It’s Time To Change How You Think About Fish

Over the next two weeks, Uproxx will explore sustainable food sourcing with the release of two Uproxx Reports mini docs, profiling Dock to Dish and the local fishermen trying to change how you eat seafood.

Do you remember the classic “Is the Chicken Local?” sketch from Portlandia? The one where Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein ask a series of increasingly ludicrous questions about the lifestyle of the chicken they’re planning to eat. It’s clever, and ridiculous, and — for anyone who knows the world of food sourcing — rings true. Small-time farmers, ranchers, and fruit growers got a huge clout boost when the “eat local” movement went mainstream. You may not know the names of the animals you eat, but outfits like Cook Pigs come pretty damn close — sharing photos of the ranchers, the living pigs, and the actual cuts of meat side-by-side on social media. The fact that restaurants routinely shout out their purveyors on the menu tightens this link and allows conscious diners to eat without any factory-farming guilt.

For a long time, fish have been absent from these sourcing conversations. We accept — or fail to notice — that the sushi we gorge ourselves on has been flown in from across the world. We pay little attention to concerns about overfishing, even as bluefin tuna threaten to go the way of the buffalo. It’s all just a little too complicated and hard to wrap our heads around, and having to visit the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch List or NOAA every time you want to bite into a crab cake is asking a lot.

That’s the problem Dock to Dish is trying to solve. They want their fishermen to be as well known as famous cattlemen, like Niman Ranch. They want to give you peace of mind that the fish you’re eating is local, sustainable, and humanely caught. Basically, the next time you’re ordering fish, Dock to Dish hopes that their name will allow you to rest easy.

“If you think about it, it’s just a revitalization of what we used to do,” explains Sarah Rathbone, co-founder of Dock to Dish LA. “Everyone’s touting us as a revolutionary concept and we look at them like they’re crazy, because it’s exactly how food sourcing was done before the industrialized seafood system came into being.”

Dock to Dish has often been called a CSF (Community Supported Fishery), interacting with restaurants in a way that’s similar to CSA baskets. At the heart of this interplay is trust: trust from chefs that Dock to Dish can supply them with fresh, locally caught fish and trust from the fishermen that the chefs will know what to do with whatever product they bring in — whether it’s sea urchins or yellow tail. Compared to the industrialized system, it all feels kind of…homey.

“The small guys get pushed out to the fringes,” Rathbone explains. “It’s very hard for them to make it.”

Speaking up for local fishermen is one part of Dock to Dish’s mission. Another part is acting as the PR team for lesser known (but more sustainable) fish species, rather than allowing more popular species to get fished into oblivion. Rathbone has chosen not to sell bluefin tuna, because it’s been overfished.

“There’s a natural struggle between commercial fishing and environmentalism,” she says, “because commercial fishing is, by its nature, extractive. But when you can honestly tell fisherman that by taking away a really sensitive species, like bluefin, they can highlight their sustainability without affecting their bottom line, it’s no contest.”

Refusing to sell threatened fish means that something else has to fill in the gap. This is where Dock to Dish most resembles your CSA basket. They bring fish to chefs who are inventive and eager to try underappreciated species — like the invasive, venomous, but very edible lionfish.

“Lionfish is a great example of a fish we want to highlight,” Rathbone says. “That’s kind of a public service we can be doing, where people can understand that by changing our eating habits we can have a significant and positive effect on the environment, rather than a negative one.”

So far, Dock to Dish’s tight link with local fishermen has helped them build relationships with high-end restaurants like Providence LA and N/Naka. Follow along next week as we explore those relationships and talk with Rathbone about how she visualizes the Dock to Dish model going mainstream.