Wildlife & Wild Places

Montauk business launches crowdfunding campaign to fight seafood fraud with technology

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

Photo by Erica Cirino, Copenhagen fish market at Torvehallerne.
Photo by Erica Cirino, Copenhagen fish market at Torvehallerne.

On a recent afternoon during a working trip to Denmark, I walk to a small Copenhagen seafood market to pick up something for dinner. Beneath the counter I see rows of gleaming fish and piles of shellfish lying on a bed of crushed ice. While everything under the glass appears tasty, I tell the seafood clerk I want to opt for whatever is freshest.

“You’ll want to go with the local fish,” the clerk says as he points to herring, eel, mussels, cod and plaice.

I take a closer look at the fish he’s pointing too. Indeed, the little labels on the counter indicate that the fish have been caught close to home—which for me, right now, is Copenhagen, Denmark. Yet, experts say these fish may have been caught thousands of miles away. What’s more, they may not even belong to the species my seafood clerk claims. Recently, a review of more than 200 studies carried out in 55 countries, analyzing the provenance of 25,000 seafood items sold in restaurants and fish markets, revealed that about one in five across the world are mislabeled.

Recognizing these facts, a “community supported fishing” company called Dock to Dish is working to increase the traceability of the U.S. seafood supply chain. Currently, Dock to Dish operates in Montauk, California, Costa Rica and Canada. Its network of certified fishers must comply with a comprehensive set of rules, namely, that their fish are caught locally and sustainably and are made available to its paying members within 24 hours of being caught. To ensure freshness and to stick to their mission to sell fish locally, Dock to Dish does not sell fish to members outside a 150-mile radius from where it was brought in to the dock.

Photo by Corey Templeton, Wigery Warf in Portland, Maine. (Flickr)
Photo by Corey Templeton, Wigery Warf in Portland, Maine. (Flickr)

To do this, Dock to Dish plans on turning into “Dock to Dish 2.0,” installing technological upgrades to their current system making their fishers’ products available to consumers with greater transparency than ever before. They will begin by making upgrades to their Montauk program, tentatively rolling them out in their other locations—and coming locations—in the near future.

Executing the new version of their company will involve raising a minimum of $75,000 through a crowd-funding campaign, which will pay for high-tech catch-tracking equipment and software to be installed on their fishers’ boats, as well as a similar catch-tracking system to be set up in their delivery vehicles, including a new refrigerated van they plan on purchasing with some of their crowd-funding money.

Dock to Dish’s upgrades will give their members complete transparency about where their seafood was caught, who caught their seafood and how recently their seafood was caught. The company also plans on using some money to upgrade their website with a real-time catch tracking dashboard so the public, too, can keep tabs on Dock to Dish fishers’ catches and seafood deliveries.

Today “it is nearly impossible to trace anything back to the actual source,” says Dock to Dish Founder Sean Barrett. “The reality is that until we can know exactly where our fish is coming from, it will remain impossible to know how sustainable—or unsustainable—the sources are.”

Thanks to a suite of fisheries regulations, including the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the U.S. boasts some of the world’s most sustainable fisheries. These laws work to prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, safeguard fishers’ livelihoods, and ensure a safe and sustainable seafood supply. Yet, sustainability and transparency issues persist, and Dock to Dish believes its coming upgrades can show the rest of the U.S. fishing industry—and eventually fisheries worldwide—the way forward.

Photo by Charlie Johnson, deepwater fishing off Warwick, Rhode Island. (Flickr)
Photo by Charlie Johnson, deepwater fishing off Warwick, Rhode Island. (Flickr)

Barrett says his company’s upgrades would help fish consumers make smarter purchasing choices, in the long-term supporting responsible, local fishers. “Dock to Dish 2.0 is a very important step towards reconnecting our local communities to our local fishermen in a transparent system that rewards the good folks who are out here on the water working hard everyday to keep U.S. fisheries healthy and sustainable.”

I’m looking forward to checking out Dock to Dish’s Montauk operations come summer when I’m back in New York and their local fishing traceability system is implemented. It will be exciting to see how the new technologies might make it easier to find and purchase sustainable seafood.

Carl Safina is author of seven books, including Song for the Blue Ocean, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Eye of the Albatross, Voyage of the Turtle, and The View From Lazy Point. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University, where he also co-chairs the University's Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. A winner of the 2012 Orion Award and a MacArthur Prize, among others, his work has been featured in outlets such as The New York Times, National Geographic, CNN.com and The Huffington Post, and he hosts “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. The paperback version of Safina's seventh book, "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel," is available in stores July 12, 2016.

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