The Ocean

Picture of Captain Mike Johnson unloading Tilefish

Captain Mike Johnson unloads tilefish that will be sold in New York City through Village Fishmonger's local community-supported seafood program.

Photograph courtesy Village Fishmonger

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

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

New York City has a rich history of fish markets, where generations of city residents picked up ingredients for their daily meals.  But traditional sellers have faced stiff competition from supermarkets and rents have soared, causing many markets to shutter. When the iconic Fulton Fish Market left Lower Manhattan in 2005 for the Bronx, many called it the end of an era for fresh seafood.

But now, a new startup called Village Fishmonger hopes to blend the history of New York fish markets with the city's tech-savvy, entrepreneurial culture. Village Fishmonger plans to open a storefront in the East Village and sell products online, but the small company is starting with a community-supported seafood model, explained co-owner Samantha Lee.

The company partnered with Farmigo, an online platform that facilitates various community-supported agriculture programs. Consumers who sign up with Village Fishmonger can pick up fresh seafood weekly at one of four locations around New York City.

"The idea is to reach your target audience and build on that," said Lee. "NYC is a food town. Older people remember a culture that used to be here, when the whole East Side was fish markets, so it's cool to see them embrace this concept. To the younger generation it is cool going back to this artisanal thing."

Building Traceability

Village Fishmonger hopes to serve as an alternative to the mainstream seafood industry, which has been slow to adopt many sustainable practices and has often made it hard to track the origins of products. According to recent NOAA data, at least 80% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is now sourced overseas, making traceability even more challenging.

"This industry is dominated by middlemen, and there are a lot of trust issues," said Lee. "A lot of what happens with fish labeling is not necessarily fraud, but once you get really big scale it gets really hard to trace."

Lee said the key to ensuring sustainable seafood is personal relationships. "We are picking up fish ourselves from the boats, so we can say how each fish was caught, and we have full transparent traceability... We take local very seriously; we are only going two to three hours away to get the stuff."

Lee added, "Village Fishmonger's local sourcing comes from fishermen and shellfishermen with generations of family history in the industry.  We want consumers to trust seafood again, so we started by talking with trusted fishermen. Fishing docks like Viking Village or Parsons Seafood have been working the waters off of New York and New Jersey since the turn of the last century; they know the fish and care about the coasts, so we're glad to be able to be the bridge between both communities."

Lee said there is a surprising amount of diversity of species that can be sustainably caught in the waters around New York. "When I tell people there are 30 species they can eat and feel good about they are really surprised," she said.

Lee added that she sees part of her job as educating consumers about how to prepare fish they may not be familiar with, as well as about the importance of sustainable fisheries. "We hope you will get your seafood and learn something when you're at it," she said.

A Diverse Team

Lee comes to Village Fishmonger with a wealth of entrepreneurial and online experience. Her husband and business partner, Dennis O'Connor, has a restaurant background. Their other partner, Sean Dixon, is an environmental lawyer who specializes in coastal issues. The team's first hire has worked as an environmental educator.

As far as the local fishermen the company works with, Lee said they appreciate the new revenue stream.

"What we're trying to do is create change in the market," said Lee.

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