This week, Cape Ann Fresh Catch will start its spring season of bringing fresh fish to Melrose. It's based on the model of community supported agriculture, but with fish. Approximately 30 Melrosians have bought shares and there's still time to sign up.
Here's how it all got started.
In 2007, Greenpeace veteran Niaz Dorry, now the coordinating director of Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, began something new, a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) based on something not quite so new, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Both are based on something very old: small communities selling the fruits of their labor at markets near the source of their harvest. All of these groups are advocates of a clear path to market in which every product's provenance is known and quantified. Simply put, they are neighbors selling to neighbors.
In Port Clyde, Maine, Midcoast Fisherman's Cooperative began the first New England CSF, Port Clyde Fresh Catch with a group of twelve ground fishermen determined to preserve their heritage. (Also believed to be the first in the world, but this is not a grandiose organization and there aren't any trumpets blaring.)
Old time, small boat fishermen leave port in the morning or night and return within a day to sell their catch. They harvest all they can from fishing grounds less than a half day's sail away. They are solitary and small groups who are periodically bludgeoned by the weather and continually challenged by large commercial concerns and lack of cooperation in their own ranks. Their greatest asset, the public's almost endless appetite for their products, is also what threatens them most. Overfishing has almost destroyed a way of life, some would say, the way of life that created this country.
As the twentieth century wound down, fishing towns like Port Clyde, Maine and Massachusetts' oldest fishing port, Gloucester, were in jeopardy of losing their fleets. They're not entirely out of the storm yet, but 43 years ago, the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association (GFWA) formed an advocacy group that began to reverse the plight of their husbands. According to Angela Sanfilippo, GFWA's executive director, they went to congress and "... recommended the regulations to protect the fish stock ... as long as the rules and regulations are equitable and fair to everybody, and are for the real purpose of protecting the resources of the food chain in the ocean."
Re-enter, Niaz Dorry who introduced the CSF to the GFWA. A Gloucester resident herself, Dorry knew that the fishermen's wives had been promoting local fish for some time through advocacy and cooking demonstrations as well as education about some of the lesser used fishes, as Sanfilippo says "to encourage people to use all that comes out of the ocean, not just the haddock, the cod, the flounder, the lobster, but the squid and the pollock and the whiting and the monkfish and you name it."
Gloucester Wives eagerly began New England's second CSF. In its first 12-week season, which began in June 2009, Cape Ann Fresh Catch met with immediate enthusiasm and sold 700 shares. Although the trend has been steadily upward, there are seasonal highs and lows as each successive 12 week program covers different times of the year, summer being the most popular.
Their spring season will commence on March 7 and they have already sold 30 member shares in Melrose alone and sign up is ongoing; while members are encouraged to sign up before the start of a season, shares are available on a prorated basis for most of the season, so that people who want to buy a share at any time will not be penalized.
Steve Tousignant, Cape Ann Fresh Catch's operations manager, points out that the fish they sell are incredibly fresh and have quite often been swimming fewer than 24 hours before delivery. He adds, "The advantage of purchasing through Cape Ann Fresh Catch is that we pay the fisherman on average a higher price than what they'd normally receive through the auction or traditional market methods."
Processing is reduced to a minimum and storage is limited to the time it takes to get the fish to the owners of the CSF shares. A direct parallel with which most people are familiar is Fair Trade Coffee which pays coffee growers a much higher price for their beans by putting the consumer several links closer to the grower in the supply chain. The fisherman's benefit is obvious, higher price, but the consumer also benefits by having better knowledge of a fresher product which is less subject to vagaries of the market that are unrelated to the catch.
For fresh fish, large conglomerates are circumvented. "The only way you can get fresher fish is if you're out there catching it yourself." Tousignant said.
Sanfilippo adds that the product includes support of the fishermen's way of life. Share owners are not only buying very fresh fish, but they're preserving a very old culture that lives in harmony with the sea in contrast to the products created by twentieth century efforts to strip-mine it.
Cape Ann Fresh Catch has been exploring ways to get their fish a little further inland in Massachusetts, fielding calls from as far away as the Berkshires. They've even received a call from someone in Maryland looking for live flounder. Currently their CSF drops off in the following locales: Acton, Beverly, Bolton, Cambridge, Canton, Fenway, Gloucester, Harvard Square, Ipswich, Jamaica Plain, Lexington, Lincoln, Marblehead, Melrose, Sharon, and Westboro. They have also been actively developing a pilot program to sell directly to restaurants and institutions and expect to be much further along by May of this year.
The Melrose drop-off at on Main Street from 4-8 p.m. on Tuesdays, starting March 8.
With all of this interest, it's easy to imagine that fishing communities on the Cape and Islands might soon follow in Gloucester's wake. And when it comes to fish, they're Melrose's neighbors, too.