Thanks to the farm-to-table movement and the work of a generation of chefs, cooks, farmers and other producers, we've opened the window to the source of much of our food. We often know the farm where the turnips and lettuces on our plate come from, the fields where the cows or sheep grazed, even the names of the chickens that laid our eggs. But this kind of traceability has been very slow to come to the seafood industry, which is notorious for being secretive and often fraudulent. A small group of fishermen and chefs has been working to fix this through their Dock to Dish program, adopting the methods and principles of the land movement and CSAs, or Community Supported Agriculture, to bring that kind of transparency to the sea.
Started in 2012 in Montauk by fisherman Sean Barrett and chef Dan Barber, Dock to Dish connects fishermen to restaurants, markets and the public through a subscription service. The program has expanded to California, Costa Rica, Canada and the legendary fishing community of Gloucester, Mass. In Los Angeles, it is run out of chef Michael Cimarusti's sustainable seafood shop, Cape Seafood and Provisions, on Fairfax Avenue.
Now the folks at Dock to Dish are developing a sophisticated tracking system that will allow people to monitor the seafood from the point that it's caught, to shore and through its transportation to the restaurant or market where it's sold. It's a level of transparency that will finally allow consumers to know exactly how — and from where and exactly when — the salmon and scallops and striped bass and rock fish on their plate got there.
"The future of sustainability is traceability," said Cimarusti the other day by phone from Cape Seafood. Cimarusti, who also owns and operates the lauded L.A. seafood restaurants Providence and Connie & Ted's, has long been an advocate for the responsible sourcing of seafood. "You want transparency. The seafood industry is already on the mat. Change starts on a small scale, but all good things do."
In an effort to get funding for the new system, which will monitor the seafood in real time and put the information on a dashboard on the Dock to Dish website, Dock to Dish has this month launched a Kickstarter campaign. Why crowd-funding?
"We're a little bootstrap organization," said Barrett by phone from the East Coast. "We want to remain independent; any time you accept funding from outside investment, it's problematic."
The seafood industry is at a critical point right now, Barrett said. "Over 90% of seafood in the U.S. is imported. Half of that is farmed, much of which is unregulated. Much of the rest of it is unregulated too. Then we're only inspecting 1% of it. Fraud is everywhere.
"But the solution is really simple. Know your fisherman."
Barrett has been working with tech companies, notably the folks at Google, and says that innovations in the industry have changed the way he and the others at Dock to Dish have been thinking about the project. The first step was moving away from using satellites and instead using cellular towers, which get updates more quickly. "The disconnect is when the fish hits the land. Then it disappears into this mysterious system. Fish is the No. 1 most traded commodity on the planet; we realized that we had to make real-time traceability happen."
"The fraud happens during the processing," said Cimarusti, noting that other methods used to track fish or ensure traceability, such as using gill tags or DNA testing, are often partial or after the fact. "DNA testing is a gotcha kind of thing. At that point, it's already too late."
Dock to Dish 2.0, as Barrett and Cimarusti and their partners are calling the project, is a program that they want to be as transparent on the back end as the front. So another reason for independent funding is that they'll "give away the blueprint," said Barrett, when they're done. "Ultimately we're trying to change the seafood system. To initiate large-scale change, you need a paradigm shift."
"It's a window into the whole process; it takes all the murky water out of it," said Cimarusti about the new tracking system.
"I feel like what's needed is for someone to prove that it actually works," the chef and lifelong fisherman continued. "And that creates pressure back up the supply chain."
If all goes as planned and Dock to Dish can raise the $75,000 they estimate they need (they've raised over $20,000 already), the new tracking system will be launched in Montauk this summer.
"It's cool, right?" said Barrett, the enthusiasm and optimism evident in his voice. "Ancient fisheries are suddenly being catapulted into the digital age."