Profiles in Agriculture - Sean Barrett, Dock to Dish

Friday, September 16th, 2016

Chantel Simpson, STEMconnector

Recently STEMconnector had the opportunity to learn about an exciting new way that restaurants and citizens are purchasing fish through the Dock to Dish Program. We sat down with Sean Barrett, founder of Dock to Dish to discuss his passion for fishing and agriculture as well as the ideas that helped him to start the Dock to Dish community supported fishery program.


Could you tell us a bit about Dock to Dish?

I suppose I can explain it by saying that, I grew up on same day sourced seafood, so as a young boy at the earliest age, my parents said that I learned to walk, talk and fish all in the same little timeframe. I learned at a very early age what real, true, same day sourced, wild seafood was like. The fish that I caught during the day, was for dinner that night. Growing up I also worked in restaurants, I started a career in restaurants, but I was also constantly fishing. Pretty much all I did until this day, my entire life, has been working in restaurants and working in fishing industries. So over the course of that time, I started to see a big separation that began in about the 1980s and 90s where the fish that I knew was landing on our local docks, the fish that we were catching versus what was available in local supermarkets and restaurants started to change dramatically. So this process went on and i watched and watched and watched as slowly, it became unbearable to me that everywhere I went it was such powerful disconnect between our culture, our restaurants, our supermarkets, our people, and our wild fisheries.

For the longest time, I had been trying to figure out a way to solve that problem because it really bothered me.  Wild, US seafood is like the cleanest, healthiest, safest, most delicious wild food on the planet period. It’s the healthiest, it has all the things we should be eating, so it bothered me that it was not available to people. Then a couple of important things happened.

I went on a trip to Spain and I saw their little fishing port. We were at a restaurant in a harbor in a town called San Sebastian and I saw the fisherman come back in the evening. They literally got right off of their boats and walked straight up the planks from the dock with their wicker baskets filled with fish that they had just caught that day, they'd march right into the restaurants, in this whole row of restaurants on the harbor and a few minutes later, they left with their empty baskets and the waiters came out and wiped down the chalkboard and put up a new list of all the fish that you had just seen go in into the back. So a light bulb came on over my head and I thought: "oh man, why don't we do that at home?" 


Around the same time, I started paying very close attention to community supported agriculture, CSA's. There are a lot of local farms in Long Island here that are CSAs, specifically, Quail Hill Farm, which has been long standing and one of the oldest if not the oldest CSA program in the country. There is a farmer there named Scott Chaskey. He's always been an inspiration to me. He wrote this really incredible book called “This Common Ground” and that book is about, lifestyle and organic farms as well as community supported agriculture. I read that book and I was really inspired and I went and I met with Scott, and we talked about "can you create a community supported fishery?" Now this is interesting because right at about that same time, I was emailing with Ted Wells, and he described to me that his sister had joined a salmon cooperative where a few people buy shares and you receive distributions of salmon. And so with these concepts, another light bulb came on, an epiphany where I thought to myself, "wait, what if these models that Chaskey is using on the farm for CSAs and that Ted wells was talking about his sister in Colorado was suddenly using, what if we applied that to fisheries and so instead of people going to a supermarket and buying fish where they don’t know where it came from, or how old it is, or what kind it is, cause there's a lot of fraud that goes on in the seafood world. So unless you know your fisherman, its really hard to actually know what you're getting. So I decided, I'm going to see if we can create a community supported fishery program and that was in 2012 and this is what I learned.


In the year 2012, and these statistics are pretty much true right now. The United States is importing 90% of our seafood comes from overseas, and of that 90%, more than 50% of it is farmed fish or aquaculture fish that is coming mostly from Asia, predominately China and Vietnam and they don’t have very good regulations. It’s a lot of that farmed fish which is devastating to the environment and people's health. It's toxic and unsafe, but of the 90% of the seafood that we're importing here into the U.S., the FDA only inspects 2% and  of the 2% that the FDA inspects, they reject 70%. So you start to get an idea, when you look at these numbers of what’s going on in this country with wild seafood. So all of that put together, the inspirations that I had from Scott, the experiences that I had in Spain, and speaking with Ted Wells, gave me the inspiration, the idea and the confidence to try and create a community supported fishery program in Montauk, NY.


