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Cape Cod Community-Supported Fishery Offers New Line to Sustainable Fishermen with Eye Toward Profit

May 14, 2012 |

Seafood has long been a great source of pride for New Englanders and is as well known around the country as the region’s r-less accent. President Obama had clam “chowda” shipped from Boston for his inaugural celebration in 2009, and lobstermen in Maine have been shipping lobsters all over the U.S. for years. Unfortunately, in many parts of the region, heavy fishing has led to depleted fish stocks, which in turn have spurred stricter quotas for fishermen, putting a squeeze on their livelihoods.

Dave Henchy grew up on Cape Cod and has seen first hand the plight of the local fishermen who always keep an eye trained to the north. For decades now, the National Marine Fishery Service has found both the Gulf of Maine and George’s Bank fisheries’ stocks of haddock and cod to be overfished. Cape Cod fishermen have been catching fewer haddock and cod since the 1990s. Some fishermen have responded by trying to expand the market to include many lesser-known fish, such as monkfish, winter skate, bluefish, and mackerel. Not wanting to see the waters off Cape Cod reach the overfished levels of the northern New England fisheries, Henchy set out to support these and other sustainable fishermen, while carving out a business for himself.

Henchy’s Cape Cod Fish Share, a for-profit venture, has partnered with 29 boats to bring fresh, sustainably caught, local fish, including those lesser-known varieties, directly to members of a Community-Supported Fishery (CSF). Just as in a CSA, Cape Cod Fish Share members pay in advance for a weekly delivery of fresh fish. Henchy and former classmate, Toby Stapleton came up with the idea after working together on a master’s project at Suffolk University on community-supported agriculture. Henchy runs the business and Stapleton consults.

How it Works

Cape Cod Fish Share CSF members can sign up for a six-week share up to two months in advance, or just days before the start of the share. This spring, Henchy has extended the order window into mid-May in hopes of growing his membership. Four different shares are available ranging from $139 for a three-week trial to $229 for the “big value combo”. Each share includes some fish that will be familiar to the customers such as scallops, haddock, and northern shrimp as well as some uncommon fish. Customers can find recipes for some of the lesser-known fish on the Cape Cod Fish Share website.

How Cape Cod Fish Share's 'Community-Supported Fishery' Program Works

Establishing membership has been a challenge. Henchy has worked to spread the word about his fish share through existing local food networks, such as the Cape Cod chapter of Buy Fresh Buy Local. Several local food cooperatives and small independent grocery stores have signed on as pick-up locations and provided exposure to potential clients. Recently, some farmers in western Massachusetts have offered to host a pick-up location for the Cape Cod Fish Share’s CSF along with their CSA.

Henchy picks fish up directly on the docks, before the catch is brought to auction. He says he pays the fishermen a premium to get first choice of the “top of the boat,” meaning the last caught and freshest of the haul. The fish are cleaned, filleted, and portioned on the dock and Henchy and his drivers deliver the boxes to pick up locations around the state that afternoon.

Supporting a Sustainable Fishery

While many commercial fishermen rely on trawlers that resemble cages that are dragged along the sea floor trapping anything in their path, this method comes with serious drawbacks. Trawlers are indiscriminatory, catching unwanted fish that are trashed as bycatch and tearing up the ocean floor, disrupting homes to countless species of plants and animals. One alternative to trawling is longline fishing. Just as it sounds, this method of fishing uses a long line of rope. At consistent intervals, secondary lines dangle down from the long line, each bearing a baited hook. Fishermen leave long lines in the water for just a few minutes before hauling them on board and collecting the fish. There is little bycatch and the sea floor remains undisturbed. Many of Henchy’s fishermen use longlines.

Some fishermen specifically target lesser-known fish. Five or six years ago, longline fisherman, Mike Anderson, captain of The Bad Dog, shifted his sights from cod to dogfish, a bottom-feeding relative of the shark. Anderson recalls catching dogfish by accident during his days as a cod fishermen, in a YouTube documentary video, Longlining on the Bad Dog, posted on the Cape Cod Fish Share website, “We would go down the shoals and you’d think you were setting for cod fish and there would be a dogfish on every hook. Of course, you’d lose the whole trip and your gear would be a mess.” Since, he has tried to improve the reputation of and market for dogfish.

Click to Watch “Longlining On the Bad Dog”

Henchy tries to support as many of these alternative fishermen as he can. With 500 CSF members, demand currently only requires nine participating boats. As membership grows, Henchy has more boats ready to supply up to 50,000 pounds of fish in a week. He says that fishermen have been eager to join the Cape Cod Fish Share, adding that they “understood the need for innovative ideas to increase revenue and reduce the actual amount of fish.” When their catch is sold at auction for a dollar per pound, they have to bring in a long haul. Henchy’s says his premium gives fishermen a sufficient return to actually reduce the amount of fish they have to catch to make ends meet.

A Viable Business

So far, the fish share earns enough to support the salaries of five employees, including Henchy. He hopes to secure a large enough membership to turn an actual profit in the next year or so. While the nature of the business requires minimal overhead, delivery vehicles have required a large investment. Henchy believes his model could be replicated elsewhere in the country and is eager to share his experience securing the required permits and certifications with others thinking about establishing their own Community-Supported Fishery (CSF). First and foremost, he suggests taking the time to talk to local fishermen and listen to their needs. “Understand the aspect of their business and design yours around it.”

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