CSF pickup

CSF pickups are communal experiences, like this one in Cambridge, Mass. Photo by Niaz Dorry.

Up and down the East Coast, something fishy is happening in local communities.  People gathering at Harvard University to pick up freshly caught cod and pollock.  A truck pulling up to an inland Maine church to deliver shrimp from nearby Port Clyde.

It’s all part of a movement called “community supported fisheries,” or CSF for short. Riding on the wave of the local food movement, CSFs are being billed as a solution to bring more income to struggling fishing communities while educating their urban customers on the quality and diversity of affordable, local seafood. With media coverage from the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Post, CSF is now a new buzzword in town.

Community supported fisheries have a surprisingly young history, one that shows how whole communities — commercial anglers, neighborhood organizers, academics, students — have found themselves working on common ground.

Reading the Journal and the Post, you might think the story begins far away in the cold waters of Massachusetts and Maine. But surprisingly, it all started with a North Carolina Fishery Resource Grant project…

The Sea Grant Specialist

Scott Baker is a fisheries specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant.

Talking about fish and seafood brings out the wide, bearded smile in this Beaufort County native, and his humble demeanor belies a wealth of knowledge and a creative streak. In plain, simple English and an easy coastal Carolina drawl, Baker can explain how radioactive atoms can validate age estimates of drum and snapper.  And Baker was responsible for an innovative project using cell phone text messaging to help anglers report gamefish data.

Baker’s knack for connecting ideas and communicating with the public landed him at Sea Grant’s office in Wilmington. Settling into the Port City and observing its mix of urban growth and coastal traditions, Baker wondered how local commercial fishermen and women were surviving the changing times, and about his own seafood buying habits.

“The kicker is that I like to buy my seafood from the individual,” Baker says.  “It’s not so much that I don’t like it from the store — but if it’s all the same, I’d like to know where it came from, and the story behind it.”

Of course, it isn’t all the same.  Baker knew that supermarkets and restaurants up and down North Carolina sold seafood imported from foreign waters — anonymous fillets and headless shrimp that reveal little about their origins.  But where was it caught?  How long did it sit before being frozen?

All this, even along our state’s coast, home to a unique diversity of marine fisheries and dwindling clusters of dedicated fishing communities.  And now the cheaper foreign imports were driving down domestic seafood prices, outcompeting local fishermen.

Baker’s mind always came back to this puzzling disparity when he visited fishermen in Wilmington, like the shrimper he buys from to stock up the family freezer.  Surely there were others who would want to buy local seafood at an affordable, fair price. Fishermen wouldn’t have to sell at bottom-scrapping prices, and direct sales would mean more money stays in the community to bolster the struggling fishing industry.

Then one day, a newspaper article came his way.

Shared Harvests, Shared Rewards

“A buddy of mine saw an article about CSAs in New York City,” Baker says.  “This was back in 2004.  I read it and I just thought: Wow, this could be applied to seafood.”

CSA, which stands for community supported agriculture, is a simple, niche marketing concept.  Think of it as a magazine subscription.  At the beginning of a farming season, a customer buys a subscription — called a share — directly from a local farmer.  As the season goes on, the farmer delivers a batch of assorted produce each week to that customer.  It might be lettuce, tomatoes, or whatever the harvest is that week.

But therein lies the genius of the shareholder/farmer relationship.  Under CSAs, the farmer gets some added financial stability, gaining the upfront investment to cover planting costs and other early expenses. They earn more by cutting out the middleman, and they might use that cushion to try new growing techniques.

In return, shareholders get a box of fresh, local, seasonal produce on a regular basis.  Having chosen the farmer, they get t ask questions like “What sprays do you use” or “How do I cook this?”  Shareholders also get the satisfaction that their money helps a real family in their community, so that dollars invested today can ensure access to fresh produce for seasons to come.

Everybody benefits.

All this got Baker’s gears turning.  If farming families are getting an extra lift through CSAs, could a seafood CSA help fishing families in North Carolina?

