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Trashcan-Tilapia Farmers Launch Low-Cost Fish-Buying Club in The Bronx

By Patrick Wall | December 21, 2012 6:06pm

HUNTS POINT — At the new fish-buying club in Hunts Point, $15 buys enough exotic seafood to feed a family of five hungry, open-minded piscivores.

A recent menu included fresh porgies, dogfish and squid. But what to make with it?

Might the club organizers, married urban farmers Anya Pozdeeva and Christopher Toole, suggest baked porgy, dogfish tacos and squid-ink pasta?

“It isn’t only about utilizing unfamiliar species — you also try to utilize the whole fish,” explained Pozdeeva, 40, who describes the flavor of dogfish — a type of shark — as “truffle-like” and highly recommends scrambled shark eggs.

“So far, people have had lots of curiosity,” she said.

The preferred name for their seafood delivery service is a community-supported fishery, or CSF.

(In the course of promoting the CSF earlier this month, Toole wound up behind bars for unlawful stickering.)

In this CSF, members pay for a tiny share of the catch from a fishery in Rhode Island that promotes sustainable, small-scale harvesting.

Because members agree to eat whatever fish is flopped in front of them, the anglers are free to pursue plentiful species, like porgies and bluefish, rather than overfished varieties, such as cod and flounder. And members wind up with a fresh catch, whose sea-to-plate path they can track.

“I’m getting it straight from the water,” said Merceda Young, 34, a member since the CSF started last month. “It’s more nutrients. It hasn’t been sitting around. It tastes better.”

This is not Pozdeeva and Toole’s first foray into fish. These are the bankers-turned-urban-agriculturists who last year brought trashcan-bred tilapia to The Point, the Hunts Point community development center where they now run the CSF.

Though they still envision a vast network of urban fish farmers raising their own seafood, they have accepted that the process will take time and money — yet people are hungry now.

“People kept asking us for fish to buy and eat,” said Toole, 47, who still breeds tilapia in trash bins and tanks around The Point. “We realized there’s more people with hungry stomachs than we could supply.”

So they turned to Gabrielle Stommel, owner of Gabe the Fish Babe, a company that connects small-scale, eco-friendly fishers in Point Judith, Rhode Island with customers in New York and elsewhere.

Stommel started a fish club over the summer, where foodies in Manhattan and Brooklyn could pick up or receive weekly packages of the Rhode Island seafood. But with Pozdeeva and Toole, Stommel helped adapt the fish club into a CSF for The Bronx.

To cut costs, the couple hauls some shipments of the Bronx-bound fish inside picnic-sized coolers in their own van, stinking up their ride in the process. And Stommel agrees to provide the fish at-cost, using profits from the pricier fish club to subsidize the CSF.

As a result, while a weekly fish club membership costs $40, a weekly CSF share with enough fish to feed five people costs only $15 and a fish-for-two share costs just $7.

“This is my dream,” said Stommel, 28. “It saves the community, it saves the ecosystem and it saves you, your health.”

About a dozen people have signed onto the CSF in the month or so it’s been running at The Point, Toole said. The center also hosts a weekly farm share service, and several of its members have started to make room in their totes for whiting and the rest, Toole added.

Besides the pungent freshness of it all, the members have been blown away by the prices.

“You’d spend $15 for one person if you were [in a seafood restaurant] by yourself,” said Tommy Crawley, 32, who sampled some smoked ling during a CSF drop-off this month, where he considered buying a share.

But then again, he added, you might not order squid, which was included in that week's share.

“I’m not touching that,” Crawley said. “I don’t want nothing with ink in it.”

Another turn-off for some is that, to lower costs, most of the fish comes raw, leaving the CSF members to do the cleaning.

Alejandra Delfin, 48, a CSF member who works at The Point, said she hadn’t cleaned a fish for decades before joining, but is starting to get used to it.

“Now I don’t feel disgusted,” she said.

The CSF-fish are fresher and cheaper than those at the nearest market, Delfin said, and she knows where these were caught.

In the past month, she has eaten less meat and more fish, she said, gathering recipes from Toole and YouTube as she goes.

“It’s wonderful — it’s like one more thing I can do,” she said. Plus, she added, “I have a cat who is happy with whatever I don’t eat.”