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City's First Community-Supported Fishery Links Locavores with Fresh Seafood

Mermaid's Garden community-supported fishery works with small boat fishermen such as Montauk Shellfish Company who use sustainable methods to catch seafood.
Mermaid's Garden community-supported fishery works with small boat fishermen such as Montauk Shellfish Company who use sustainable methods to catch seafood.
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Mermaid's Garden

PARK SLOPE — Locavores should fall for this hook, line and sinker.

A community-supported fishery is diving into the local food scene by providing weekly deliveries of freshly caught seafood to subscribers in Park Slope, Red Hook and Clinton Hill.

Similar to increasingly popular community-supported agriculture services — where customers pay for a season of produce delivered directly from nearby farms — the Mermaid's Garden community-supported fishery will connect customers with seafood usually caught within a day or two by small fish providers as close as Montauk, said Mermaid's Garden co-founder Mark Usewicz.

For consumers curious about where their food comes from, Mermaid's Garden has a surefire selling point: The CSF will be able to tell customers the name of the boat that caught their fish, the captain's name, which method was used to catch the sea dweller, and, in some cases, the longitude and latitude of where the fish was pulled out of the ocean.

The intimate relationship between consumer and fisherman isn't just about being socially conscious; it's also a financial boon to small fishermen, because the CSF cuts out the middleman, the organizer explained.

"I get fresher product and they get more money in their pocket," Usewicz said. "And I know I'm supporting someone who's catching it the right way."

The CSF kicks off June 14 and is believed to be the first of its kind in New York City, Usewicz said. He and co-founder Bianca Piccillo modeled the CSF after similar services in New England, the Carolinas and on the West Coast.

Mermaid's Garden is a consulting service that advises restaurants on how to choose and prepare sustainable seafood. Usewicz and Piccillo, who studied marine biology at Harvard University and now works as a server at Prune in the East Village, have also been scouting for a retail space to open a sustainable seafood market.

When friends and acquaintances kept asking when the store would open, Usewicz and Piccillo realized there was pent-up demand for ultra-fresh seafood in Brooklyn.

"There's a lot more interest now in working directly with fisherman and getting them a return on what they're doing," Usewicz said.

"When you're buying something from [a supermarket], it's been passed through a lot of hands and you don't know how long it's been out of the water. It could be as much as a week."

Usewicz and Piccillo know many of the CSF fishermen personally and only work with those who use sustainable catch methods. Usewicz said he has a "great scallop connection" in Eastham, Mass., on Cape Cod, and may also recruit a blue crab provider from North Carolina to join the CSF.

He also said he'd rather support minnow-sized seafood businesses over large-scale commercial fisheries, which he called "scary."

The big fish operations sometimes use planes to spot their catch and then scoop up "everything in their path" with mega-sized nets that kill the catch — and many other sea creatures along with it — before it reaches the boat, Usewicz said. Those large commercial fisheries end up throwing back much of what their nets pull up, while small boat fishermen haul in their catch while it's still alive, pluck out only what they need, and don't needlessly kill nearby sea creatures in the process, he said.

The CSF season will start with mostly Montauk seafood such as fluke, porgies and bluefish. Striped bass will start coming after July 1, when the commercial fishing season opens. Mermaid's Garden also expects to provide black bass, haddock, swordfish, tuna and several other types of fish. Shellfish and lobster will probably be offered, as well.

The service costs $99 for six weeks of a half share, which feeds two people once a week. A full share, which feeds four people once a week, costs $198 for six weeks.

Mermaid's Garden customers can pick up their fish at Palo Santo restaurant on Union Street in Park Slope, where Usewicz is executive chef, at the Greene Hill Food Co-op in Clinton Hill, or at the Red Hook CSA.

Aside from the environmental benefits, buying freshly caught seafood gives customers "beautiful" fish that taste delicious, Usewicz said. While fish sold in grocery stores can sometimes smell and have cloudy eyes and a limp body, Usewicz says the CSF fish will have bright, clear eyes, red gills and firm flesh, unless it's a fatty cut like mackerel.

In some cases the seafood is still in a state of rigor mortis, the temporary stiffening that follows death, which means the fish won't be floppy.

As for the smell, it won't be stinky, Usewicz noted.

"It should smell like the ocean," he said.