Kirk Lombard is lying on the beach, reaching his arm into a white plastic tube jammed two feet into the sand.
“That’s it,” he exclaims as he pulls out a horseneck clam. He shows the croissant-sized mollusk to a group of Stanford University alumni who are on a tour to understand where their seafood comes from.
Lombard, who runs Seaforager, a seafood subscription service in San Francisco, is one of a growing number of fishermen who have started directly connecting people with the food they eat.
Lombard’s “community-supported fishery” provides 275 people in the Bay Area with weekly or biweekly shipments of fresh, locally caught seafood from the California coast.
“They really are getting a very special product,” Lombard said. “I am actually providing them with something that is very hard to get.”
Because more than 91 percent of seafood in the U.S. is imported, finding local seafood at most nearby grocery stores can be nearly impossible.
For $24 a week, members of Lombard’s community-supported fishery get a package of local fish, such as salmon, halibut, and trout that are available as fillets. Or they can opt for Neptune’s Delight, a surprise combination of small whole fish and shellfish like spot prawns, clams, and mussels.
Most fish comes from within a 200-mile radius of San Francisco, depending on what’s in season. Participants can choose from ten pickup locations or pay $8 to have the fish delivered.
“It’s the freshest seafood product in the city,” Lombard said. “It’s straight from the boat or dockside, or I catch it myself.”
Since 2007, community-supported fisheries have grown in popularity across North America. There are now almost 200 throughout the United States and Canada.
Josh Stoll helped start Walking Fish in North Carolina and the cooperative became so popular he created LocalCatch.org so consumers across the country could find similar community-supported fisheries in their area.
“People from all over the country asked, ‘How can we do this?’” said Stoll. “And it wasn’t because they wanted North Carolina seafood. It’s because they wanted something that was good for local fishermen.”
Modeled after community-supported agriculture, these community-supported fisheries enable subscribers to purchase a “share” in a CSF, which goes directly to the fishermen.
This helps fishermen pay for labor and equipment costs upfront and guarantees a steady supply of fresh, local seafood for members.
“Today fishermen have to generate more value from the same fish they were catching before because we can’t catch more fish. The stocks are maxed out,” said Duke University economics professor Martin Smith.
“There are a couple strategies to make up for decreased revenue. One option is to provide a higher quality product that you can charge more for.”
But while CSFs help fishermen and provide fresh local seafood to eager consumers, they don’t necessarily tread lightly on the environment.
“There’s a misconception that local equals sustainable,” said Robin Pelc, fisheries research manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Some seafood may still be overfished or be caught using a drag net.”
In fact, several CSFs in the Bay Area, including Local Catch Monterey Bay use bottom trawling to harvest ground fish. The method of dragging a net across the bottom of the ocean means everything in its path is collected and can often lead to bycatch, or unwanted species that are killed and tossed back into the ocean.
“The best way to find out if your seafood is sustainable is ask CSFs a simple question, ‘Is this sustainable?’ and get in a conversation and see what their definition is,” Pelc said. “Ask the people running the CSF and they can tell you the story behind the seafood.”
Pelc provides recommendations for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide, which lists unsustainably caught seafood and recommends better alternatives.
“But just like we’ll never get all of our grains from CSAs, the same will be true of seafood,” said Smith. “There will be large industrial fisheries that will still provide the bulk of seafood protein.”
“The value of CSFs right now is experimental, and whether it’s an important part of the sustainable seafood model remains to be seen. It’s still an open question.”