works primarily with three family seafood operations in New Jersey; whatever their given week’s abundant fresh catch happens to be is what turns up in CSF bags. Customers currently number around 150 although this fluctuates, since you can sign up — or cancel — anytime.

As strategist Feini Yin explains, similarities to the average CSA stop here. Fishadelphia has a broader mission, which grew out of founder Talia Young’s desire to support her own Chinese-American and other under-resourced communities. After-school clubs at two high schools in low-income neighborhoods teach students about sustainable seafood as well as fish-related entrepreneurship and business skills; kids work on marketing and social media content and run their own fish pick-ups. The clubs also provide a mechanism for expanding the CSF. Kids become excited about fish and loop in their family, friend, church networks, “which is one strategy that we have to reach communities of color” for subsidized memberships, says Yin. Many of them have strong traditions working with whole fish, which saves fishers time and money on breaking catch down to filets.

The fish sold through Fishadelphia includes well-known species like tuna or scallops and what Yin calls underutilized: species like dogfish, monkfish, skate, and when those aren’t available, clams and oysters. “We serve a middleman function, but we are bringing consumers to these fishermen that they definitely would not be able to access otherwise,” Yin says. Meanwhile, at events that introduce Fishadelphia customers to producers, she sees that fishers “are starting to realize, maybe we can learn from Fishadelphia about how to educate and market these local species to a more local audience.” That helps achieve what Local Catch’s Stoll calls a relational food system, building trust though personal interaction.

Making CSFs More Economically Sustainable

One limiting factor for Fishadelphia — and one they’re aiming to change — is that selling only fresh-caught seafood makes their model vulnerable. “If there are only two species because of the season, or there’s a Nor’easter and the boats can’t go out, there aren’t that many options” to pack up in CSF bags, says Yin.

Selling frozen fish would help. This is the model embraced by Port Orford Sustainable Seafood in Oregon. Founder Aaron Longton has been building and tweaking his model since 2009. At the moment, it’s got a few prongs; he sells some fish to large buyers; he has an online shop where anyone within a four-state radius can order fish for shipping; and he runs a CSF. Members sign up for an annual subscription, then select what they want from the catch from about 40 local dayboats —halibut, lingcod, octopus, cabezon, for example. “I had a friend with a CSA and one time he got a whole box of kohlrabi. We’re not going to give you a box of kohlrabi,” says Longton in explaining his pick-and-choose rationale.

Read our report The FoodPrint of Wild Seafood

Every two weeks Port Orford makes drop-offs that alternate between a Southern and a Northern route, so each of 400 customers gets a CSF box once a month. Because of this, and “because we have intermittent opportunities to fish,” Longton says, “we can’t really chase the fresh market like Big Seafood can with their giant ships that are harvesting around the clock all the time. We blast freeze all our catch then we hold it in the inventory.”

Tyson Rasor is Fisheries and Food Systems Program Manager for environmental nonprofit Ecotrust, which oversees a nationwide Local Catch Network program called Scale Your Local Catch that offers support and networking opportunities to fishers; Port Orford briefly participated in a precursor to it. Rasor says there’s stigma around frozen fish because “Consumers see [it] as having less quality,” even if it’s often fresher than the “fresh” fish on offer in supermarket cases that may have been frozen and defrosted by the retailer.  As it turns out, consumers can’t tell the difference in taste tests between flash frozen and fresh, he says. Frozen fish also allows fishers to “aggregate, store, then start to distribute in way that actually works for them.”

Rasor says that while community seafood distribution models are a way for smaller fishers to expand their businesses, they often need a lot of help in figuring out how best to market themselves (which is where Ecotrust comes in). And although they often have the mindset of competitors, many of them share “values-aligned” reasons for getting a CSF up and running —  “I want my seafood to be sold locally to my local community, I want to get better prices to the people that I fished with,” Rasor says — and are starting to recognize they can benefit when they work together.

Port Orford’s dayboats all fish with hook and line, so there’s none of what Longton calls “indiscriminate bycatch carnage” from other gear types, like the trawl nets often used by commercial fishing enterprises. Longton has long been involved with conservation and stewardship of local waters, and he works to increase the price of the fish he buys and sells. This, he says, is a “pain in the ass to corporate buyers,” but it also helps ensure that he can pay a $14.50 hourly starting wage to his processing workers where Big Fish might pay $9. “We’re putting more money into the community, not just through purchasing fish at a higher price, but also paying our employees a better rate,” he says.

When asked what benefit it is to him to sell mostly locally, mostly to members of his community, Longton doesn’t waver: “Having people look us in the eye and thank us for what we do.”

Top photo by Klaus Nowottnick/Adobe Stock.

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