Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to CityLab. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods.
A handful of community-supported fisheries are popping up across the country.
In an ideal world, we'd all live a block away from a fishmonger, a butcher, and a baker, not to mention a produce market with a constantly rotating cast of seasonal fruit and vegetables. Absent that fresh-off-the-farm-and-boat scenario, we've had to get creative in how we connect supply with local demand. You're probably familiar with community-supported agriculture, or CSAs, services that allow you to buy a share in what a nearby farm or group of farms produces; you get fresh produce at a good price, often delivered right to your door, and farmers get a reliable customer base that allows them to plan for what they grow each season. For years, I've subscribed to a CSA that drops a box of fruit and vegetables on my doorstep every other week. It's easy, and I can check the website to see what will be in the next box. I still go out to pick up fish or meat for dinner, but I have a constant supply of seasonal produce filling my plate.
Lately the CSA model is finally being adapted to fisheries, and a handful of CSFs have popped up in coastal areas, including SirenSeaSA (the first to supply the San Francisco Bay Area), Local Catch Monterey Bay (for California’s Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties), Catch of the Season (in Anchorage, Alaska), Mermaid’s Garden (Brooklyn), Cape Cod CSF, and Walking Fish (for North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham area, launched by Duke University students in partnership with Carteret County fishermen). Local Catch has a searchable online database to help consumers find a CSF near them. Granted, there are logistical hurdles to making the CSA model work for seafood — it’s hard to guarantee how much and what kind of fish will be caught in any given week, and transportation costs can be very high — but there have been some successes. SirenSeaSA, for example started out almost two years ago with just 35 customers; it's now at 350-plus members and growing.
"We're still a little bit limited by finding fish that lives up to our standards, but it's a lot easier now because fishermen are coming to us with their quotas," says SirenSeaSA founder Anna Larsen. "In the beginning, it was me scrambling to find enough for a drop." Siren promises its customers three things: sustainable fish, meaning that the catch method is not destructive and the species is in good health; fresh, meaning that the seafood gets to them within 48 hours of leaving the water; and local, meaning that it is caught within 100 miles of San Francisco. Larsen sources most of her fish from Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg — recent drops included wild king salmon, Dover sole, and black cod — with occasional forays to Monterey for squid and sardines.
Siren now has different drop days and locations all over San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, often near public transportation, which makes picking up the fish relatively convenient for most subscribers. The goal has been to create a community of consumers who know and value their fishermen, and vice-versa; Siren's website and blog, like those of other CSFs, is chock-full of recipes, profiles, and passionate shout-outs on Twitter and Facebook.
"When people sign up for a CSF, they're going to know that the weather can be bad, and sometimes we can't verify where fish comes from," Larsen says. "If nothing meets the standards, there isn't going to be any fish. And sometimes that's the right thing to do." Though she's had a couple of angry calls, most of her customers are up for that adventure. In two years, though, the zero-catch week has been rare. "We're promising them three things, and sometimes all three of those things can't happen in a week. And sometimes it's Dungeness crab, or Dungeness crab -- it's all we got. It's a good thing it's so good.”