Can the idea of a community farm, where members buy shares in a future harvest, work for fish? Sean Barrett, a restaurateur, has joined forces with two Montaukers, Rita and Rudy Bonicelli, to give it a try. Their Dock to Dish enterprise is scheduled to get under way in June and can be found on Facebook.
The idea sounds straightforward: to have a consumer purchase in advance a share of a fisherman’s catch over a period of time — a coming month, for example. Within that period the shareholder receives a set number of fillets, whole fish, or shellfish, depending on what he or she signs up for.
While the concept of community-supported fisheries has gained various degrees of traction in other parts of the country, New York’s established fresh-fish market and the state’s tough regulatory demands will challenge Dock to Dish, veterans of the seafood industry said this week.
New York Sea Grant, based in Riverhead, has been advocating the new wrinkle on the old fish business, and in Montauk, the Concerned Citizens of Montauk is helping to research successful community-supported fisheries endeavors elsewhere in the country to see if they might apply here.
Jeremy Samuelson, executive director of C.C.O.M., said customers can benefit not only from a supply of fresh fish, but also learn more about the fish they eat, their habitat, and whether or not their numbers are being sustained (not overfished) via quotas, seasons, and other regulation. There is also an attempt to make a more direct connection with the fishermen doing the catching.
“I started fishing right after I learned to walk and talk,” Mr. Barrett said on Tuesday. “With this specific project, Rudy Bonicelli has been a commercial fisherman for a lot of years. He represents the dock. I’m the dish. Been in the restaurant business my whole life.”
The seed of the idea was planted in an unlikely place. “The first time I saw the concept in action I was running with the bulls in Spain,” Mr. Barrett said. “At San Sebastian on the northwest coast I saw concierge fishermen catch all types of fish — dock to dish in a matter of hours. Many years ago Rudy and I would talk. We realized it was not easy to eat fish that was caught the same day. We would go tuna fishing and bring wasabi [hot mustard served with sushi]. We said, ‘How can we get this kind of experience to our friends, and on a larger scale?’ ”
Mr. Barrett said his team had gotten good advice from Antoinette Clemetson, a Sea Grant agent who works out of the county’s Cornell Cooperative Extension offices in Riverhead. Reached last week, Ms. Clemetson said the movement in this country began with “grassroots fisher folk” in North Carolina about six years ago.
In the Northeast it was first championed by a woman named Niaz Dorry, the coordinating director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and a former Greenpeace oceans and fisheries campaigner. She has worked to advance the rights and benefits of small-scale fishing communities as a way of protecting biodiversity in the oceans of the world.
Ms. Clemetson said that Sea Grant also saw an opportunity to use the small-scale fisheries concept to get the word out to consumers about where their fish was coming from, its health benefits, and how to prepare it: “North American households don’t know what to do with the whole fish, for instance. C.F.S. people come to us to get information out about healthy food. It increases awareness.”
Ms. Clemetson said she has also stressed the practical challenges. “There are legal things to consider. In New York you have to speak to the D.E.C. [the State Department of Environmental Conservation]. You need a seafood-selling license, or a fisherman has to be permitted to sell fish retail. The D.E.C. needs to be able to track a catch. I have encouraged Dock to Dish to try to stay close to home, distribute their fish within a couple hours. Arrange with their shareholders to pick up the day the fish is landed.”
Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, lives in Montauk. Her husband is a longtime dragger captain who ships from the Inlet Seafood Dock to Hunts Point in the Bronx, the current location of what was the giant, fresh-fish distribution hub known as the Fulton Market.
She said a community-supported fishery was a good idea whose loftier goals, like educating consumers about fisheries science and having them get to know their fishermen, could well get lost amid the regulatory and logistical challenges of the fish biz. “It sounds like a great concept, but in New York with its harvest limits, it may not be possible.” Ms. Brady said that New York suffered from low quotas compared to other states.
“We have more of a range of species, but with the quotas it’s hard to guarantee when the fish comes in. It would require spring and summer day boats as well as people to fillet, and someone to guarantee which boats are coming in. Fishermen will do this to get a better price,” she said, and so the balance of what a fisherman wants to sell and what Dock to Dish wants to buy had to be maintained. “They need to have a variety of fish to offer, have the pulse on landings, and be willing to contract at a certain amount each week. And, what if they don’t catch? It’s a great concept; the devil is in the details,” Ms. Brady said.
Ms. Clemetson said she’d urged the Montauk group to become aware of times when there was a glut of fish, anticipate it, and try to get a better price.
Mr. Barrett said he and his partners were aware of the challenges. “We are developing a network, day boats, pound-trappers. We are saying we will have fish from the dock to the pickup point in under 24 hours. Pickup will be on Saturdays between 1 and 4. We’re challenged with identifying boats. We will use satellite phones to coordinate with day boats to get the fish back on Friday afternoon.”
Two or three local restaurants had agreed to allow the use of their kitchens to process the catch in exchange for fish, and those doing the cutting and packaging have food-handler certifications, Mr. Barrett said. He added that Rita Bonicelli, a lawyer, had seen to all the licensing and other legalities. As for pickup locations, Mr. Barrett said that Dock to Dish was hoping to locate their depot at one of the local farmers markets.
But why should people buy shares in a community-supported fishery when there is at least one fish market in every village and hamlet between Montauk and Southampton?
“We don’t see it as competition,” Mr. Barrett said. “We’re subscribing to the three ‘p’s — people, planet, and profit. Profit comes last. We’re not looking to be any kind of competition. From sustainability [of species], and fish that are a bycatch. We are teamed with folks in the culinary world with tips on preparing different species that are abundant but that you may not see behind the glass at a market. We will offer recipes, printed out and available by e-mail. We have a great team.”
“It’s not a competition for us,” said Charlotte Sasso, who owns Stuart’s Seafood in Amagansett with her husband, Bruce. “People come into the store to see what’s there. They come with recipe in hand. The more passionate customer comes in and sees what’s beautiful and fresh. Shopping has to be hands-on. I don’t want food from a computer. It’s why I wouldn’t buy from Pea-pod. I want to touch it, feel it.”
Ms. Sasso said Stuart’s had supplied fish for a community-supported fisheries company in New York City last summer. She said it would be hard for such companies to compete with markets, price-wise. She, and others, questioned the planet-friendly trappings of the C.S.F. model.
“Maybe it’s the New York cynic in me. It’s like the commercials for save the children, adopt a child. You’re not literally supporting that child. But, I’m for anything that gets people to eat more fresh seafood. That’s a good thing.”