MAIN STREET — A seafood supplier at the Sunday Farmers’ Market on Main Street is making a splash with its new business model that connects consumers directly to fishermen, cutting out waste and cost in the process.
Community Seafood does for seafood what Farm Fresh to You, SavRaw or other groups serving Santa Monica do for vegetables. For a set price each week, clients can stop by the market and grab a pre-set quantity of fish caught by a small supplier off the California coast.
They also get a weekly newsletter replete with information about their purchase, the people who caught it and even some recipes to test out.
The “community-supported fishery” concept was inspired by the better-known “community-supported agriculture,” or CSA, model, said Sarah Rathbone, owner and operator of Community Seafood.
She and her team work directly with fishermen and women, often one-boat operations based along the coast, to buy in-season fish at a higher price than the harvesters could get working through the conventional supply chain that ends at commercial supermarkets.
By cutting out middlemen — multiple rounds of buyers, distributors and shippers — the people doing the work can get paid higher prices for their products without costing the end consumer much more than they would otherwise pay, she said.
“Eighty percent of our gross revenue goes back to them,” Rathbone said. “Not only are we trying to pay the fisherman more, but consumers can access local products more than they would in any retail space.”
That means the fishermen make $4 a pound for black cod, for instance, instead of the $1.80 they might otherwise get. On the consumer side, that translates to between $16.50 and $20 per pound as a flat fee, no matter what kind of fish arrives that week. The price depends on how many weeks they subscribe.
There is a tradeoff, of course.
People used to picking up salmon for a weekend dinner party in December probably won’t be able to using Community Seafood — they sacrifice choice but gain quality and the knowledge they’re participating in a more sustainable form of fishing.
They also get a sense of the origin of their delicious meals, Rathbone said.
That strikes a personal chord with Rathbone.
“I was a vegetarian for 10 years. I realized that the reason I was a vegetarian was because I was unaware of where my food was coming from,” Rathbone said.
She broke a decade of meat abstinence with goat raised by a friend. The gamey meat may not be the easiest reentry into the animal world, but the realization caused Rathbone to forge a new relationship with the food she used to fuel her body.
Community Seafood’s products may be a bit more accessible to the average eater than goat, but because it works with individual fishermen and knows exactly how much fish it needs to supply its customers, the company can provide seafood rarely served on menus or supplied in normal fish markets.
This week, for instance, curious Santa Monicans will see the ridgeback shrimp, a species that doesn’t keep well and therefore is a bit too risky for many businesses.
“You’re going to get what’s in season, what’s freshest and what’s coming right out of the ocean,” Rathbone said.
Community Seafood got its start as a project of UC Santa Barbara, which pulled together staff, students and faculty to see how economically sustainable community-supported fisheries could be.
“When we got together and I was brought on as an organizer, we realized we were shooting ourselves in the foot to make this a college-only project,” Rathbone said.
Rathbone got her start in the fishing industry while studying for a master’s degree in marine biology and fisheries management. She needed access to lobsters for her research, and struck a deal with a lobster boat to work on the boat in return for the opportunity to measure lobsters as the fishermen caught them.
She later joined the crew for a full lobster season. The experience gave her deeper insight into the industry, and helped her communicate with fishermen for Community Seafood.
Companies like Community Seafood are growing in number, but are still rare.
A website called LocalCatch.org, which tracks community-supported fisheries, shows clusters in California and in the northeast, with a few sprinkled in Canada and Alaska. It tracks 126 across the country.
Community Seafood itself is in the middle of an expansion. It served only Santa Barbara and Goleta initially — Santa Monica is its first foray outside of that area. The company’s pilot project here will only run for eight weeks, which began on May 5.
Already, 38 people have signed up, and more are welcome, Rathbone said.
For more information on subscriptions and prices, check out www.communityseafood.com.