“Here, fishy fishy” — these three words mark a promotional post card I pick up at a mercantile. It was designed for Real Good Fish, a community-supported fishery that is the fisherman’s equivalent of a farmer’s CSA. The phrase is a throwback from a 1982 Bert and Ernie sketch, but I’d like to imagine it is what real fishermen say when they’re out in the ocean farming for seafood. I’d also like to think that this is the way my fish are caught — in the wide open seas with a boat and a net.
I refrain from conjuring images of fishing farms and frozen fillets. Industrialization takes the romance out of seafood. It also damages the environment and takes a toll on the coastal community, none of which I knew before meeting Real Good Fish founder and CEO Alan Lovewell at January’s Good Food Awards, where Real Good Fish took a prize for their smoked black cod.
Lovewell grew up in a coastal community on the upper East Coast. He has always been surrounded by water and has observed most aspects of the fishing community firsthand, including illegal and unsustainable practices that lead to coastal destruction. “Coastal communities are disappearing,” says Lovewell. “Massive global fishing efforts come at the expense of small coastal communities. More and more imports are coming into industry and consumers really don’t know what’s going on.”
Ninety percent of the seafood consumed by Americans is imported from foreign shores, while much of our local fish (upwards of 40%) is exported. “Some of the best fish we get access to — rockfish, black cod, petrale sole, local salmon, anchovies, squid — are really hard to find [locally], but are great local fish,” says Lovewell. “They’re being exported by volume and processed in China and Europe.”
Living in the Bay Area, I naturally assume I have access to good seafood. “What we think is happening is actually very different from reality,” says Lovewell. “We think there must be so much local seafood, but it’s mostly imported tilapia and imported and farmed salmon.” But it isn’t that the seafood isn’t here. It’s more a case of ignorance and accessibility. “There’s an opportunity to provide real local seafood to consumers,” says Lovewell, “and an opportunity to support local fisherman.”
Currently the local fishing community is decreasing by 6% annually with the average age of a fisherman sitting at somewhere around 60 years’ old. “We don’t have young fisherman coming to join the ranks,” says Lovewell. “[My] whole idea was to try to create a solution — not a bandaid to make us feel better, but a real solution.”
The theory by which Lovewell is operating is that if you have a consumer base that really cares about the coastal community and you give those consumers access to information, they’ll be proactive about shifting the system, diversifying what is on their plate and changing the way they view and consume seafood, all of which results in greater protection of and access to local seafood.
“It has to start with education and awareness,” says Lovewell. “We have forgotten what it means to have truly fresh seafood from a boat. We just assume when we go to a waterfront restaurant that our seafood is local. We don’t care enough to find out where it is really coming from.”
I’m as guilty of this as the next person. I do care about where my food comes from, but not enough to change my order or hunt down local rockfish. I’m all for supporting local fishing, but I might need some help in figuring out how to do that. This is where Real Good Fish comes in. In partnership with local fisherman, they provide everyday consumers like me with a weekly (or bi-weekly) delivery of local sustainable seafood.
When Real Good Fish uses the term sustainable, what they mean is that “it meets the needs of the current generation without compromising the needs of future generations’ access to that same resource and even improves access to these resources,” says Lovewell. Real Good Fish also strives to protect access to harbors that allow local fisherman to dock their boats there.
Real Good Fish wants to turn the economic tide, and develop an economy that allows Americans (and Californians) to buy their own fish and increase local consumption. “It’s not about seeing how much money we can charge for fish, but how we can create value so that more people can access it,” says Lovewell.
One way the company is doing this is through Bay2Tray, an extension of Real Good Fish, which partners with the Monterey Peninsula United School District to bring local seafood (much of which was previously discarded as bycatch) into school lunches in the form of fish tacos, salads and other healthy entrées.
“Most of the people we provide to are more affluent,” says Lovewell. “Part of [this program] is for them, but also for people who can’t afford it and need it the most. School children have no say in our society or in what they get in their lunch.” Lovewell wants to raise the question of how we teach and protect younger generations. “Let’s talk about it now. Let’s talk about it here in the cafeteria as [kids] eat local fish tacos.”
There’s no quick fix to restoring coastal communities. “It’s way more complicated than people give credit to,” says Lovewell. “The problem has to do with us and that’s the hard part for us to realize.”
On the upside, there is hope. “We’re still at a point where all of these things are possible and solutions are available to us.”
In the past three years, Real Good Fish has garnered over one thousand members and currently makes over 600 deliveries a week. For $22 per share (with a four-delivery minimum), each member receives roughly one, to one-and-a-half pounds of seafood in each delivery. Real Good Fish has sourced over 27 different species for its members. “It’s been a culinary adventure for folks,” says Lovewell. “They’ve been able to try new things that aren’t available on the market. People fear the kitchen a lot. We’re trying to get [them] more comfortable with experimenting.”
I signed up for a delivery in late January. On a Wednesday afternoon, I open the door to Oakland’s Impact Hub. It’s one of eight Real Good Fish pick-up locations in the East Bay, two of which are in Berkeley. My eyes dart back and forth before landing on a small blue cooler sitting beside the north door. I open the lid and inside are a dozen quart-sized Ziplock bags, each containing two fish fillets and marked with hand-written labels. I find my portion among them. In it, there’s a fillet each of smoked black cod and bonito (tuna). I have never had either, but I am excited to try them.
I go home to find an email from Real Good Fish. It is a weekly newsletter that includes updates on upcoming events, new trends in fish, and details on the origins and catcher of my fish, along with suggested recipes for preparation. I click on a link for teriyaki black cod and decide I will make the marinade from scratch. I slice open the plastic package and slide the filet into a 9- by 13-inch glass dish. I roast vegetables with a house-blend salt from the San Francisco Salt Company — something I’d been saving for a special occasion, such as the preparation of locally caught fish.
The prep is easy and the fish looks beautiful. I plate it and photograph it and prepare to take my first bite. It is savory and slightly sweet and dry as the desert. A few bites in and I go back to check the recipe. Maybe 20 minutes was too long. Maybe I should have accounted for the single portion of fish. I find the Ziplock bag on the counter — Salted Black Cod. It dawns on me that salting is a method of preparation and with a salted piece of fish there is no need for further cooking. I am ashamed of my mistreatment of this locally sourced fillet, but eat half of it anyhow.
I later confess to Lovewell that I destroyed his award-winning black cod. He laughs at my error and assures me that it’s fine, and that the willingness to try is exactly what he hopes for his members. I am wiser with the smoked bonito, which I pull apart and toss into a salad — no dressing needed, as that fish can stand on its own. The next day I eat the second portion of my dried-out teriyaki black cod. In my management of this fish, I may not have done much for my palate, but I did a little something for the greater health of the ocean. It seems appropriate that it takes me two glasses of water to wash it down.
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