Neal Pike, member of the NH Community Seafood Cooperative, with his son, bringing in the first trawl of the day. Photo Credit: Sarah VanHorn

Happy Earth Day! This year, CDI thought we’d reflect on something that can sometimes receive less attention on this annual celebration: what’s happening in our oceans. In 2012, a BBC article warned, “Global fish stocks are exploited or depleted to such an extent that without urgent measures we may be the last generation to catch food from the oceans.” If this dire prediction comes true, it would have terrible impacts on the global environment as well as innumerable communities that rely on fishing for their sustenance and their livelihoods. That’s why we need to act on the local level, challenging and empowering fishers – as well as the people who depend on them – to make environmentally and economically sound decisions that benefit everyone.

Below is an interview with Niaz Dorry from On the Commons that explains the importance of this issue in greater detail:

Based in Gloucester, MA, the oldest settled fishing port in the U.S., local fisheries champion Niaz Dorry finds herself in a hotbed of resource management issues: while she and a growing community of fishermen consider themselves stewards—versus “owners”—of the ocean commons, others promote privatization policies in the name of conservation.

Once named a Hero For The Planet by Time Magazine for efforts to advance the rights and ecological benefits of small-scale fishing communities, Dorry is a veteran Greenpeace campaigner who has fought for decades to protect global marine diversity. She now serves as the coordinating director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA).

NAMA “works to build a customer market for ecologically responsible, local fisheries” both to bring fresh fish to seafood lovers, and to build a foundation for the “long-term economic health of fishing communities and the marine ecosystems that sustain them.” The organization, founded in 1995, grew out of the need for a better approach to protecting the ocean commons and managing marine resources.

Niaz Dorry: It’s worth reiterating how firmly ownership is situated at the heart of fisheries and ocean work: many individuals and organizations advocate for privatization, industrialization, marginalization, and consolidation as solutions for overfishing and marine conservation.

But at NAMA, we believe that the ocean belongs to nobody—that we are all stewards of the ocean and the marine ecosystem, not owners. NAMA grew out of the idea that we need to either leave the commons alone, or use the commons to fulfill human needs without diminishing it.

We are often criticized by people who work in fisheries management and policy for being naïve and idealistic. But we push back. The language we choose for talking about fisheries is meant to attract people from other arenas. The fight to take back the ocean commons, after all, is also about the fight to restore its link to water, food, land, mobility, recreation, joy, nature, and even some of the renewable fuels, such as wind.

One cooperative-inspired model for using the commons to fulfill human needs without diminishing the oceans is the Community Supported Fishery (CSF). While not strictly always cooperatives, CSFs do utilize cooperative values to work towards economic and environmental sustainability. Here’s a lengthy and helpful explanation from Wikipedia about the CSF model, which, appropriately, is based on the Community Supported Agriculture model.

A community-supported fishery (CSF) is an alternative business model for selling fresh, locally sourced seafood. CSF programs, modeled after increasingly popular community-supported agriculture programs, offer members weekly shares of fresh seafood for a pre-paid membership fee. The first CSF program was started in Port Clyde, Maine, in 2007, and similar CSF programs have since been started across the United States and in Europe. Community supported fisheries aim to promote a positive relationship between fishermen, consumers, and the ocean by providing high-quality, locally caught seafood to members. CSF programs began as a method to help marine ecosystems recover from the effects of overfishing while maintaining a thriving fishing community.


In a CSF, consumers sign up as members and pay in advance for a “share” of seafood, to be delivered weekly. Generally, each share is measured by weight but the size of shares offered varies among programs. Many programs offer multiple levels of membership, depending on the size of a share a member wants (i.e., individual share or family share). Each CSF offers a different variety of seafood to its members, based on local regulations, catch size, season, and location. Some CSFs may specialize in a specific species of seafood, while others may offer a variety of species based on what is currently available. Though many aspects of CSF programs are unique to specific programs, according to the organization Local Catch, there are 5 main elements that unite all CSF programs: .

  1. To establish a transparent chain-of-custody from boat to plate
  2. To increase access to premium, locally-caught seafood
  3. To ensure fishers receive a fair price for their catch that reflects the value of their work
  4. To engage fishers and community members in more robust, viable, local food systems
  5. To provide a framework through which fishers and customers alike can creatively steward marine resources

Combined, these elements are often considered the basis for conducting the program on a triple bottom line.

Triple bottom line

Community-supported fishery programs operate on a triple bottom line, which incorporates environmental stewardship, economic stability, and social improvements as goals of their business. The success of each aspect is intricately tied to the success of other two, creating a balance that benefits the fishermen, the consumers, and the health of the environment.

Economic Stability

CSFs began primarily with economic stability as a goal. Due to increased regulatory pressures, many small fishing communities were on the verge of disappearing. By creating a local market for seafood that bypassed the traditionally lengthy seafood supply chain, fishermen were able to continue working. Fishermen were also able to obtain a small price premium for their catch, which allowed them to be more flexible in their fishing practices. Further, by paying in advance, consumers are participating in a form of risk sharing with fishermen, who are assured of a buyer for their catch before they leave the harbor.

