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Community Supported Agriculture for Seafood

You join a CSA every year, buy eggs fresh from the farmer at the market, and you only buy locally-sourced, pastured pork and beef. But what about that salmon on your grill this summer? Do you know the waters from which it came, know the fisherman who hauled it in?

There’s a new effort underway to answer those questions, and to make sure that people have access to fresh fish: Community Supported Fisheries. CSFs operate just like CSAs — customers enter into a contract directly with a fisherman, agreeing to pay a few hundred dollars a season for fish that’s plucked from the water and delivered to their plates.

Guy Johnston of Michelle Rose Fishing in Cowichan Bay, British Columbia, started selling salmon, prawns, octopus and shrimp through a CSF last year, and it’s proven so popular that this year, the number of members almost doubled to 110. Johnston, who has been fishing for 30 years, said he felt that both he—and his customers—needed something more meaningful.

“I have spent my whole life wheeling up to different fish plants and unloading my catch to a unknown consumer somewhere in the world,” Johnston said. “I was surprised how much we all enjoy getting to know the people who eat our catch here in our local community.”

The first CSFs started just a few years ago, and now there are dozens along the coasts of the United States and Canada, including Mermaids Garden in Brooklyn, which just started up this spring and already has 120 members.

“The most important part about buying fish through a CSF, at least from my perspective, is the fact that it ensures that fishermen are paid fair prices for their products,” said Mermaids Co-President Bianca Piccilo. “All of our fish is traceable, so our subscribers know where their fish is from, who caught it, and how it was caught.”

Compared to some newer CSFs, Core Sound Seafood of Down East Carteret County, North Carolina, is a relative oldtimer, with five seasons, three drop off locations and 240 members on board already. Co-Owner Anna Child said the most important thing Core Sound Seafood creates is dialogue.

“It could be a shareholder picking up the phone to talk with Eddie Willis, a fourth-generation fisherman who catches and hand culls the soft-shell crabs we include in shares, and asking him why crabs molt,” Child said. “Or it could be a shareholder waiting in line to pick up their CSF share and talking to another shareholder about why male scallops are a different color than females and by the way, how did you cook them last week? All of this dialogue comes out of the CSF model and is non-existent when people pick up their fish in a supermarket aisle.”

Skipper Otto’s is also one of the larger, older CSFs, growing to 500 members in Vancouver, the Okanagan, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Regina over the past five years. Skipper Otto Strobel has been fishing for 43 years, and the business includes his wife, Lavonne; his son, Shaun; his daughter-in-law, Sonia; and Sonia’s dad, Gordon Tilley. They said one of the goals of the CSF is to guarantee that Shaun and Sonia, and their two sons, can continue to fish.

“When an independent fisherman sells his fish to one of the packing companies, they often get paid under $2 a pound. As fuel and other costs increase, that sort of payout makes fishing uneconomical. By running your own business, you can cut out the middle and pay yourself a little better,” said Sonia Strobel.

Sonia Strobel said that consumers of store-bought salmon might be surprised to learn how far the fish has traveled.

“Even seemingly ‘good’ options can have their challenges,” she said. “Recently Shaun was at the store and noticed some nice-looking sockeye fillets from Alaska. When he checked the package, though, it had been caught in Alaska, packaged in China and then shipped to market back in North America. That’s a pretty long round-trip.”

Speaking of long trips — while most CSFs are limited by necessity to coastal areas, Sitka Salmon Shares is trying to bring the concept to landlubbers in the Midwest. Sitka buys salmon directly from fishermen in Alaska and delivers it on ice to customers’ homes in Madison, Chicago, and Minneapolis. The CSF was started just this year by Helen Schnoes and Nic Mink, who worked with fishermen in Sitka, Alaska, last year on a wild salmon education project.

“Our history and continued presence in Sitka means we know our fishermen and our processors directly and interact with them often. For many we’ve been on their boats and eaten with them at home,” Schnoes said. “All of us at Sitka Salmon Shares enjoy good food, and we want to make sure that not only will the food we eat be good for us, but that it is also good for those who produced it and the environment from which it was harvested.”

Melinda Tichelaar is the Community Manager for Food.Farmer.Earth, as well as a reporter for the Kenosha (Wisconsin) News and website/line producer for WFLD in Chicago. Melinda, her husband, and their three sons live happily on Lake Michigan in Kenosha, where they like to sail, bar-b-q, buy interesting eggs at the Farmers Market and sneak whole wheat flour into cookies when no one is looking.

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