So a community supported fishery (CSF) is an entirely different economic model for wild seafood. Instead of people coming to a market or getting their fish from somewhere that has an open source and they don't know where it came from or demanding what they want. In a CSF, we get a collection of members who pay in advance to become a part of the cooperative, so they sign up for a full year or anywhere between 1 and 6 months long and they receive a weekly distribution of whatever is coming off the dock that week and they usually receive it within 24 hours. So suddenly we created this program where we could give people all the extremely important information about who caught their seafood, how they caught the seafood, where it was caught, when it was caught and even why it was caught. So, we have created the first CSF in the state of NY, but then we created the first restaurant supported fishery (RSF) program in the world. Since that time we've taken the the Dock to Dish concept, community and restaurant supported fisheries and we've begun working with the best chefs in restaurants in New York City, we then went to create a new Dock to Dish program in Los Angeles, CA, then we went to Vancouver and created a new Dock to Dish program there and then we went to Costa Rica and created a really cool restaurant supported fisheries program there. Now we're in discussion with a couple of different organizations to begin creating Dock to Dish programs all over the world in places like Palau and in Brazil. We have conversations and dialogues moving forward right now about bringing Dock to Dish programs to the Philippines and to Indonesia and so, that's kind of the story of Dock to Dish, we've created a new membership based supply driven marketing marketplace or economic model that's being celebrated as the most sustainable methods of sourcing wild seafood on the planet. 


As you've developed the business and become partners and started franchises in other areas, what have been some of the most significant obstacles that you've had to overcome?

The most significant obstacle that we've had to overcome is primarily education. One, explaining to people first what is really going on in the wild seafood industry and then number two, helping them to understand how a CSF program works. That has been our biggest obstacle to date, just the education part, the learning part, but we've learned that once you overcome that obstacle, then there is really very few challenges and obstacles after that. We have a very strong philosophy where the first thing we do to people is to explain why. So of all the questions you can ask, who, when, where, why?  “why,” is the number one most important. So when we are able to clearly explain and educate people about what our mission is and what our motives are, what our goals are and why it's so important to have sustainable systems for wild seafood sourcing, that’s the challenge, but once we get past that, then we've found a very smooth road out. 


The only other challenge that we have these days, is trying to manage our waiting lists because we've accumulated a pretty large fan club, I guess you'd say of just advocates that are pretty excited about Dock to Dish, so in NY for example, we have well over one thousand people on our waiting list for our CSF and about 110 restaurants on our waiting list for our RSF program so those are really are two major challenges so far. Both which are good problems to have I think.


Who was your largest supporter? Who encouraged you most as you started to pursue this business?

His name is Dan Barber, chef Dan Barber and he is this pioneer of the farm to table movement. He's one of the most forward thinking and talented chefs on earth. Right now, , he has two restaurants here in NY called Blue Hill. Dan was and still is by far our strongest ally and advocate and a very good friend who’s able to see, he's a visionary chef so he's able to see kind of a big picture and kind of a little bit of the future. He can see what we have to do now to make sure that we have sustainable food systems for our children and grandchildren. So right out of the gate, Dan, like I had mentioned, understood immediately [“why”] it was so important, and he single handedly helped us fill in the who, what when where, what, all the rest of the questions. He's been our wind beneath our wings so to speak. 


Other than being a CSA, do you have a lot of competition? Or do you think there is one thing that distinguishes you from the competition?

We don't currently have any competition in what we're doing. We've created an entirely new model so we are hoping to have more people kind of subscribe to the model and compete or just join the movement. It would not really be competing with us as much as Dock to Dish has created the movement of people wanting to get back directly to their fisherman to know exactly where their seafood is coming from. If you look at it in a business sense, its kind of an uncommon victory in that we share our information with anyone that wants to know we train and educate people to start their own dock to dish programs. Its more of a movement than it is a business, so we don't really have competitors in our space as much as we have collaborators. It's what you call a unique offering. Dock to Dish created its own category so it doesn’t really have any competition so to speak.


What would you tell a young person looking to get involved especially if they have never lived near water? Where would they start to find information? What would they need to look at in school to learn more about the sustainable food movement?


I would say the most important part and this again is a lesson that I learned from Ted Wells, would be you absolutely first and foremost have to find out what is your passion. You have to really really take a hard look and identify what are you passionate about? What really drives you? What do you really find what fascinates you? What do you just find to be thrilling and exciting and awesome and every time you think of it or you're near it, you just can't wait to learn more about it. Where are your strengths? And once you discover what your passion is, I think pursue it - it's as simple as that. Pursue your passion with everything that you've got. That's a great lesson that Ted helped me learn years ago. I have discovered that my passion was connecting my community to this incredibly health food source, wild, fresh seafood. And so, that's what motivates me, that's what drives me and I think that carries, that pushes you through the good times, the bad times, the tough spots, the challenges and you're really motivated and driven by the right things and you're pursing your passion then there is no stopping you. I think that is the most important thing. A lot of times I've seen people get into different areas for the wrong reasons, because it's cool or because they think they're going to make a lot of money or because they like somebody who's doing it or someone else tells them "I think you should do that" or they're feeling pressured to do it.  If you're not passionate about it,  if it doesn't get you up in the morning and its the first thing you think about and its the last thing you think about before you go to bed - and you just can't wait to get back into working it or doing it  - then keep looking until you find what that passion is. I think that's the most important thing.