Baker still knew little about CSAs.  He couldn’t find any in Wilmington at the time, and explaining the concept to fish dealers just got him blank looks.  But digging through scholarly journals for studies on CSAs, Baker saw the same researcher’s name turn up in report after report:  Susan Andreatta, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Baker picked up the phone.

The Professor

Susan Andreatta is a cultural anthropologist who studies the relationship between farmers and their local community.Her work spans the Caribbean and Africa, examining through surveys and personal interviews how industrialization is impacting the health and prosperity of rural families.

For the last decade at UNCG, Andreatta has devoted herself to developing CSAs in our state.  Under her initiative, Project Green Leaf, she has connected many a farmer with local community buyers.  But working with fishermen was new territory.

“Scott’s call was out of the blue,” Andreatta says.  Baker called her the week before Thanksgiving in 2005, proposing his idea for a seafood CSA.  Andreatta replied that she didn’t really know fish or seafood.  Most of her work was land based.  And she was a vegetarian.

But Baker was insistent.

“He said, ‘Well, we can teach you the fish part.  What we need for the fishermen are creative ways to develop niche marketing,'” Andreatta recalls.  Baker invited her to visit a new branding project that held potential for a seafood CSA, and she agreed.

That project was Carteret Catch, an education and marketing initiative organized by the Carteret County fishing community with the help of Barry Nash, the seafood technology and marketing specialist at North Carolina Sea Grant.  Restaurants and fish markets display the Carteret Catch logo to advertise local, quality seafood and to educate customers.

“Carteret Catch offers the industry a commercial identity to inform the public when coastal commodities are seasonally available and where they can be purchased,” says Nash, who has since helped develop brands for Hyde, Brunswick and Dare County fishermen.

When customers choose local seafood over imports they boost income into the Carteret fishing community.  And this community was struggling mightily:  1,000-plus county fishermen left the trade between 1998 and 2005, more than a 50-percent drop.

Baker and Nash explained all this to Andreatta, who saw clear parallels between Carteret County and the farming communities she’s worked with during her career.  Switch out farms with boats, and the problem was the same, if not worse.  For a fisherman, expenses are ongoing as well, but they don’t have the luxury of looking out at a field and knowing what they’ll harvest and earn.  Add the influx of cheap imports, and it’s easy to see why fishermen are under great financial pressure.

All this means younger generations become reluctant to carry on the family trade.  As the fishing tradition dies off in family after family, an entire community’s culture and identity will have changed.

“If you lose a generation, how do your children learn how to fish?” Andreatta says.  “This was about how you sustain the heritage of Carteret County and coastal communities.

First Steps

A seafood CSA built on the label of Carteret Catch just might bring a needed boost to the local fishing economy.  Encouraged by Baker and Nash to develop such a project, in 2006 Andreatta applied for a N.C. Fishery Resource Grant (FRG), which is funded by the N.C. General Assembly and administered by North Carolina Sea Grant. And the project now had a new name:  community supported fisheries, or CSF.

N.C. shrimp

N.C. shrimp is a fresh, local choice. Photo by Ben Young Landis.

Andreatta laid out a game plan:  She needed to know how the supply chain worked. How did fishermen and seafood dealers negotiate to get fish from boat to dock to market, and what pressures did each side face?  With customers, was there demand and awareness? Did customers know which seafood was local, and did they prefer it over the alternative?

What Andreatta essentially designed was a business assessment study fit for Wall Street, analyzing supply and demand.

Her methods, however, were intimate and personal, true to her anthropology roots. Working with community partners Pam Morris, Jack Cox, and Libby Eaton, Andreatta spent days in Carteret County talking with dealers and restaurant owners.  She spent nights on shrimp boats working alongside Down East fishermen to experience their livelihoods and worries.  It was immersive work, at all hours of the day.

But that’s like the life of a fisherman, Andreatta says.  “They’re fixin’ a boat. Delivering fish.  Getting two, three hours of sleep.  Then they’re back at it.”

