How Community Fisheries Save Fish and Local Economies

Plenty of recent data gives us reason to worry about the future of wild fisheries – they are being depleted rapidly by the world’s insatiable appetite for seafood.

Lists, like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, let people know which species are most at risk and to avoid eating. That helps to a point – but there are recent reports of widespread seafood labeling fraud.

Then there are the mounting pledges from supermarket chains that to source only sustainable seafood, such as Safeway, Target and Kroger,  food distributors like Sysco and restaurants like McDonald’s.

But one powerful solution to the problem not only restores fish, but the small fisherman that depend on them.

More than 30 Community Supported Fisheries have cropped up across the US, based on the model that’s bolstered small farmers and resurgence in local agriculture – Community-supported Agriculture (CSAs). 

With 650 members, Cape Ann Fresh Catch in Boston is the biggest Community Supported Fishery.

Like CSAs, members buy a share in their Community Supported Fishery in advance, guaranteeing small fisherman for their catch. In exchange, members receive a box of fresh, seasonal seafood every week at a reasonable price.

Like other local food, it also creates a relationship between members and the fisherman that supply their food. 86% of the fish eaten in the US is imported through an opaque system of production and trade, says Grist.

The movement supports fishermen "who want to fish smarter when the industry tells them to fish harder," Brett Tolley told Grist. He’s an organizer with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, which came up with the idea.

"We’ve been really seeing a squeeze on the small- and middle-scale fisherman to be replaced with large aquabusiness," Tolley told Grist. "In the same way that Big Ag drove the majority of small-scale farmers out of farming, we’re seeing a big push toward industrialization in the ocean – a model that really rewards the folks who can catch the most fish at the cheapest cost and operate on the lowest margins." 

That means ever-lower wages for small fisherman, as they’re forced to spread out into more dangerous conditions.

What’s Good for Fish Is Good For Fisherman

The first Community Supported Fishery (CSF) started in Port Clyde, Maine, where fisheries were collapsing from overfishing and nets that damaged the seabeds, including those from an increasing number of "big box" industrial trawlers that can catch up to a million pounds of herring a day, reports the NY Times.

To address this, fishermen decided to keep abundant species but underused fish – such as skate or redfish – that were once thrown back.

The second part of the puzzle is who they sell the fish to. They decided to sell directly to customers instead of selling to auction houses, which give the lowest price. "You never knew what the price was going to be. My best season, I made $1 an hour," one of the CSF founders Glen Libby told the NY Times.

The fishermen teamed up to work directly with local food service operations, cutting out distributors and asking local restaurants to feature the "catch of the day," regardless of what it is.

And after hearing a farmer talk about the rise of local agriculture, Glen Libby was convinced a similar model could work for the local fishing industry – and Port Clyde Fresh Catch was born. One year later, the fishermen were earning $1 per pound for their shrimp.

They redesigned their nets to make it easier for juvenile fish to escape and to help fisheries recover. And instead of catching mostly one or two species, they seek diversity.

Here’s a list of Community Supported Fisheries:

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