I recently spoke with Sean Barrett, founder of Long Island, N.Y.-based Dock to Dish, about how the fledgling community supported fisheries movement got started. Modeled after a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, Dock to Dish provides members — such as restaurants and grocery stores — with access to premium, locally caught and sustainable seafood. Launched last year, the program serves the communities of Montauk, Amagansett, Sag Harbor and the Hamptons.
We started out talking about the weather. He pointed out how the cold winter delayed the arrival of various fish to the Mid-Atlantic region. He could tell this by the absence of cormorants, who were “usually here in force by now.” Despite the cool weather, the season will open as scheduled, and Barrett isn’t worried about meeting demand. Many of the local fishermen who supply Dock to Dish’s sustainable catch are part of families that have been fishing the Montauk waters for generations, Barrett said, adding that they “know where the fish are and when they will arrive.”
Barrett himself is a life-long fisherman, who “learned to fish around the time he learned to walk.” When he was a kid, his parents sent him off to basketball camp and he came back with a trophy for best fisherman. Much of our conversation was anchored by the ecosystem-based approach that has permeated this movement and the work that has brought it forth.
TriplePundit: So tell me how you got into this?
Sean Barrett: I always loved nature and fishing. My parents had a restaurant. I always brought fresh fish to the table. At some point I realized that what most people were getting was something altogether different. I watched the chain of seafood custody as it got longer and darker and more opaque. Suddenly all the seafood was being imported from overseas.
The epiphany occurred about three years ago, when I came across Scott Chaskey, a local farmer, poet and founder of the oldest CSA [community supported agriculture program] in the area. When I saw what they were doing, I asked myself, why can’t we do the same thing with seafood? It’s as simple as saying the catch of the day was caught that day. Scott looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t see why not,” and I knew that I had to do it. A lot of people got involved and helped. There was Concerned Citizens of Montauk, Jerry Samuelson, who blessed it from an environmental perspective. And the food people, the restaurant owners and chefs were even more excited.
3p: So you kicked it off.
SB: We did. Last year we had 90 families and 36 professional fishermen, though we had to suspend two, as we learned how to institutionalize our values.
3p: And the community supported it.
SB: They did. There was some resistance to the change, but very little. Mostly the support was overwhelming. You would think that this would not be a big deal, that people living in a fishing port town would always get fresh fish, but that is not the way that the world has come to work.
3p: You’re right I would expect that people living near the ocean would get fresh fish every day of the week if they wanted. Is that not how it works?
SB: Right now, over 90 percent of our seafood is imported. And you wouldn’t believe how many hands it passes through.
3p: Walk me through it.
SB: Okay. Let’s take a thousand pounds of squid for example. First, it’s caught locally off Montauk. Then it goes to a dockside landing facility where it is sold to a wholesaler in the harbor area. From there it is transported to Fulton Street Fish Market in NYC. That place is as big as the Empire State Building laying on its side. The squid could change hands several times in there. Then, it goes to a NY City freezing facility before it is trucked to Newark and put on a freighter. On the ship it goes through the Panama Canal to China.
There, it is thawed and processed because of cheap labor [it's labor intensive] under local health laws. Then, they refreeze the tubes and tentacles, which is the only part Americans will eat. These are shipped back through the Panama Canal. Back to Fulton Street Fish Market where it is bought again, and then put on a truck and carried back up to Montauk, possibly six months after it was first caught a hundred yards down the road. At each step, the price goes up and the quality goes down. After traveling 14,000 miles and possibly going through a hundred sets of hands, it is served at a restaurant as local calamari, which technically, you could say it was. But if you were eating it, you could never guess the kind of journey that seafood has taken.
3p: Wow. That’s amazing. So, now, with Dock to Dish you’ve eliminated all that and people get the fish the day it is caught.
SB: Well, technically, the day it comes to the dock. Some of our larger ships stay out for several days making it difficult to get the fish to the plate the day it is caught.
3p: So why wasn’t this done before?
SB: People have tried many times and always failed.
3p: Why, and what’s different now?
SB: Fishing is a difficult business with many uncertainties on both sides of the dock. Even after overcoming many challenges and bringing in a boatload of fish, it doesn’t mean the customers will be there to buy it.
The key to making this whole thing work is the fact that the members are willing to pre-pay for the whole season without knowing what kinds of fish they will get. The skeptics said that would never happen, but it has — and we have a waiting list of people who would love to get it.
3p: That explains the customer side. How do you get the small fishermen involved?
SB: By eliminating all those middlemen I described earlier, we can afford to pay our fishermen more.
3p: That’s great, from an equity standpoint, but how else is this type of model more sustainable?
SB: Lots of ways, actually. Because the fishermen are getting the highest price per pound that they’ve seen in a lifetime, there is little incentive to bend the rules. They know they need to follow all the laws — no shortcuts, no overfishing, etc. The fish are all subject to NOAA’s FishWatch criteria for sustainable seafood. Then there are the methods. The higher rates at the dock have made it possible to bring back some of the more sustainable methods.
3p: Such as?
SB: Everything from rod and reel, pin hooking, to pound trap nets.
3p: What are those?
SB: The fish stay alive in [pound trap nets]. That means we only keep those large enough and release the rest alive and unharmed. There is low mortality and bycatch. We’ve also brought some scuba diving spear fisherman out of retirement. This is very sustainable as you can imagine, since they can visualize what they are catching in terms of size, species, sparing the egg-laden females, taking expert shots, so the fish die instantly. This movement has been reviving these traditional techniques.
3p: Very nice. But what about the pricing?
SB: Prices to the consumers are comparable with market prices, though more of those dollars go to the fishermen which is what makes it work. On average our members are paying less than market price. The fact that the fish has already been pre-sold means we know exactly how much we need to catch, so there is no waste and nothing is thrown away unsold.
3p: Are there methods that you avoid?
SB: Surprisingly, no. In the worldwide space yes there are terrible things being done — fish being dynamited around coral reefs and so forth. Environmentally devastating.
But here in the U.S., we have the best, most sustainable fisheries in the world. So, given that we believe in using a diversified fleet to make us risk tolerant, and given how good our government controls are, we allow anything that is legal under U.S. law. I encourage anyone to come out with us in our boats and see. This is the most robust plentiful population of fish species that we’ve seen in years. It keeps coming back to the Magnuson Stevens Act (MSA) [of 1996]. Created a safe environment for fishing. We probably have the healthiest most sustainable seafood populations we’ve had in generations.
3p: Do we have to watch certain fish species?
SB: Listen to your fisherman, who mostly are conservationists. It’s not a matter of watching one species or another. We need to look at the whole ecosystem, not just the fish you want to eat. Those fish need to eat, too. Everything is inter-related, and only by looking at the big picture can we can continue to have success. That’s what’s great about this movement. It gets people more connected to the ecosystem that we are all a part of.
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.