Can you guess the top four raw food products, ranked by value, produced in New York State? If you’re familiar with the state’s long history of dairy farms you might correctly guess that milk is number one, and the state’s popular nickname, the “Big Apple,” might give away number two. Where there is dairy there are cows, so it may come as no surprise that meat sits in third place. But perhaps you wouldn’t expect that fish comes next, ranking fourth. Yet, in 1924 New York City’s famous Fulton Fish Market was supplying 25% of the country’s fish, and by the turn of the century the New York seafood industry raked in nearly $8 billion in sales and employed about 100,000 people.
As recently as 2005, an impressive 5% of U.S. seafood sales still flowed through the new Fulton Fish Market, now located in Hunts Point Terminal Market in the Bronx. Originally opened in 1822, the Fulton Fish Market is the second largest fish market in the world, with Tokyo’s Tsukiji market taking the number one spot. Handling 200 million pounds of fish in 2012 the market currently houses more than 30 seafood vendors and meets about one third of New York City’s seafood demands. Fish are flown in from all over the world – from Mexico to Nova Scotia to Iceland to Yugoslavia – and as long as fishing conditions are good around the world, buyers have an incredible selection of seafood from which to choose on a daily basis . In the middle of the night the market comes alive with buyers for restaurant groups and fish purveyors haggling over prices which change over the course of the six to eight hour market run. The market ends at about 4am, when the purchased fish are loaded up to be taken to their respective restaurants and stores.
Yet, problems loom behind the hustle and bustle of Fulton Fish Market. The fish industry, like many parts of the global food system, is fraught with obstacles and consumer concern. Bioaccumulation (e.g. mercury in your fish), overfishing, by-catch, illegal fishing, and energy intensity–these are just some of the ills within the industry. Indeed, today, The Monterey Bay Aquarium reports that of the wild fish populations that scientists have assessed, nearly two-thirds are deemed “unhealthy.” The FAO reports that fish makes up 17% of the global population’s intake of animal protein, yet 29% of the world’s marine stocks are overfished. That latter figure doesn’t even encompass the entirety of the countless seafood that is fished illegally, with some international fishery management agencies reporting that at least one quarter of the world’s fish is unreported, caught illegally or unregulated, which has alarmed conservationists. In addition to the implications overfishing has on the environment and the future of our fish supply, seafood fished from unsanctioned locations can be dangerous to human health.
These ills in the fish industry have worried consumers and scientists alike. A google search shores up a range of organizations committed to a healthier seafood industry: FAO, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Marine Stewardship Council, NOAA, Oceana and National Geographic Society, just to name a few. While the majority of the fish consumed in New York City is imported and passes through the Fulton Fish Market, local, small-scale fish distribution companies are also emerging, further indicating a desire for something different among consumers. Contrary to the Fulton Fish Market’s model of wholesale distribution of fish from around the world, these companies use the model of a Community Supported Fishery, or CSF. New York-based CSFs have created distribution chains centered almost exclusively in the state. Whereas fish typically passes from fisherman to seller to buyer to purveyor to consumer, this method allows fish to travel from the fisherman to only one middleman before arriving at the consumer.
With a mission “to reinvent how people select, prepare, and eat fish,” Village Fishmonger is one seafood company that offers a CSF package, sourcing seafood from New York and New Jersey fishermen. Village Fishmonger aims to reconnect coastal communities to their local food system, promote sustainable fishing practices and strengthen relationships between fishermen and the people they feed. Fishmonger offers members weekly shares of fresh fish at a set membership fee. Its one truck heads down to the docks to pick up pre-arranged fish from the fishermen either as they are unloading their boats or immediately thereafter, and then transports the seafood to the kitchen where the fishmongers turn the fish into filets ready to be packed and labeled. The fishmongers bring those filets to the pick up locations for members to claim their shares.
According to Sean Dixon, “The Fish Guy” at Village Fishmonger, public education is among the greatest obstacles Village Fishmonger faces. Dixon explains that many people are not aware that there are waterways near New York from which they can obtain local seafood. He explains that while there are 300 species of fish in the New York/New Jersey Bight, most fish in New York and New Jersey ports are mixed in with seafood from around the world, making it difficult for residents of New York City to recognize species that are available year-round in their own backyard. Village Fishmonger aims to bridge this disconnect through its CSF.
It is nearly impossible to know what percentage of consumer demand CSFs meet, but it’s small to be sure. With a customer base of only 600 people and no middlemen, Village Fishmonger is able to track its fish from ocean to consumer. Yet, without a scalable model for CSFs, Fulton Fish Market will continue to be the main fish supplier in New York for the foreseeable future. In fact, despite the quantity of fish that comes through New York every day, the amount of fish harvested in New York represents a very small portion of the total demand in the state. Thus, the majority of seafood consumed in New York City is brought in from other parts of the United States and from around the world. There will always be demand for imported fish, and even if CSFs could scale enough to feed entire cities, they would not be able to supply everything consumers demand.
The visible gap between what a feel-good company like Fishmonger can provide and the quantity consumers do demand may feel defeating at times. Yet, the presence of CSFs provides more than just an alternative to consumers, but an opening-up of the conversation about the sustainability of local eating, particularly of seafood. Diligent thought, strategy and action could help conserve fisheries in the future and consequently shape the food supply chain. A recent World Resources Institute news release, for example, presents the startling evidence that fishery production may have to double in production to meet consumer demand in 2050, yet the article continues on to explore solutions–namely well-managed aquaculture–that could alleviate the production burden. NPR ran a similar story: Can Farmed Fish Feed The World Without Destroying the Planet?
Journalist Sarah Murray’s 2008 book Moveable Feasts, which explores the surprisingly vast movement of food throughout human history, also shows the modern food system as global, complicated, technical and counter-intuitive, at times out of necessity. She reveals, for example, that most salmon travels all the way to China for deboning, thanks to the fishes’ pin bones, which make filleting machines ineffective and require hand-extraction. China has become the world’s 8th largest fish importer, largely for just this processing. The deboning of salmon is just one of the examples Murray uses to illuminate the unpalatable reality of how far food travels–and has traveled since the Roman empire–for processing, and how technology has made the modern journeys of our food physically possible and economically viable.
What is certain is that New York depends on fish, but also needs effective ways to safely, sustainably and transparently source seafood. How could we integrate the aspirations and concerns of a CSF into the global framework of our food? Hopefully, a scalable, effective solution to overfishing and illegal harvesting–rooted in the supply chain–could be born from the extremes of Fishmonger and Fulton Fish market.