On top of this, Andreatta and Nash led a team of students interviewing the public about their seafood purchasing references.  Almost 300 people, mostly tourists to Carteret County, were surveyed over the course of six months.

Andreatta discovered that the public loved seafood, especially shrimp.  The majority said they preferred local seafood and were even willing to pay extra for a local label, but very few customers recognized the Carteret Catch logo.  About 70 people replied they would be interested in signing up for a direct delivery program for seafood.

The Unexpected

Armed with this good news, the timing seemed right for a gamble.  “I said, let’s try it.  Let’s pilot something,” Andreatta recalls.  Awarded a second FRG in 2007, Andreatta partnered with Nash, fisherman Kenny Rustic and National Marine Fisheries Service researcher Gretchen Bath Martin to design the nation’s first-ever research project on community supported fisheries.

This pilot CSF would sell Carteret County shrimp.  Andreatta organized a group of seven fishermen, and she printed about 10,000 pamphlets listing their phone numbers and introducing the CSF program.  Because the tourist survey response was so promising, Andreatta decided to target the summer rental condos in Emerald Isle as the initial customer base.

“Well, I felt like I littered Carteret County,” Andreatta laughs.  She spent many weeks commuting from Greensboro to the coast, handing out pamplets and making sure that rental offices had sufficient stacks.

Like resorts offering dining packages, the idea was that summer tourists might want ready access to fresh shrimp when they arrived.  When visitors checked in at the rental agency, they might see the pamphlets and call to subscribe to CSF deliveries.  A relaxing vacation on the coast, complete with fresh local seafood.  It seemed like the perfect sell.

But no one signed up.

By the end of the summer, there were a few calls about where to buy shrimp.  However, now one paid in advance to secure a CSF share. “We were all surprised,” Andreatta says.

In the end, the CSF idea may have been too new.  There still wasn’t enough public recognition.  Andreatta didn’t apply for a third year of funding.  The travels were taking a toll on her family, and she had to take a break.

“It was disappointing,” Nash says.  “But at least fishermen were wiling to try a new approach to selling seafood locally, and they seemed willing to do so again.”

Although the pilot project didn’t go as hoped, the CSF story was about to make a huge splash around the country.

Making Waves

Andreatta’s FRG research had caught the attention of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the Island Institute.  The two research centers in Maine had been seeking ways to reinvigorate local fishing towns.  In September 2007, they invited Andreatta to give a teleconference presentation to local fishermen about her Carteret County experience.

The meeting was fateful.  The Libby family, a Port Clyde fishing clan, took the idea to their cooperative, the Midcoast Fishermen Association.  The Libbys tested out the CSF by selling northern shrimp to 29 shareholders.  With this positive response, success was palpable.

The Midcoast fishermen still needed a brand, as a neighbor with a face, seasoned tradesmen who shared an admiration for marine resources and quality food.  To promote these core values and the CSF, the fishermen hired an Island Institute community coordinator, Laura Kramar (coincidently, a North Carolina native).

Like Andreatta, Kramar drove many miles to forge public support.  But instead of tourists and resorts, Kramar and the fishermen targeted central locations where locals already gathered — churches, farmers markets and universities.

That proved the difference.  The following summer, “Port Clyde Fresh Catch” was born, delivering weekly to 200 shareholders in seven locations.  The CSF is now entering its third year, with alternating shrimp and fish seasons.

“Susan’s work had a great deal of influence,” Kramar says.  “Her idea was the basis of our success.”

The idea spread even further.  When the Port Clyde fishermen began to organize their CSF, Niaz Dorry was right there to observe and participate in its creation.  A former Time magazine “Hero for the Planet,” Dorry is the director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), a community development nonprofit.

At the time, NAMA saw an opportunity to connect socially conscious consumers with ecologically minded fishermen, including those in the 400-year-old fishing community of Gloucester, Mass. Inspired by the progress of other CSFs, Dorry approached the Gloucester Fishermen Wives Association to talk about the lessons learned and potential opportunities ahead.

