What's the Deal with...CSFs

Rachel Tepper Paley

You know that thing? That thing that sounds like something you should already know about, so you don’t really want to ask? Well, we know about it, and we’ll give you the intel. Welcome to What’s the Deal With.

Photo credit: Wolfgang Schardt/StockFood

Heard of CSAs, or community supported agriculture? They’re programs that distribute shares of vegetables, herbs, and other farmed goodies, and they’ve become more popular over the last several years.

Recently, some sustainability-minded seafood lovers have begun to wonder: “Why not do the same with fish?”

And so the concept of the community-supported fishery—CSF, for short—was born. We chatted with Sean Dixon, co-founder of Village Fishmonger, a CSF in New York City, about CSFs and why they might play a huge role in your routine in the not-so-distant future.

What They Are: CSFs are membership programs that offer shares of sustainably-caught fresh seafood for a flat fee, often on a weekly or biweekly basis. They’re designed to bypass the traditional seafood supply chain by cutting out as many middle men as possible. Village Fishmonger, for example, deals directly with fishermen and fishing co-ops. This way, Dixon said, customers have “better access to fresh products, and more economic impact in your community.” 

Where They Started: Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a company based in the small Maine fishing town Port Clyde, claims to be the world’s first CSF. (It got off the ground in 2007.) 

"Basically, the fishermen are not able to survive with the market structure that’s in place right now," the CSF’s manager Jessica Libby told the Village Voice in 2009. Taking a cue from CSAs, Libby explained, the outfit resolved to bring sustainable fish to the local and surrounding communities. “The goal is to save the fleet in Fort Clyde, because if this doesn’t work out, a lot of the fishermen won’t be able to continue fishing. This is their last hope.”

How They Work: There’s no one correct way for a CSF to operate, Dixon told us. “CSFs are just like fisheries; each one is unique,” he said. “You’ve got cooperatives that are being launched by the producers. You’ve got single boat fishermen just taking their catch to the markets. You also have CSFs that bring in seafood from around the world, and CSFs that are focusing on regional and local foods.”

At Village Fishmonger, however, members decide how large a weekly order they want—$16.50 for a small share or $33.00 for a medium-sized one—and select a pickup location (or pay extra to have it delivered to their door). The package comes with a piece of paper cataloguing the type of fish, the boat that caught it, and a recipe.

In the case of Village Fishmonger and many other CSFs, consumers don’t know what they’re going to get until the day before their pickup. That’s when CSF representatives liaise with fishermen, co-ops, and docks to find out which fish and shellfish make up the day’s catch. All told, Village Fishmonger works with six docks comprising roughly 200 fishermen and 50 boats, as well as several oystermen and clammers.

Where to Find Them: Dixon estimates that there are currently between 30 and 50 CSFs in operation around the country—a huge uptick from zero a decade ago. If you’re interested in finding one near you, check out this nifty CSF database by Local Catch.org, a network of fishermen, organizers, and consumers from around the continent.

Why They Might Be Awesome: The benefit of CSFs is twofold, Dixon said: ”People have always cared about delicious seafood, and getting America delicious local seafood is definitely a hot topic.” He continued, “I would love to buy my milk straight from the dairy farmer, but it’s not always feasible. CSFs make [getting fish straight from the fishermen] feasible for a lot of people an economic way.”

Additionally, CSFs can give much-needed dollars directly to struggling local fishermen—and supply them with a lucrative incentive to catch fish and seafood sustainably.

Why They Could Be the Future: "Instead of one CSA turning into a [brick-and-mortar] marketplace, one CSA turned into a hundred CSAs,” Dixon said. “And I think the same will happen to CSFs.”