When Alan Lovewell was a young child growing up on the Vineyard, his mother had worked out a summertime arrangement with a local fisherman. Teresa Yuan would exchange her well-respected egg rolls for some of Tom Turner’s weekly catch, creating what was probably young Alan’s first exposure to the concept of a cooperative fishery.
When he grew up and moved to the west coast, Mr. Lovewell found himself increasingly estranged from sustainable seafood of this sort. Everywhere he went it seemed local fishermen were being edged out of the market by larger industrial fisheries with highly unsustainable practices.
“When I left the Vineyard and travelled, I realized that this place is really unique. Unfortunately, most people don’t know where their seafood is coming from, most people don’t know their fishermen, and it seemed like a problem worth solving,” he explained on Tuesday evening to a crowd assembled for a talk at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
He’d become dismayed at how difficult it was to get the seafood so abundant in Californian waters directly to his dinner table.
“I thought, how is this possible, with all the fishing boats out there?” He listened to the stories of older seamen who told of a time when the ocean was once full of biodiversity and the small business fisherman reigned. In stark contrast, today about 90 per cent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported. Median income among fishermen is $25,590, a salary that attracts few young people to the profession.
Over the years, Mr. Lovewell learned that seafood markets had become so complicated that fish was often caught in Californian waters, frozen, then shipped to other locales with lower labor costs to get processed and cleaned, before returning again to Californian markets. The seafood had by then logged thousands of miles and was anything but the fresh fish he’d enjoyed growing up.
Eventually, he became acquainted with a new fishery model. In an innovative return to the fisheries of old, a movement known as Community Supported Fisheries was re-energizing sustainable fishing. Like Community Supported Agriculture, a system in which shareholders pay for a share of farm crops in advance, shareholders of CSFs are guaranteed regular access to local seafood.
Intrigued by the model, Mr. Lovewell performed market research around Monterey Bay where he lived and subsequently co-founded Local Catch Monterey Bay in 2012, a CSF based in Pacific Grove, Calif. The group sells weekly and monthly shares to individuals and families, and fosters meaningful relationships between the 25 local fishermen they employ and their clients.
Doing away with the numerous middlemen in the seafood supply chain, Local Catch can offer seafood at a lower price to consumers, while also paying fishermen more. Customers pick up their shares weekly at several locations around the Monterey Bay area, all stocked by the fishmobile, the CSF’s distribution vehicle. Community members and businesses that have offered to host a distribution site are paid in fish for their efforts.
Local Catch’s mission also involves an effort to educate the consumer about their fishermen and the fish they catch through newsletters featuring seafood recipes and videos of the fishermen out to sea. They also offer demonstrations on how to fillet a fish.
It’s been a learning experience for Mr. Lovewell, as well. Through surveying the local population, he’s figured out who wants local seafood, where they want to pick it up, how they’d like fish delivered — whole or filleted — and what they will pay. He’s also acquired a sense of how adventurous people tend to be in terms of culinary tastes, and how much variety they crave in their seafood diet. Most of the fish they provide to their members are species that are not pursued by many other fishermen.
Local Catch encourages its clients to stay away from the most over-fished species, such as salmon, sea bass, cod and tuna, in order to create demand for less charismatic species such as sanddabs and sablefish.
“These decisions we make in our lives are really the only ones that can make change. It’s never going to happen with global governance, or with our own governance, it really has to come down to our own meals,” he said. “The solution is eating smaller fish.”
Mr. Lovewell and his colleagues charge their members $20 per week for a small share, representing about one to one and a half pounds of fish. Family shares cost $36 each week and include two to three pounds of fish. Unlike most CSF programs, which operate on a seasonal schedule, Monterey Bay’s is year round.
After graduating from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Mr. Lovewell moved to the west coast to enroll at University of California Santa Cruz. He’s lived out west ever since, teaching sailing in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, and later studying marine policy at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Everywhere he went, he realized how unique the Island was in terms of the connection seafood consumers have with their providers. Unlike the members of his Pacific community, most Islanders will tell you they know where to find fresh local seafood, and many are well-acquainted with the fishermen who reel it in every day.
He describes the Island as a place full of “people who are really passionate about the ocean, people who really care,” he said. “There is a really strong connection here.”
For that reason, Mr. Lovewell is not sure the Island community needs a CSF of its own. As there are already many local seafood markets available to consumers, he’d want to know if the CSF program could be integrated into the market without disruption to existing businesses.
“We want to make sure the existing fish markets don’t feel threatened by the model,” he said. He’d also want to do some research to figure out if there is enough local seafood available to develop a fishery. There are now more than 30 community supported fisheries nationwide. The closest to the Island is Cape Cod Fish Share, which is based in Barnstable.
“There would need to be some more research done to figure out what sort of local seafood is available, how much is being landed and where it’s going,” he said. “Is it leaving the Island or is it staying on the Island?”
In other words, where it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But where it is broke, he says CSF can have an impact on the way we think about our food.