Quite a Fresh Catch for Newport Nonprofit

By KYLE HENCE/ecoRI News contributor

NEWPORT, R.I. — Fresh grilled fish straight off the boat is one of life’s great pleasures. Millions visit New England shores for just such delectable bounty. Now, thanks to A. Ross Pearsall and Ocean State Fresh, growing numbers of Aquidneck Islanders and Bristol residents are enjoying a “share” of locally caught fish delivered fresh to their door every week.

With his Ocean State Fresh Community Supported Fishery Program, Pearsall is just that much ahead of the curve, not only in Rhode Island but nationally. Community-supported fisheries will take off in 2012, predicts the most recent issue of Bon Appetite magazine.

A community-supported fishery — or CSF — is similar to the far more prevalent community-supported agriculture program — or CSA. From their beginning in New England in 1986, CSAs grew to nearly 13,000 in 2007, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures (pdf).

The CSA model originally inspired by Austrian Rudolf Steiner, creator of Waldorf Schools, creates a dynamic transparent relationship between the farm, local growing conditions, the growers and the consumer. Each week for 12 to 16 weeks subscribers visit their local CSA farm for their share of what’s ripened or been harvested that week.

While CSAs have blossomed across the nation, their sustainable seafood cousins CSFs are just getting started. When Pearsall first conceived of Ocean State Fresh, there were just 14 community-supported fisheries in the entire country. Today, according to The Local Catch Network, there are nearly 80, including The Local Catch Inc. in Narragansett.

Unlike the traditional CSA, where customers go to the farm for pick up their produce, Pearsall delivers fish on ice fresh from the docks to each shareholder. His dock-to-door service facilitated by a new Ford Transit Connect refrigerated van, branded with the Ocean State Fresh logo.

Fish selections vary from week to week, depending upon what’s available fresh just before delivery day, and each is carefully chosen and must be sustainable. “All of it is tracked under management by federal and state government,” Pearsall said. “We are not dealing with bluefin tuna here.”

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has listed bluefin as a “species of concern” because of declining populations. The status of any given fishery can be checked online at Fishwatch.

“We will buy fish from anyone who can assure us it comes from Rhode Island fisherman,” Pearsall said. The Ocean State Fresh selection has featured striped Bass, mackerel, squid, lobster, cod, herring, bluefish, monkfish and whiting, and locally sourced shellfish including oysters, quahogs, mussels and scallops.

So what are the difference makers with CSF seafood from Ocean State Fresh?

“Quality control is high, traveling distance is a lot shorter,” said Pearsall, noting that deliveries are made within 36 hours of being netted. “There’s also a difference in the quality of the fish. Smaller boats and smaller hauls mean less fish, less stress, less lactic acid.”

The result: fresher, higher quality fish on a consumer’s table.

OSF buys primarily from Narragansett-based The Local Catch — a cooperative of several fishing boat owners based in Galilee. A 12-week subscription is sold in either half- or full- shares, and guaranteed fresh and locally caught or Rhode Island farm raised. Aquidneck Islanders or Bristol area locals who want to sample any given week’s share can buy a single week half-share a la’ carte online or look for the Ocean State Fresh van at State Pier 9 on Fridays.

As 2011 comes to a close, just five months since beginning operations, Ocean State Fresh continues to generate new business. “We have sold six shares just in the last month,” Pearsall said, “and 80 percent are return customers.”

The nonprofit was launched the last week of July and in the first day alone sold $7,000 worth of shares. “Everything has been super positive,” Pearsall said, encouraged by the early success of what he describes as a “super-niche market,” one developed by word of mouth and social networking.

However, as Pearsall noted “nothing is being actively done in terms of promoting in-state fishermen.” His answer is to build a statewide local sustainability seal and brand to boost Rhode Island-based fisheries.

The dynamics and public interest that benefit local agriculture and food have the same potential to help local fisheries, according to Ken Ayars, chief of the DEM’s Division of Agriculture.

State efforts could soon support an Ocean State fishing industry that faces problems of fleet consolidation, increasing fuel and labor costs, and market volatility. The recently formed state Seafood Marketing Collaborative signed into law last July could aid Pearsall’s aspirations. It held its first meeting in October and a final report is due April 30.

“I think the legislation was well intended but it doesn’t have a lot of teeth,” said the city’s pioneering fresh fish purveyor. “It’s a good start.”