Benefits of Joining a Restaurant-Supported Fishery

Teaming up with small-scale local fishermen helps to preserve an endangered ecosystem — and can also boost your profits.
Produce doesn’t have to be the only locally-grown product you serve in your restaurant. See what sustainable seafood could do for your business. (Photo: Dock to Dish)

As a restaurateur, you probably know the world’s fish populations are in trouble. That grilled blue fin tuna you served for dinner last night might not be available on menus in the future. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund reports that more than 85 percent of global fish stocks are at risk of the most dangerous types of fishing: illegal, unreported and unregulated.

Chefs who prefer to serve fresh seafood caught by local small-scale fishermen now have a new line of access: the restaurant-supported fishery. The concept is drawn from another local food program you’re probably familiar with: community-supported agriculture (CSA).

“I had the idea of applying the CSA structure to local fisheries to see if that can reconnect local restaurants to fisheries,” said Sean Barrett, co-founder of Dock to Dish, a restaurant-supported fishery program.

When a restaurant signs up, it receives weekly deliveries of 75 to 100 pounds of fresh seafood caught by small-scale fishermen in their local area for a set price.

“Dock to Dish is going to bring you the safest, healthiest, most sustainable seafood around,” said Barrett.

Sustainable seafood: The role of restaurants

“Restaurants play a really important role in the sustainability of seafood. Their participation in a restaurant-supported fishery program means they are directly supporting local U.S. fishermen closest to their port. They’re getting the most local wild seafood available to them,” said Barrett.

Restaurant-supported fisheries help preserve populations of the most popular species (such as tuna and shrimp) as well as more obscure fish. “Using under-utilized species applies light harvesting pressure to the entire ecosystem, rather than heavy harvesting pressure on just a few species. You come out with a dramatically more sustainable system for restaurants.”

Members get to know the details of their fish intimately. “Chefs and restaurant guests are getting full traceability and source transparency. They get to know the name of the fishermen, the boat, the methods that are used, the history of species and the current state of the species,” said Barrett.

People, planet and profit

The price you’ll pay per pound from a restaurant-supported fishery — about $10 — is higher than what’s charged at major markets or distribution companies. But Barrett said the extra cost brings a higher-quality product. And that higher-quality product can net you higher profits.

“What we’ve learned over the years if something’s not financially sustainable, it’s not sustainable,” said Barrett.

“We follow the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. How do we create a system that benefits people, the planet and profits? We cracked the code and sustainable seafood is now profitable for restaurants.”

Participating restaurants have successfully charged a higher price per plate by wooing customers with the benefits of sustainable seafood.

“Because Dock to Dish comes with the full story of the fishermen and servers can explain it to their guests, they can then charge a higher price for our fish,” said Barrett.

Relinquish control to nature

To make membership in a restaurant-supported fishery work, chefs will need to relinquish control of what they serve in a given week. You won’t have much, if any, advance notice of the types of seafood you’ll receive in each delivery.

“Chefs surrender their traditional right to demand anything from the fishery. Only the ecosystem and local fishermen know what’s most abundant and at peak harvest time.”

A flexible menu is essential to using the seafood that comes in. You may need to get creative, figuring out ways to prepare seafood you may not be used to cooking.

Getting involved

Restaurant-supported fisheries have exploded in popularity, leaving Dock to Dish with long waiting lists of restaurants that want to participate. Fortunately, Barrett is making it easy for restaurants to connect with local, small-scale fishermen independently.

“We’ve found a lot of success with helping small restaurants put together their own restaurant-supported fisheries if they’re in coastal regions across the country. We have a blueprint and network of fisheries we can help them connect with.”

What does Dock to Dish charge restaurants for this assistance? Nothing.

“We’re still in the mission-driven phase of our development. We are interested in getting the blueprint out and creating more membership-based supply systems for seafood.”

For Barrett, helping restaurants launch their own programs with local fisheries is time and energy well spent. “It’s really important. Fishermen thrive in that environment. We have a sense of urgency for changing seafood in the U.S. as soon as possible.”

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