Gloucester’s inner harbor pays no mind to the picturesque. It’s a working Massachusetts port, a saguaro-shaped inlet bordered by fish wholesalers, ice manufacturers, whale-watch operators, and commercial docks. Gloucester’s sailors and their weatherworn vessels are part of a fishing tradition dating back nearly 400 years; the first English fishermen arrived in 1623, and since then, the city has seen fortunes made and more than 10,000 men lost in the pursuit of ocean bounty.
People put a lot of stock in that heritage here. When two strangers meet in town, it’s not unusual to hear them map a shared connection via the fishery:
I’m a D’Amico on my mother’s side. She worked at Good Harbor Fillet …
… Oh yeah, you’re Johnny’s kid, right?
The heritage is everything, a chain linking one generation to the next. And now it seems as endangered as the Atlantic codfish that made this fishery great. In the name of protecting the very fish that Gloucester depends on, federal and state governments have taken many steps over the years, each seemingly more threatening to the fishermen than the last. In 2010, they instituted a catch-share policy that promotes consolidation, forcing more of the region’s small independent dayboat operators–the backbone of Gloucester’s fleet–out of business. Then last August, after several years of encouraging news about replenished cod stocks, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), having determined that the cod fishery was again on the brink of collapse, proposed catch-limit cuts of more than 70 percent for 2013, with cuts in other species, as well, such as yellowtail flounder and sole. (Catch limits for 2012 had already been cut by 22 percent.) Last September, after months of wrangling by Massachusetts’ congressional delegation and its governor, the U.S. Commerce Department declared a groundfish disaster and urged Congress to appropriate a $100 million relief package for New England and New York fisheries. Also on the table, however, is a controversial $100 million boat and permit buyback program, which could end up putting even more fishermen out of work. Could their grandfathers and great-grandfathers ever have imagined a time when they could not fish here?
It seems as though it’s all bad news. But on one dock, workers for Ocean Crest Seafoods are busy unloading fish, weighing a regulation catch of cod, sorting them and putting them into plastic bins with ice that comes rattling down a chute from Cape Pond Ice next door. Ocean Crest has many customers through its wholesale distribution business and its Neptune’s Harvest organic-fertilizer company. But one customer is different: a three-year-old experiment, a bright and shining spot in the midst of all the grim news. It’s a CSF, a community-supported fishery, called Cape Ann Fresh Catch (CAFC).
Like the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model that gives small farmers a way to sell their goods directly to consumers–partial insurance against bad crop years–community-supported fisheries invite members to pay upfront for a fixed allotment of fish–in Cape Ann’s case, about five pounds of whole fish or two pounds of fillets–on a weekly or biweekly basis. The fish, which may be cod, bluefish, hake, sole, monkfish, redfish, haddock, or yellowtail, depending on the season, are delivered to 18 drop-off points around the Greater Boston area and the North Shore. The fish are always caught the same day, never frozen, never “fishy.” In exchange for this bounty, shareholders relinquish the right to shop by species. Barring kosher and allergy considerations, you get whatever the ocean turns up that day.
The offices of Cape Ann Fresh Catch are housed in an industrial building a couple of miles back from the water. CAFC is a joint project of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association (a.k.a. “the Wives”), a nonprofit advocacy group with which it shares office space, and the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. The president of the Wives is Angela Sanfilippo, whose husband, Johnny, was a fishing-boat captain for decades; she and NAMA coordinating director Niaz Dorry were instrumental in launching the CSF.
Small and stout, Angela still speaks with the staccato lilt of Sicily, her home until 1963, and when she’s not advocating for the fishery or trying to talk sense into policymakers, she’s at the stove making roasted fish, fish stew, or spaghetti with fish. There’s a full stove in the office break room; most of the women are Italian, and even though they work, they cook. Though the office is always busy (this past fall the CSF had some 700 subscribers), someone fixes lunch with whatever is left from the day’s deliveries. (Just try to say no to second helpings with these women.) Their combined talents have even produced the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Cookbook: Stories and Recipes
(2005; Twin Lights Publishers).
Talking about the origins of Fresh Catch, Angela summarizes simply: “We needed to help people make money.” They saw Port Clyde, Maine, succeeding with a first-of-its-kind CSF program, so they floated the idea at the Gloucester farmers’ market in June 2009 and soon had 100 potential customers on board. “I go to the post office and there’s a huge stack of envelopes,” Angela says. “And in every envelope there’s a check.”
At first, CAFC offered only whole fish. “When you fillet a fish, you use only 60 percent of the meat,” Angela explains. “With the whole fish, you use 95. ” But customers wanted a choice, so CAFC contracted with Turner’s Seafood in Gloucester to do the filleting.
The staff of Cape Ann Fresh Catch has a mission beyond marketing. They want to teach consumers how to cook with and enjoy fish other than cod and salmon. “People have a hierarchy of fish,” says Heather Fraelick, an inaugural CSF customer who became the group’s marketing director. “The consumer doesn’t really understand what happens when you eat only the same fish over and over.” When the market demands only a few choice species, fishermen are forced to go farther afield to find them, and to catch more of them when they do. That leads to overfishing and to greater hazards at sea. If fishermen could earn a decent price for a greater variety of fish caught closer to home, the CSF could potentially save the fishery and the fishermen’s livelihoods.
Cape Ann Fresh Catch is nowhere near that point now. It currently buys a little bit of fish from many different dayboats, but if the program grows, it might be able to buy a lot of fish from a fleet of dedicated boats. And if everyone bought fish this way, more fishermen could be guaranteed a living wage without decimating fish stocks. A total conversion is unlikely, of course. But New England, home to the most stringently regulated fisheries in the country, is also a hotbed of innovation. Since Port Clyde and Gloucester began their CSF programs, nine other New England communities, from Connecticut to Maine, have launched their own. But what will happen come May this year, when those drastic catch limits go into effect? Will there even be enough fishermen to supply Cape Ann Fresh Catch? “We do believe there will be enough boats to supply our member base, as it stands now,” Heather Fraelick says. “That said, the reality for fishermen is that the industry is constantly in flux. We don’t know how cuts will impact the market and prices.”
Back at Ocean Crest Seafoods, Al Cottone has brought his boat, the Sabrina Maria, to the dock, and the crew is racing to unload about 600 pounds of flounder, haddock, and monkfish tail that he caught alone and trimmed himself. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon, and he’s been out since 5:00 a.m. When asked about the looming cuts, he shakes his head. “You can’t even describe it,” he says. “You live month to month. We’re seeing an increasing level in every species out there, and they say everything is in decline. There’s a huge disconnect.”
He has more to say, but there’s no time. Another boat is waiting behind him, and he needs to monitor Ocean Crest’s crew as they weigh his take. In 15 minutes he’ll be gone and another boat will take his place.
The following recipes make use of fish that Cape Ann Fresh Catch offers its members each winter. If your fishmonger doesn’t carry these varieties, ask him or her to place a special order. Or join a CSF! For a list of New England community-supported fisheries, go to: YankeeMagazine.com/more