NEW YORK—Consumers and chefs have the potential to alter the scientific facts that portend fish will be extinct from Earth by 2048. But in a world where, according to the United Nations, 30 percent of fish products are mislabeled, it becomes difficult for people to eat responsibly.
Since the prediction was made in a 2006 study by Boris Worm, PhD, of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, there has been a rise in sustainable fishing efforts, although many were marred by issues in transparency.
But Mermaid’s Garden, which runs Brooklyn’s first Community Supported Fishery (CSF), is taking seafood transparency to the next level.
The Park Slope-based seafood consultancy uses a community fishery model to connect customers with seafood that has been caught sustainably within a day or two by small-scale fishers.
A CSF works in a similar fashion to the better-known Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) system, which delivers fresh produce directly from local farms to consumers.
Mermaid’s Garden cuts out the middleman to bring fresh and sustainably-fished seafood to over 300 customers in Brooklyn. Customers sign up for a season at a time and receive fresh fish once a week.
Brooklynites can either purchase a half-share or a full-share. A half-share (1-1.25 pounds/week) can feed two people once a week, and cost $66 for four weeks of fish.
Full-shares (2-2.25 pounds/week) can feed four people once a week, or two people twice a week, and cost $132 for four weeks. Both shares run in four-week cycles. There is also a $15 membership fee.
Local fish that are currently in season now include black bass, porgy, bluefish, striped bass, summer flounder, swordfish, yellowfin, bigeye tuna.
This year, Mermaid’s Garden has partnered with Iliamna Fish Company to bring fresh Alaskan Salmon to Brooklyn.
Each week, Mermaid’s Garden emails customers information about its fish, including the scientific name, the catch method, as well as the name of the fisherman and his boat. In some cases, it even provides the longitude and latitude where the fish was taken out of the ocean.
Such details are seldom given by other companies, but they are details that matter because 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization at a conference in 2010.
Mermaid’s Garden was founded by Bianca Piccillo and Mark Usewicz a little over a year ago.
Their job isn’t glamorous. On some days, Usewicz wakes up at 5 in the morning to pick up fish from various transfer points, or big cold storage units in the city. He brings the fish back to Brooklyn, does the butchering work with Piccillo, sticking their arms elbow deep into fish guts. “But I have never felt that it’s not worth it,” Piccillo said.
They have pick up locations in Ditmas Park, Williamsburg, Park Slope, Bushwick, Cobble Hill, Red Hook, and Clinton Hill/ Bedford Stuyvesant.
Piccillo and Usewicz have extensive experience in the fishing and restaurant industries. Usewicz formerly was the executive chef at the historic Montauk Club and Palo Santo Comedor y Bar de Vino in Park Slope, while Piccillo worked in aquatic laboratories at the University of Maryland and Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.
They have been living in Brooklyn for seven years, and said they wanted their community to have access to fresh fish. Together, they used their backgrounds to provide such a service.
Why Small Fishers
According to the same United Nations conference, 30 percent of fish caught become bycatch, which means they are thrown back into the water dead.
Small-scale fisheries employ more people, use less fuel, and generate less bycatch than larger fisheries and operators.
Nevertheless, they are often at a disadvantage due to lack of access to consumers, government subsidies, and political leverage.
Mermaid’s Garden also supports small local fishers by giving them direct access to a market they might not otherwise have. CSFs also protect fishers and fishing communities by compensating fishers fairly.
CSFs also help preserve traditional fishing methods. One fisherman is a pound-netter in Long Island. His family has been using this ancient fishing technique for 14 generations.
Via word of mouth, small fishers from the East Coast have been approaching Mermaid’s Garden to express interest in participating.
They buy from one to three fishers each week. Most are fish from Long Island, although it varies by the season. Ninety percent of the fish are local, with the rest coming from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, or the south during winter. In total, they have bought from 30 different fishers.
Which seafood species are endangered and which are not? This is a difficult question that chefs and restaurants face since the answer can depend on many factors such as location and season.
Piccillo said she has worked in the restaurant industry for many years, and is friends with many chefs.
“Chefs often tell me they want to do the right thing, but the right thing can be confusing and they need help,” she said.
Hence, Mermaid’s Garden also offers a wholesale and restaurant consulting services to help businesses serve sustainably harvested fish.
“We are very picky about who we work with for consulting,” Piccillo said. “If we feel like they’re not committed, or that our goals are not aligned, we won’t work with them.”
After opening for a little over a year, Piccillo and Usewicz are now focusing on opening their own retail store in Park Slope this fall.
Their work with the CSFs will continue.
“We will not be competing with ourselves by keeping the CSFs going,” she said. “Our shop will serve our immediate neighborhood.”
Other CSFs in New York City:
Seafood brought in for you by Village Fishmonger will always be sourced locally. They only work with small boat fishers in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
Big City Fish Share works with fishers and processors near Amagansett, N.Y., at the tip of Long Island, where they have access to the fresh ocean waters of Gardiner’s Bay, Block Island Sound, and offshore Montauk. A one-pound share cost $16 per delivery; two pound share costs $32 per delivery; and a full share of clams or oysters cost $18 per delivery.