The wives were at first skeptical.  But after 40 years of serving as their community’s advocates and political voice, the women were open to new ideas.

There was no money, no infrastructure, recalled Angela Sanfilippo, president of the association.  “We said we’d be happy if we got a hundred people to sign up,” Sanfilippo says.  “We were so shocked and so surprised when we had 750.”

The wives worked days and nights to organize shareholders and logistics, with Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sea Grant lending a hand.  In June 2009, “Cape Ann Fresh Catch” made its debut as a fish CSF.  High demand led to a second round lasting into November.  In December, a shrimp CSF began.

“We’re really pleased that we’re able to introduce this project,” Sanfilippo says. “Ninety-nine percent of the people are just clamoring over it… one guy said, ‘I always eat at the best restaurants and thought I had the best seafood, until I got this fish.'”

Dorry has never met Susan Andreatta, but she is grateful for her pioneering research.  “That was important work,” Dorry says. “Tell her, ‘thank you.’

Coming Home

Walking Fish educates

Walking Fish educates customers on each week’s catch. Photo by Clare Fieseler.

After three years and a circuitous route, CSFs finally got another push in North Carolina.  In September 2009, a group of graduate students at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment started “Walking Fish,” bringing seafood from Carteret County to customers in Durham.

A year ago, the Duke students learned about Andreatta’s CSF research through Barry Nash and were inspired to adapt the idea.  To recruit shareholders, the students conducted marketing surveys through Duke’s Live for Life employee wellness program.  Partnering with Carteret Catch, they brought two Catch members to tour the Port Clyde and Gloucester CSFs.  Persuaded by what he saw, member Bill Rice, owner of Fishtowne Seafood in Beaufort, signed an agreement with Walking Fish to provide weekly deliveries.

Although Rice is a seafood dealer, the agreement stipulates that any fish he purchases towards the Duke program must return a cut of revenue back to the respective fisherman.  On average, fishermen are earning 20 to 25 percent more through the program.

“It looks like it’s gonna go,” says a nodding Paul Russell, a clam harvester who sells to Walking Fish.  “I’ve told a lot of people about it.”

Walking fish has 400 shareholders, with a waiting list of hundreds more.  Customers get weekly newsletters profiling the Carteret fisherman who caught that week’s seafood, and recipes especially designed by Amy Tornquist, a Paris-trained gourmet chef in Durham.  These community efforts earned Walking Fish the audience prize at the 2009 Sustainable North Carolina Awards.

“It’s great,” says shareholder Jean Tetterton, a researcher at the local veterans medical center.  “I thought we needed to do more local farming and local fishing, and this was a great way to support it.  And we’ve enjoyed it.”

*    *    *    *    *

Over in Greensboro, Susan Andreatta still gets Christmas cards from some of the fishermen she worked with three years ago.  And she now eats seafood.  From North Carolina, of course. Triggerfish and shrimp are her favorites.

Andreatta gets calls and emails from people wanting to start CSFs in Canada and California.  And with Barry Nash and Gretchen Bath Martin as co-authors, she is publishing the account of the FRG trials in a scholarly journal.

She continues to promote the CSF idea around North Carolina and the country, from church groups to anthropology conferences.  U.S. Senator Kay Hagan attended one talk.  When Bruce Springsteen held a concert in Greensboro in 2007, he donated a check to support Andreatta’s work on Project Green Leaf and CSFs.

“I’ve put on a different hat,” Andreatta winks.  “I haven’t given up.”

Back in Wilmington, the astounding level of impact from the FRG research brings another smile to Scott Baker’s face.  Now when he brings up the CSF idea with area fishermen, he’s got a few examples to show.

Most people still give him a puzzled look.  But as community supported fisheries takes hold in North Carolina and around the country, it may be only a matter of time before Scott Baker gets to buy from a CSF right in Wilmington.

“We’re just waiting for somebody to step up.”

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This article was published in the Winter 2010 issue of Coastwatch.

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