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Catch of the Week

Community-supported fisheries bring the benefits of community-supported agriculture to the seas

This story was produced in partnership with FUTUREPERFECT

Mark Tognazzini has been fishing his whole life. On California’s Central Coast, fishing is a tradition. He got involved with Central Coast Catch, the first community-supported fishery (CSF) on the entire US West Coast, five years ago. It’s not making him any money, but he’s committed to the principle of connecting consumers with the fish they eat.

fishermen chatting on a docked boatPhoto by Real Good FishFisherman Stan Bruno, founder and CEO of Real Good Fish Alan Lovewell, and fisherman Jerry Foster in the foreground.

Community-supported fisheries are based on the same idea as community-supported agriculture (CSA). Instead of buying as a typical consumer, CSA customers sign up as shareholders in the farm, paying a lump sum in advance and receiving a box of produce weekly over the course of the farm season. Similarly, a community-supported fishery pays the fishermen, and customers get a share of the catch each week.

The advantages to the fisherman or farmer include having a reliable income in an unpredictable business and being closer to customers, which helps them understand their customers’ interests and preferences. The advantages to the consumer include getting fresher food, being part of the local economy, getting to know local producers, and learning about different kinds of seafood.

Pioneer Believers

“You have to believe in the principle,” Mark Tognazzini said in a recent interview at one of his three restaurants in Morro Bay, California. Most of Morro Bay’s fishermen are one- or two-person operations. Mark fishes alone on his 38-foot fishing vessel, the Bonnie Marietta, and buys and brokers fish for other fishermen. These days, he confines his fishing to albacore and salmon, chartering the boat out to other marine projects. In September, he brought scientists out past Piedras Blancas, north of Morro Bay, to place a buoy in the water to track great white sharks.

When Margie Hurd started Central Coast Catch in 2010, Mark was the only fisherman who signed on to supply fish. No one else was interested. Most thought the idea wouldn’t even work. Hurd set prices low, $12 a week for a one-pound full share or $6.25 a week for a half-pound half-share, and signed up the first members. Five years later, membership has risen to about 100, while Mark is still the CSF’s only fisherman.

Know your fisherman, value your partners

fisherfolk trading cardPhoto by Iliamna Fish CompanyTrading Card of Eike Ten Kley, Commercial Fisherman & Operations Manager at Iliamna Fish Company.

At least 50 CSFs have been organized in the US over the past few years. The idea got started on the East Coast, but the West Coast now has several that serve thousands of customers.

A core characteristic of CSFs is that they invite members to "Know Your Fisherman." In a particularly creative instance of pursuing this objective, Reid Ten Kley of Iliamna Fish Company started making fishermen trading cards, like baseball cards, and handing them out in restaurants. “We didn’t do it to be clever,” he said. “If you are trying to sell a product and only dealing with the person doing the ordering, you’re missing the story.”

CSFs can piggyback on community-supported agriculture initiatives, offering shareholders the option of getting fish delivered along with their farm vegetables. Central Coast Catch partners with SLO Veg, a CSA in the Central Coast county of San Luis Obispo. About 40 SLO Veg members buy Central Coast Catch fish with their vegetables.

Central Coast Catch Manager Jo Oliver, who took over from her sister Margie Hurd when she retired last May, also sells fish at local farmers' markets. The CSF has enough fish available for a few more memberships.

Getting customers to bite – and keeping them hooked

fishermen sorting fish on a boatPhoto by Christine HeinrichsFishermen sort the catch of grenadiers in Morro Bay. Morro Rock looms in the background.

In regulated fisheries and uncertain fishing conditions, CSF customers need to be willing to accept what the fisherman catches—for example, black cod rather than more-familiar sole—or to get the same kind of fish every week for a month. That’s a marketing challenge.

Oliver offers members several alternatives: they can get local canned tuna or albacore, or stop by the farmers' market to get some other kind of fish she has that week, or skip a week entirely. Offering that kind of individual choice adds to expenses. “At these prices, we can’t put salmon, halibut, or white sea bass in the CSF shares,” Mark Tognazzini says. “We believe in the principle, but we lose money on it.”

Setting the price is key. Hurd worked with consultants to create her business plan and target price. Monterey’s Real Good Fish, a CSF dedicated to ecosystem-based management, charges $22 a week. Iliamna Fish Company’s annual catch share of 21 pounds of Alaskan salmon costs $228 in Portland, Oregon, less in Anchorage, Alaska, and more in Brooklyn, New York — its three distribution outlets.

CSFs encourage customer engagement by providing background information on the species being offered and recipes on how to prepare it. M. Alan Lovewell, founder and CEO of Real Good Fish, emphasizes simple, fail-safe methods using fresh herbs and butter to bake, grill, or fry the fish, avoiding pungent spices that overwhelm the fresh fish flavor.

“It’s important that people experience what fresh, local seafood is,” he explains. “Horrible seafood experiences with restaurant food have tainted their ability to appreciate seafood.”

Promoting good food – and ocean health?

fish tacosPhoto by Real Good FishMonterey Bay Fish Tacos. Not everyone agrees that CSFs are serving up sustainable seafood.

At Real Good Fish, that higher price helps extend the reach of local fish by serving species that are considered bycatch in some local schools. About 60 percent of the students in California’s Monterey Unified School District qualify for free and reduced-price lunches through the National School Lunch Program for low-income students. Fish such as grenadier, an unregulated species, are served in fish tacos and other dishes to students in a Bay to Tray program. The district is experimenting with squid. The kids love it.

“We’ve opened fish to influencing the generation that matters the most,” said Lovewell. “We can afford to live to our values, but there are whole segments of our population that don’t have access to good food. These children are the future generations who will be in charge of our planet. We are promoting greater ocean health.”

Not everyone agrees that CSFs are serving up sustainable seafood. Jim Webb, a recreational fisherman and fisheries researcher on the Central Coast, questions how any level of catch can be determined to be acceptable, given the unpredictable effects of climate change on the oceans.

As fisheries management grapples with restoring fish populations while contending with political pressure, local economic issues, and consumer demand, CSFs may be a way to focus public attention on struggling ocean resources and managing these resources sustainably.

“Every species is Eat or Be Eaten,” said Webb. “The food chain has worked for millennia. Fishing pressure is the one factor we can control.”

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