Social improvements

In creating a program that provides a direct connection between fishermen and consumers, CSF programs aim to rebuild the relationship between people and the food they eat. This relationship was lost with the rise of commercial fishing practices. Building a local food community is good for not only for community relations, but also for supporting local economies: people will be more inclined to support their neighbors only if they actually know their neighbors.

Environmental stewardship

In creating economic and social benefits, fishermen are then able to become stewards of marine ecosystem health, by utilizing practices that better support the fish populations they target. Specifically, many fishermen are able to alter their target species based on what is abundant, not what is in high demand by the larger supply chain. This allows fishermen to get a price that is closer to the cost of harvesting, gives more exploited fish a break, and provides members with more diversity in product. Often the fishermen know what the least destructive method of fishing is, but in the past have been pressured by market demands to go after only the highest priced fish (which are generally those most at risk for exploitation).

While CSFs are fantastic models that utilize many cooperative values to support fishing communities and the environments they’re based on, there also exist CSFs that are structured as multi-stakeholder cooperatives. These co-ops share the same goal as other CSFs, while having the added bonus of being democratically owned and governed by almost everyone who relies on it and is impacted by its operations. In fact, the Cooperative Development Institute has helped develop these types of cooperatives. From our website:

NH fishermen experienced a 78% cut in the groundfish quota allowed in 2013, along with low lobster prices and increasing costs of fuel and bait. At the same time, 98% of the groundfish landed in NH normally leaves the state with most being sold for low prices at commercial fish auctions. These factors put the New Hampshire fishing industry in a precarious position with its survival threatened. Josh Wiersma, Northeast Fishery Sector XI and XII Manager and Fishues blogger Sarah VanHorn, decided that the time was right to form a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) that would help local fishermen diversify markets, meet the need of consumers for fresh, locally harvested seafood, and capitalize on an established infrastructure of fishermen, producers and processors.

“The maritime fishing industry, a vital element of the economy, culture and history of the New Hampshire Seacoast, is in crisis,” Van Horn said. “We are addressing this crisis by increasing the recognition and appreciation of the interdependent roles that the fishing industry and the consumer play in our local ecological economy.”

Taking a cue from local community supported agriculture (CSA) programs where farmers offer consumers shares of the harvest for a pre-season, pre-paid price, Wiersma and Van Horn worked with local fishermen to develop a business plan for a community supported fishery (CSF). Fourteen fishermen and crew from Seabrook, Hampton, Rye and Portsmouth—representing just about all the active boats in NH—decided to organize the initiative as a cooperative that would reconnect local consumers with commercial fishermen, and that meant bringing consumers in to the business.

Unlike traditional CSFs, New Hampshire Community Seafood is a “multi-stakeholder” cooperative, where instead of the fishermen being the sole member-owners, consumers are also offered an opportunity to become members. “This way,” Wiersma states, “interested and engaged consumers can be more directly integrated” into the CSF and its mission.

Consumers are offered the opportunity to buy a share in the cooperative in addition to their seafood share. Consumers who buy a share of NH Community Seafood are represented by a seat on the board of directors and are entitled to receive a portion of any profits made at the end of the year. Buying a share of the organization gives the consumer a voice in the organization and both the fishermen and the consumers have a vested interest in seeing the organization succeed.

NH Community Seafood consumers pre-pay for an eight-week “season” of fresh seafood consisting of half or full allotments of a weekly filleted groundfish share, a weekly whole groundfish share, or a bi-weekly underdog fish share (featuring underutilized species).

There are four “seasons” planned, with a possible fifth season in February and March featuring shrimp and scallop. Deliveries of freshly caught fish are made weekly or every other week to farmers’ markets and other community locations. Cod, redfish, cusk, king whiting, monkfish, pollack, squid, and lobster have been among the offerings. Tweets keep consumers up to speed.

Taking cooperation a step further, NH Community Seafood developed partnerships to support aggregation, processing and distribution with two businesses that are key to NH’s commercial fishery infrastructure: Yankee Fishermen’s Cooperative in Seabrook picks up the fish at the dock, sorts and grades it, and sends the highest quality fish to Seaport Fish, a family-owned wholesale and retail market in Rye, which processes and packages the fish for delivery the following day. This means consumers receive fish within 30 hours of its being landed.

As stated in its mission, NH Community Seafood aims to “provide local fishermen a fair market for all the species they catch and to provide the consumer with access to a wide variety of fresh, locally-caught seafood throughout the year, better insight into the supply chain that brings seacoast seafood to their table, and direct input about the choice and diversity of fish they consume. The cultivation and nurturing of this direct relationship between local fishermen with local consumers is intended to increase demand for local seafood, to promote community awareness and engagement in marine resource issues, and to support our local and regional economies through the preservation of the livelihoods of local fishermen and the supporting of shore-side support infrastructure.”

So this Earth Day, let’s think about how we can implement the cooperative model to help the land, the sea, and the people.


Earth Day, 2015: The Cooperative Model and the Sea
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