Park Slopers Bianca Picillo and Mark Usewicz founded Mermaid’s Garden, currently a sustainable seafood consultancy serving Brooklyn restaurants, with a master plan: To open the borough’s first fully sustainable retail seafood market.
But jumping through the daunting hoops of raising capital and searching for suitable space takes time. A lot of time. And Bianca, a marine biologist by training who dropped out of academia for a career in the restaurant world, and Mark, the chef de cuisine at Park Slope’s Palo Santo, decided they didn’t want to wait to bring fresh, local seafood to the streets of Brooklyn.
The answer? They want to launch the borough’s first weekly CSF, or Community Supported Fishery. It would work like a CSA: Members would pre-purchase shares in the weekly catch from local oystermen, clammers, and fishermen, and pick up their piece of the haul in a hopefully convenient location minutes from their pre-fired backyard grills.
Mermaid’s Garden is ready to go; Bianca and Mark just want to make sure we are too. To gauge the interest among good fish-loving Brooklynites, they’re doing a little survey. If you’d like a local CSF, take it here.
We spoke with Bianca to learn more about Mermaid’s Garden and Operation CSF.
So Bianca, it’s not easy to find local, sustainably caught fish outside of the Greenmarkets. Tell us about the CSA approach you’re working on to bring more seafood directly from local fishermen to Brooklyn.
About six years ago we moved to Brooklyn, to Park Slope, from Boston. When we got here we were like, “Wow, this is amazing!” The Greenmarkets were so great, all year round. But we realized that there was really a paucity of good fish outside of the Greenmarkets. Mark, my husband, is a chef – he’s the chef de cuisine at Palo Santo in Park Slope. We were both working nights, and by the time we woke up in the morning and got ourselves to the Greenmarket on Saturdays, a lot of the stuff was sold out. So the Greenmarket was tough for us because of our schedules.
We found ourselves going all the way into Chelsea, to The Lobster Place, to buy fresh fish. So the idea for Mermaid’s Garden came about because we just got tired of going to Manhattan to get the kind of seafood we wanted. It was an untapped niche. I studied marine biology and ichthyology – fish biology – in college, and my husband said, “You have a background in fish. We could do something with this.”
So we put together a business plan to do a fully sustainable retail seafood market, and that’s our ultimate goal. As we started raising capital to open a shop, we started telling friends, most of whom are chefs or restaurant professionals, about our plan. And a lot of them said, “You know, I want to do the right thing, but fish is so confusing. There’s so much conflicting information out there about what’s good and what’s not.”
We realized we could help them with that, so we launched the business as a consultancy for chefs trying to understand and source sustainable seafood.
We had been toying with the idea of doing a CSF, a Community Supported Fishery, last year, but it didn’t go anywhere. But we kept thinking about it. A couple of weeks ago, somebody reached out to us, and said they have a space available and would be interested in doing something to bring more good, sustainably-caught fish into Brooklyn. So we put together a survey to try to determine how much interest there would be out there in joining a CSF, and that’s where we’re at now.
So why a CSF? What’s the advantage of sourcing directly from local fishermen?
If you’re buying seafood at a supermarket, you generally have very little information about the fish – what it is, where it’s from, and how it was caught. Everything is supposed to be labeled, but a lot of markets don’t do that, and when things are labeled, they’re often labeled incorrectly. There’s very little transparency. I was in a shop recently that had fish labeled, ‘Pacific Monkfish.’ But there are no monkfish in the Pacific Ocean. The whole seafood industry is unbelievably opaque.
The fish you can get at the Greenmarkets is great. You’re buying fresh fish directly from local fishermen. But not every Greenmarket has fishermen, and for those that do, the lines can be extraordinary! If you don’t get there really early, you might not get what you want. And it’s not easy for everyone to get to a Greenmarket that has seafood.
So the idea with the CSF is that you get that transparency, traceability and sustainability – you know who caught the fish, and when, where and how it’s been caught. And a CSF offers convenience. You know that you’re going to get what you want each week.
Would the idea be to work directly with local fishermen or local docks?
Exactly. Through Mark’s work at Palo Santo, and through our research and work with Mermaid’s Garden, we’ve established great relationships with local fishermen. He knows the guys at Montauk Pearls – an oyster farm in Montauk. They bring oysters to our apartment! We have an amazing clam guy in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. We work with a great company called Wild Rhodie – it’s a collective of fishing boats operating out of Rhode Island. They work with a company called Trace and Trust, that gives them the technology to tag all their fish – the tag tells you what the fish is, what boat caught it, when it was caught, and where in the ocean it was caught. And we work with Sea to Table – they’re based in Clinton Hill and they work directly with fishermen from this region and from the Caribbean, the Gulf and Alaska.
So we’d use all those sources for the CSF. Right now, we’re just trying to get people to take our survey to get a sense of how much interest there would be out there in joining one.
Would there be choice involved with a CSF? Would someone be able to say, give me fillets but no shellfish?
In doing our research into CSFs, it seems like a common complaint is about diversity – people don’t want fluke every week all summer long. But I think there’s enough diversity out there in the local catch to offer variety. We’ll have to play around with the model. I think the big choice would be that you can choose fillets only, or fillets and whole fish. We’d offer a shellfish share too.
You wouldn’t necessarily be able to choose exactly what fish you’d be getting each week because that would depend on what the fishermen caught. But we’d work with the fishermen to ensure there would be variety from week to week.
What neighborhood would the pickup location be in?
We’re working on that. We could potentially have more than one pickup location. We’ll figure everything out based on how much interest the survey generates.
Is the retail shop still in the works?
Absolutely. We’re hoping to be a Fleisher’s or Meat Hook for seafood – offering only fresh, sustainably-caught fish with an emphasis on local catch.
We’ve been working on this project for a few years. The consultancy has been a good beginning. If the CSF happenst, that’ll be the next step. And the shop is the ultimate goal. We’re looking at spaces now.
Do you want to see a CSF hooking up Brooklynites directly with fish caught by local fishermen? Vote for it to happen by taking the Mermaid’s Garden survey here.