The Ocean

Picture of Kevin O'Malley with fluke in Montauk, NY

Fisherman Kevin O'Malley caught fluke in Montauk, New York, that he will sell through Sea to Table, an innovative distributor that stresses transparency.

Photograph by Bethany Obrecht

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

This story is part of a special series on Ocean Innovations.

Sean Dimin is as passionate about preserving vibrant fishing communities as he is about the freshest seafood. So he and his father Michael founded Sea to Table, a boutique distributor that delivers fresh seafood from artisanal fishers directly to chefs. Dimin and his team also help fishers market their catch and share their stories with consumers.

"We seek out responsible, small-scale fisheries and connect them directly with better markets," Dimin said.

Dimin explained that he and his father got the idea for their growing, Brooklyn-based business on a family vacation to Tobago in 1996. The Dimins were impressed by local fishermen, who were hand-catching fish on lines from small, traditional wooden boats called pirogues. "We realized that there isn't a good market for their fish," said Dimin.

That's because such small-scale fishers often have a tough time competing with industrial-scale operations, especially when every filet is treated as equal to every other one.

So the Dimins started hiring trucks, building coolers, and building bridges between artisanal fishers and discerning chefs in New York City-area restaurants. A business called Tobago Wild was born in 2006. Orders grew, and the Dimins had to look beyond the West Indies to boost their inventory. So they went to Alaska with the same concept, and started Alaska Wild.

Before long, the Dimins had expanded to the Gulf of Mexico and the Northeast. "We told the story of the fishermen, why they were fishing, where the fish came from, and how it was caught. Before long we had a powerful model on our hand that was giving fishermen better markets and chefs better fish," said Dimin. They renamed the business Sea to Table, and now serve 20 fishing communities and 600 restaurants.

Sharing the Fishing Story

Dimin added that his team is currently working on expanding into new markets and developing new distribution systems. "We are figuring out how to get more people to eat better fish," he said. "We want to support healthy fishing communities and get people to understand that fish doesn't come from a can or a warehouse, it comes from a fisherman. We want to build a market by telling a fisherman's story."

To help do that, Sea to Table sends small high-definition video cameras to fishers in far-flung locales. They lash the cameras to their boats to document their days' work, and conduct interviews with their crews, friends, and families. Sea to Table has even provided some media training, and they collect the footage (and stills), edit it, and share it with chefs.

Ultimately, some of these stories make their way to consumers. "Our best customers tell the story of where the food comes from and use it as a marketing piece to their customers, whether it be at a restaurant, dining hall, or even a dinner party. Along with gorgeous fish we provide the story of where it comes from," said Dimin.

"Opaque Markets"

Today, the vast majority of fish sold around the world comes without any story of how it was caught. That's because most fish is handled by big distributors, who traditionally have not been set up to track individual characteristics of each fillet. The problem, many ocean advocates say, is that such a system makes it very hard to ensure sustainability. An investigation by Oceana even found that half of fish tested was sold as the wrong species.

"Unfortunately, in the current model traceability becomes opaque," said Dimin. "[Big distributors] know something is going on with consumer demand, but too often they think it can be addressed by simply identifying certain species that are more sustainable than others. That's a lackluster attempt at addressing a very serious issue of ocean conservation. We hope to become a big thorn in the industry's side."

In Dimin's words, his goal is to get "better fish to more people." This is accomplished, in part, by paying above market rate to the fishers his team works with. "Because we eliminate so many inefficiencies our price is more than often competitive to our customers, and they choose to have a traceable fish over an opaque fish," said Dimin.

Dimin added that it is essential to have a profitable fishery to make it a sustainable one. "A fisherman who has more faith in the business is going to reinvest in gear and crew, and use things like circle hooks that cost a little more but help with bycatch," he added.

Dimin said the ultimate goal is preserving healthy fishing communities. "At the dock you won't see rusted-out old pirate ships, you will see modern fishing boats."

He added that, for too long, fishers have felt ignored or even demonized. But they love hearing that their customers care about what they do. "They Google these restaurants [that buy our fish], and sometimes they see the chefs on TV. They love that," said Dimin.

Ensuring Sustainability

Dimin stressed that the key to sustainability is building a relationship with every fisher who dips a net in the water, as well as everyone else along the seafood supply chain. But to go further, Sea to Table also applies filters based on the ratings systems of FishWise, Seafood Watch, and the Blue Ocean Institute. If a species is blanket listed as "red" by all of those groups, Dimin said his company won't carry it. "Even if someone is hand catching the fish on a line, if the species is of too great a concern we can't support that," he said.

Sea to Table is also partnering with Jared Auerbach, a Boston-based ocean innovator who has developed a software system to streamline tracking of fish throughout the supply chain. "Jared is one of those younger, progressive guys in the industry, and together we are making a real change for the fishermen," said Dimin.

 

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