One of the oldest tricks in the fish monger’s world is trotting out the notion that the cod, snapper, flounder or mahi mahi you are about to be served is “fresh today.”
In too many cases that translates into "the fish just arrived in the supermarket or restaurant this morning by truck or plane from some distant place." The reality, of course, is that the fish was most likely plucked from a farm or raised in nets from the sea many, many weeks before. I once sat in a salmon broker’s office at a fish farm in the south of Chile while she held out for higher prices as the fish sat on ice on a Santiago runway, waiting, ultimately for days, to be delivered.
Thanks to some novel and enterprising partnerships between fishermen and chefs around the sea borders of the U.S.—literally from Maine to Alaska—some restaurants and fish sellers are now guaranteeing that the fish on your plate or in your cloth bag on its way home was swimming free just hours before.
Relying on the best of social media and digital technologies, fishermen are going so far as to send chefs texts with photos of what they’ve just hauled in as a way to help them shape their “fish du jour” menus.
In Rhode Island a successful “boat-to-table” operation is called Trace and Trust; in Gold Beach, Oregon, it’s Fish Direct; in Rye Harbor, New Hampshire, it is a family business called Rimrack, run by Mike and Padi Anderson, and in Seabrook Beach, New Hampshire, the husband and wife fishing team of Carolyn and Ed Eastman deliver their catch directly to Community Supported Fisheries, which operate just like CSA farms around the country.
Traceability has become a big trend in the sustainable seafood conversation. Several of the big ocean environmental groups have initiated programs to try to insure you know exactly where your fish comes from—Oceana’s “Seafood Fraud” campaign—is a great example. But it is still a challenge for most consumers. I asked the waitress in a mid-sized Midwestern town recently if she knew where the Tilapia on the menu came from and she said no, but that she would find out. She returned five minutes later, having dug the box the fish arrived in out of the garbage. “Ecuador,” she said, proud to have an answer. (Which was okay; Tilapia is generally okay as long as it’s not from farms in China or Taiwan.)
Yet that’s hardly the same dining experience as knowing that the squid or striped bass on your plate was caught that morning in the cold Atlantic.
The Trace and Trust program operating in Rhode Island seems to be making everyone happy. The fishermen no longer have to deal with middlemen/wholesalers but can sell directly to restaurants, chefs get the most fresh fish available, and customers truly get the best-tasting fish possible.
As well as knowing what fish are on the way, the new technology also allows fishermen to keep chefs apprised of what’s not available, so that if it’s been a slow week on the high seas for cod, for example, it can be taken off the menu rather than forcing restaurants to sell weeks old, frozen fish.
Trace and Trust was established less than a year ago, with a goal of encouraging a market for local, sustainable seafood. It was the brainchild of a trio of fishermen and a business consultant. “We got tired of seeing all of our fish leave Rhode Island,” says one of the fishermen, Steve Arnold.
It is the high-tech angle that makes this story so au courant. The direct-to-table fishermen admit the most important tool on their boats today may be their smartphones. Some are watching the Twitter and Facebook feeds by local chefs to be more knowledgeable about their needs. As they are heading back into port they are texting pictures from the back of their boats directly to kitchens.
At their end the restaurants are often getting fish that costs less—because the processor/distributor and his fees have been cut out—and tastes better, insuring return customers.
Boston restaurateur Jose Duarte (Taranta) has taken technology to another limit, creating 2-D bar codes for the fish he serves—known as QR codes, prominently used in Japan and across Europe for tracing inventory—that are silkscreened onto dinner plates using squid ink. The code is then tracked by the Trace and Trust website, which lets users (and Taranta diners) know who caught the fish, when it was caught and the method of harvest. Finally, a use for smartphones at the dinner table that we don't mind at all.