There once was a tremendous optimism for what large-scale, "industrial" fishing could provide. Our colossal oceans were viewed as an inexhaustible resource, full of riches. Now, most everywhere outside of American waters, we find our oceans struggling, if not outright dying. According to the Pew Environment Group report "Protecting Life in the Sea," nearly one-third of the world supply of commercially caught fish has already collapsed. This is, of course, an environmental disaster, but it is also an economic one.
Healthy oceans mean jobs, food, and protection for billions. There's an urgent need to turn back to a time when sea bounty changed hands with some transparency—from a local fisherman to the dock to a restaurant or customer. This may sound nostalgic, but for the past five years, Dock to Dish has revived artisanal fishing to try to show how it's possible to put seafood on plates and conserve marine resources.
"Basically we've taken a page out of the community supported agriculture handbook."
After looking at supply chains across the globe, including the 250-mile radius from their headquarters in Montauk, New York, they found a broken system. It made them set out to create a supply-driven, membership-based model.
"For thousands of years, whatever the local artisanal fisherman caught is what you ate because it's highly perishable," says co-founder Sean Barrett. "Basically we've taken a page out of the community supported agriculture handbook, and blended that with the most advanced fisheries technologies in the world to recreate an entirely new model that is fundamentally reflective of the old one."
Barrett explained the Dock to Dish model with an analogy: "We put the ecosystem at the top of the totem pole instead of the consumer or the chef. The fundamental change happens there because it realigns how wild seafood is supposed to flow. You put light harvesting pressure on the whole ecosystem, not just heavy pressure on targeted high value species."
This means that on any given catch day, the fishing crew pulls up what they know to be abundant in the region. "True sustainability means extraction methods won't affect future generations of humans because they'll be the same amount or more of the resource," says Barrett. That methodology seems to be catching on.
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The UN Foundation named Dock to Dish under Sustainable Development Goal 14 as a company "that can scale to solve the ocean's grand challenges." This new/old model of community supported fishing (CSF), the UN Foundation announced: "cuts out the convoluted and sometimes sketchy international seafood processors and industrial fishers to a direct relationship with local fishermen and the more sustainable seafood selections they catch."
In New York, the community-supported fishery (CSF) attracts top chefs, like Dock to Dish member Dan Barber of Manhattan's Blue Hill restaurant. Barber refers to the approach as a "paradigm shift." Typically, chefs demand certain fish, but with Dock to Dish it's anything goes. "Not knowing what they'll serve until it arrives, initially comes as a shock," says Barrett, but he explained that chefs quickly learn the positives of getting a naturally abundant, fresh catch.
The collapse of marine life ecosystems means threats of starvation, poverty and mass migration.
The origins of seafood bought at supermarkets are as mislabeled as their origins are unknown. Called a "bait and switch," only 1 percent of the roughly 90 percent of the seafood that is imported into the United States each year is inspected. A Future of Fish Foundation report cites "between a third and three-quarters of seafood is mislabeled in North America, meaning the fish isn't the species described on the menu or wasn't caught where it was supposedly landed."
The duped consumer suffers and so does the ocean. "If we can't build a global market in which responsibly harvested fish garners a better price than fish caught by plunderers and pirates, then no economic incentives exist to spur industry change," the study concluded.
The need to pressure the global marketplace to shift is profound. In 2016, the United States consumed more seafood than any generation before. Three billion people worldwide rely on wild fish for their sole source of protein. The collapse of marine life ecosystems means threats of starvation, poverty and mass migration. Dock to Dish teamed up with Google to develop an open source tracking technology to elevate transparency in the supply chain. The place-based application maps a fishing vessels journey to the wild seafood marketplace. Barrett and others involved with the new technology see it with a potential to hold the industry more accountable.
"Ongoing upheavals in the US political system have made it impossible to rely on the federal government to protect our environment and our wild seafood supply, we must act now to create practical local solutions from the ground up," implores Barrett.
The solution will be multifaceted: accountability, traceability and tracking for large fleets, an increase in farmed fish, and an increase in responsible aquaculture and strengthening of small-to-medium scale artisanal fisheries. There are many efforts globally to address the overfishing crisis, and the Dock to Dish model highlights some possibilities to lead us out of deep trouble.