Once focused on the farm-to-table movement, community-supported agriculture has evolved into a model aimed at benefiting the East End’s long-struggling commercial fishing industry by making it possible to bring a harvester’s fresh catch directly from the dock to the dinner plate.
CSA programs, which have gained popularity in the last five years, provide growers with working capital by requiring customers to pay at the beginning of a growing season rather than after harvest and, in exchange, supplying them with farm-fresh products direct from growers.
Based on the success of other CSAs, Montauk fishermen began developing a similar model — a community-supported fishery called Dock to Dish — that has gained traction on the South Fork since its inception in 2012.
The model has now reached the North Fork, where a new share option and pickup location will be available this summer at Browder’s Birds in Mattituck. Dock to Dish’s creators are also looking for North Fork fishermen interested in helping the program grow.
The new model is controversial because it works by eliminating the middlemen — in this case, local fish markets — from the distribution process.
North Fork farmer Holly Browder and her husband, Chris, said they decided to support the CSF effort because its goals closely align with their own.
“We both raise food that has a huge demand locally yet we both choose to harvest on a small scale in order to remain good stewards of the animals — on land and at sea,” Ms. Browder said.
Supporters say Dock to Dish, in which roughly 35 South Fork fishermen now participate, is renewing the spirits of salt-bitten cultivators while providing area residents with what those fishermen say is the freshest seafood available.
“It’s fishermen’s fish — the straight-from-the-dock fish we grew up on,” said Sean Barrett, a commercial fisherman from Hampton Bays who developed the CSF model.
Mr. Barrett said imported fish doesn’t compare to catches from East End waters.
“It’s sad to hear about the kinds of fish people have grown accustomed to,” he said. “No one knows where it is coming from or who is labeling it.”
Full transparency is just part of the appeal for CSF shareholders, who receive a newsletter with each week’s pickup that educates them about the type of fish they’ve purchased: where it was caught, who caught it and recipes to try.
“All the info leads to these really invigorating, colorful conversations at the dinner table,” Mr. Barrett said. “It’s the experience that we’re focusing on.”
On occasion, he said, fishermen are on hand to meet participants and share stories about their catch — something he said is gratifying to both harvester and consumer.
“[Anglers] are like artisans and they care very much about their trade — it’s an art to them,” Mr. Barrett said. “They get excited when they are held accountable for their fish.”
Montauk angler Bryan Fromm, captain of the Flying Dutchman, began working with the program around a year ago. He said it has earned him “a touch more money” than selling his catches to nearby markets and distributors. But it wasn’t just the extra money that drew him to the cause.
“I know that I take ultra care in keeping my fish pristine and I know the guys at Dock to Dish are doing the same — versus the fish getting thrown in the freezer,” Mr. Fromm said.
Once it’s picked up from anglers the fish is filleted, deboned and packaged for shareholders in just hours, Mr. Barrett said.
Customers benefit from the freshness, fishermen say, while anglers are able to command higher prices for their fish and get paid on the spot, giving them immediate funds to invest in their next voyage.
Many fishermen have to wait to be paid when selling their catch to markets or distributors, Mr. Barrett said.
“It’s a revival of a fisherman’s economy where the fishermen are able to supply what’s abundant and work with the best price,” he said.
But the advantages come at a cost to local seafood markets, said Nathan Andruski, president of the Southold Baymen’s Association. Mr. Andruski is also a commercial fisherman and works at Southold Fish Market.
“It’s not good for the local fish markets if you have customers going and getting their fish elsewhere,” Mr. Andruski said. “It hurts. It’s meant for the fishermen to get a little bit better money, and I might be getting a dollar or so more for my fish, but in the long run I would be hurting the fish market.”
Charlie Manwaring, owner of Southold Fish Market, and Ken Holmes, who owns Braun’s Seafood in Cutchogue, both said they’ve provided a similar initiative to customers all along.
“The way you help the local fishermen is you eat more local fish and you buy it from local sources,” Mr. Manwaring said. “I take care of my guys all year round to the best of my capabilities.”
Mr. Holmes argued that residents will enjoy “a much better seafood experience coming to Braun’s or to Charlie’s, where customers can see the local baymen pulling in every day with fresh fish.”
Both men said the quality and freshness of the local fish available at their shops equals that of anything from a community-supported fishery. Plus, they said, customers have the peace of mind that comes with watching how the fish is prepared.
“My guys bring fresh fish in every single day,” Mr. Manwaring said. “I don’t think the fish they are getting is any fresher than anything over here.”
Mr. Barrett said the Dock to Dish program, which currently serves 130 South Fork shareholders, isn’t meant to compete with local fish markets. Rather, he said, it’s meant to improve the overall health of the East End fishing industry, which has been negatively affected by deteriorating water quality, rising fuel costs and stringent state Department of Conservation catch limits.
Customers receive about 14 different types of fish over a membership period of 14 to 20 weeks. The species provided, which vary with state-regulated fishing seasons, include big-eyed tuna, golden tile fish, black sea bass, swordfish and striped bass.
Mr. Barrett said anglers harvest only species that are rated sustainable or abundant in local waters by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s FishWatch program. He added that Dock to Dish could help sustain healthy fish populations nearby.
Shares cost between $35 and $70 dollars a week, depending on how many of pounds of fish shareholders want to get each week.
As for the North Fork expansion?
“We’re opening the door here,” Mr. Barrett said.
Anyone interested in CSF share information or joining the program can contact him at [email protected] or visit www.docktodish.com.