For Local Fisheries, a Line of Hope
As part of our GO Fish! campaign this month, we are highlighting the issues surrounding seafood, and how we can be more sustainable in our consumption of it. -- Ed.
As published October 1 on NYTimes.com.
Port Clyde, Me.
Heading toward his fifth hour of filleting, his thick rubber boots squeaking on the wet concrete floor, Glen Libby, a fisherman by trade, looks more like a beleaguered line cook than the hero of a seafood revolution.
Five years ago this month in this unspoiled fishing port immortalized by three generations of Wyeths, Mr. Libby and about a dozen cohorts banded together to try to rescue their depleted fish stock and their profession.
The result (“after trial and error with a lot of error” in Mr. Libby’s words) was Port Clyde Fresh Catch, the country’s first community-supported fishery, now part of a burgeoning movement trying to do for small-scale local fishermen what community-supported agriculture does for farmers.
In the kitchen, community-supported fisheries require cooks to agree in advance to buy whatever fish or shellfish local fishermen catch. Fishermen are asked to embrace plentiful species like skate or redfish, once routinely tossed overboard. With about 80 percent of the seafood on the American plate imported and “traceability” the mandate du jour, community-supported fisheries of varying sizes and ambition are springing up around the country, from Cape Ann in Massachusetts to Santa Barbara in California. There are about 30 nationwide, including three in New York.
Port Clyde Fresh Catch was born in crisis. Fishing is woven into the warp and weft of daily life here, a place where the water seems more dominant than the land. The village’s working waterfront still resembles a Wyeth, alive with aging trawlers, lobster traps and weatherworn shacks dwarfed by evergreens.
But looks can be deceiving: Until recently, the picturesque occupation beloved by “people from away,” as summer residents are called, was on the verge of collapse. Of Maine’s 5,300 miles of coast, only 20 miles are working waterfront, with tiny Port Clyde, originally named Herring Gut, home of the last surviving ground-fishing fleet between Portland and the Canadian border.
At the time Mr. Libby and colleagues joined forces, they faced the decimation of signature New England species like cod and flounder, largely because of 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.
Overfishing continues to be a major issue; the allowable catch for cod is projected to be cut up to 70 percent for next year, said Peter Baker, the director of Northeast Fisheries programs for the Pew Environment Group. The steady decline of fish resulted in increased federal regulations, including limits on the number of days at sea.
Overfishing was one factor limiting fishermen’s profits. Another was the traditional way they sold their catch: through auction houses, which set wholesale prices. “You never knew what the price was going to be,” said Mr. Libby, who caught the fishing bug digging for soft-shell clams as a child. “My best season, I made $1 an hour.”
He and his colleagues had a choice: They could “give up and work at McDonald’s,” he said, or get together and try something radical.
Lobster fishing boats in New Harbor, Maine. Photo by Rob Kleine via Flickr, Creative Commons License.
Joining forces was hardly an easy sell. “Fishermen are independent,” Mr. Libby said, juggling a cellphone in one hand and a pick for plucking 30 pounds of redfish from an iced bin in the other. “Maybe you don’t like people, so you want to sit out in a boat by yourself. But the whole ‘I want to be the Lone Ranger’ stuff doesn’t work when things get tight, when people are in a lot of financial pain. Then you either have to look for alternatives, or you quit.”
They eliminated the middleman, processing their fish and shellfish themselves and then selling or shipping directly to consumers. The idea emerged after Mr. Libby and his family heard a farmer give a talk about community-supported agriculture. The group started with orders for sweet winter Maine shrimp from members of the Unitarian church in nearby Rockland. That eventually led to tailgate filleting demonstrations on the back of the Libbys’ pickup truck. “Nobody got rich,” said Kim Libby, Mr. Libby’s sister-in-law. “But it was a good shot in the arm for paying the fuel bill that week.”
The Port Clyde group was environmentally proactive, redesigning their nets to allow more juvenile fish to escape. Instead of catching a high volume of a single species, the group sought a more diverse catch and received a price closer to the cost of production. That in turn allowed them to fish at a smaller scale.
Ted Ames, a retired fisherman, a MacArthur Fellow and a founder of the Penobscot East Resource Center, said he considers community supported fisheries a promising ecological tool that can help build a constituency for conservation measures like a 30-mile intracoastal protection area for spawning fish limited to small boats. “Not only do C.S.F.s give people the freshest seafood,” he said, “they give local fishermen a chance to be stewards of the resource.”
Cape Ann Fresh Catch in Massachusetts, now the country’s largest community-supported fishery with 650 members, started with whole fish only, much to some customers’ trepidation.
“There’s 10 pounds of fish,” remembered Mary Reilly, an owner of Enzo, a rustic Italian restaurant in Newburyport, but then a home cook. “There were weeks I was tempted to chuck it in the trash, ” she said. “But these bright little eyes were staring at me.”
Like advice to the lovelorn, many community-supported fisheries offer online recipes and how-to videos. On the anxiety front, perhaps none matched Mr. Libby’s when he faced 1,500 pounds of gray sole with no idea how to fillet it. “We thought we’d go hire some fish cutters,” he said. “But there weren’t any.” (He has since trained a team).
Growth has been dependent on all sorts of factors, including geography. While Port Clyde, isolated on an peninsula about 45 miles northeast of Portland, has cut back on some of its deliveries because of distance, business is booming out of the commercial fishing port of Gloucester on Cape Ann, 45 minutes from Boston. The group, begun by the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, formed many years ago, buys from some 30 boats using hooks, gill-nets, trawls and traps, and collaborates with a local wholesale distributor and processor.
Though sustainability is part of the business model, how that plays out on the water is more complicated. Some fishermen are businessmen first, and environmentalists second or third. Writing on “The Pescavore’s Dilemma” in the magazine Edible Boston, Roz Cummins, a Cape Ann member, lamented the prevalence of cod in the group’s first year of distribution.
And not every fisherman uses sustainable fishing methods. Niaz Dorry, coordinating director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, argues that the issue isn’t the type of gear so much as the scale. “What really matters is who is behind the wheel and where they put their gear,” she said.
In Gloucester, the setting for “The Perfect Storm,” by Sebastian Junger, many houses have widow’s walks. Underlying two cookbooks the fishermen’s wives have produced are stories like those of Angela Sanfilippo, the group’s president, whose husband, John, was rescued at sea in 2005 after his boat, the Giovanna, was engulfed in flames.
Sharing recipes “has always been the dream of the wife,” Mrs. Sanfilippo said. Since the 1970s, the fishermen’s wives, many Sicilian, have routinely offered cooking demonstrations at church suppers and the like. The wives have always cooked and eaten a variety of species, including squid and hake, because “the husbands would bring them home,” she said.
Fishermen should not be the only ones taking responsibility for marine conservation, she said. “The consumer needs to do their part,” she said. “If all they want to buy is cod, haddock or flounder, that’s all the fishermen are going to want to catch.”
Along with the elevation of triggerfish and monkfish, once considered bycatch, the era of the celebrity fisherman could be dawning. The Walking Fish Cooperative, a community-supported fishery in North Carolina, has started giving fishermen like Linwood Chestnut, a 37-year-old flounder gigger, video cameras to document their experiences for the Web. “I hope people see where their fish comes from and what hard work it is to get them,” said Mr. Chestnut, whose trade is nighttime spearfishing.
The most heartening news may come from young people like Mr. Libby’s 32-year-old son Justin, who had abandoned thoughts of fishing, until Fresh Catch offered a steadier income.
“We didn’t want to be the last ones,” his father said of the heritage that was once the vibrant lifeline of coastal communities. “We still could be. But we’re trying like hell not to be.”