Ask An Expert
Brooklyn’s Mermaid’s Garden tells us what it’s like to run a CSF
Bianca Piccillo and Mark Usewicz are the presidents of Mermaid’s Garden, a Brooklyn, NY based community supported fishery (CSF) and sustainable seafood consulting organization.
TalkingFish: The philosophy behind CSFs is that business should occur as directly as possible between the fishermen and seafood consumers. Mermaid’s Garden seems to play a special, distinct role in that supply chain as a sort of middle-man. Is CSF still the term you like to use to describe Mermaid’s Garden?
Mermaid’s Garden: Yes, we definitely would describe this program as a CSF. (Mermaid’s Garden as a whole does a few things, including consulting, the CSF and a forthcoming fully- sustainable retail fish market.) There are many forms of CSFs, who, like us, follow the guidelines outlined by localcatch.org. We are not unique in that we function as an intermediary. SirenSeaSA, in the Bay Area, comes to mind as another, right off the top of our heads. In New York State there are many licensing issues that prevent fishermen from selling their fish directly, and still more issues involving processing. Without our “middle” link, there would be no way to connect fishermen to consumers. The fact that we can legally buy and process the fish allows the system to flow around these potential obstacles. Our fishermen tell us they are happy to let us handle the logistics of managing our 200 or so members! Many of the CSA’s here function in the same way. It is very unusual for the farmers to run the pick-ups – instead they rely on their members and volunteer committees to co-ordinate the season. We really believe the emphasis in CSF is the Community part – we aim to serve and connect our coastal community to our Brooklyn community.
MG: We really believe that smaller and slower is better when it comes to the fish we eat. CSFs support small-scale operators by giving them direct access to a market that they might not otherwise have. CSFs also protect fishermen and fishing communities by compensating fishermen fairly. CSFs can also help to preserve traditional fishing methods. One of our fishermen is a pound-netter in Long Island. His family has been using this pretty ancient fishing technique for 14 generations. The guaranteed business that our CSF provides is an incentive for continuing and preserving this low impact artisanal fishing now and for further generations.
Sustainability is a huge concern when it comes to seafood, and yes, we only offer sustainable fish. When we think about sustainability it’s imperative that we consider scale. To us, not always, but often small equals sustainable. For instance, it’s important to differentiate the impact that a small otter trawler has versus that of huge trawling fleets dragging miles of nets. The impact is not the same, and while trawling isn’t the most ideal fishing method, to paint all draggers with the same brush is overly simplistic. It is established knowledge at this point that small-scale fisheries employ more people, use less fuel and catch less bycatch than larger fisheries and operators. Nevertheless, the little guys are often at a disadvantage due to lack of infrastructure, access to consumers, government subsidies and political leverage. CSFs help to correct some of this. Fishermen face so many challenges just going out every day – it’s a grueling profession. As an industry, and as consumers, if we don’t advocate for the small guys, we’ll lose them. And with them we will lose part of our coastal cultural heritage. We will also be left with nothing but the big guys and their outsize impact. Aside from the human impact, the big losers in that scenario are fish and marine ecosystems.
TF: Obviously locally caught seafood and sustainable seafood aren’t mutually inclusive. How do your buyers know the difference?
MG: There is a huge degree of trust that our members put in us to choose sustainable fish for them. We provide complete transparency and traceability for all of our fish and shellfish. This information allows our members to be confident in our choices. Our members are pretty well educated. We offered tuna one week from a small long-liner out of Montauk. We got an email from a customer asking why we weren’t using hook and line caught tuna. We told her, quite honestly, that we haven’t been able to find a local hooker for tuna. We always want to choose the most ideal catch method, but we also have to be pragmatic. If we let the perfect be the enemy of the good, there would be very little fish for us to work with. It’s no secret that many of the fisheries on the East Coast are in pretty bad shape. Hopefully, by making smart, informed and sometimes imperfect decisions we can begin to constructively address problems and weaknesses in our local fisheries.
TF: How does consumer education factor into the CSF model in general and Mermaid’s Garden specifically?
MG: We can’t speak about the CSF model generally – there are lots of CSFs out there and they all operate in their own way. It’s safe to say that simply by participating in a CSF people are going to learn more about what species are local, the path from ocean to plate and something about their local coastal communities. At the Mermaid’s Garden CSF we prioritize education. Every week our members get an email describing that week’s fish and shellfish. We include each species’ scientific name and fun facts about the fish – like if it changes sex, or is a super fast swimmer, or puts up a good fight for an angler. Catch methods are described, and we always name the fisherman and his boat. We also try to talk about fishing culture and any special efforts being taken in the community the fish is from. Last week we worked with two fishermen who are associated with the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fisherman’s Association, so we wrote about the Hookers and some of the work they do with the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust. We also shared a link to their site that is a live feed to the Chatham fish pier so our members could have a peek!
TF: How much do customers actually get to interact with the fishermen who have caught their share? Do the fishermen personally deliver their catch to the CSF pick up sites?
MG: Our members don’t really have direct interaction with our fishermen right now. They tend to deliver to us in the morning so we can butcher and package the fish in time for the pick-ups. We post fishermen and boat photos on our Facebook page for our members to see, so hopefully they feel a connection in that way. Some of our fishermen are really into that – others just want to keep a lower profile and go about their business. It would be great to bring everyone together at some point – maybe have a Fisherman Appreciation party or arrange to have members go out on the boats…but frankly, right now everyone is just so busy, working like crazy trying to make the most of the summer season.
TF: How has your interaction with fishermen been? Are they interested in and receptive of the CSF method of seafood provision or do they seem to prefer the status quo?
MG: We are so incredibly lucky to have forged the relationships that we’ve made with our fishermen. We have the most amazing group of (mostly) guys! It’s kind of been a domino effect in many ways. We started with a few fishermen who were really excited about the CSF, and they told their friends, and so on. It’s great, because the fishermen are coming to us, so we know they are receptive to and supportive of our model. There are probably plenty of guys out there who prefer the status quo. The great thing is that there is plenty of room for everyone, whichever model they choose to embrace.