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Small fishermen borrow a page from small farmers

Community-supported fisheries, like community-supported farms, sell 'shares' in a catch directly to consumers.

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The CSA model originated in Japan as teikei (literally "cooperation") and first came to the United States in 1986 in the midst of a long, steady decline in small family farms in America. Now, an estimated 1,500 CSAs operate in the US, according to Nichole Nazelrod at the Robyn Van En Center at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa. Many of them are new farms. In fact, over roughly the same period the number of small farms appears to have grown, according to US Department of Agriculture databases. Some organizers hope community support will reverse declines in family-owned commercial fishing vessels in oceans that are increasingly considered depleted. By some estimates, the world's fisheries are 80 percent depleted.

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"Thirty years ago, we all thought, we'd never clean everything up," never catch all the fish in the ocean's seemingly infinite bounty. "But we've done a pretty good job," says Port Clyde fisherman Glen Libby. "Now, we're in the process of trying to save what we have left."

Others who are studying the industry, such as Maine's Island Institute and Susan Andreatta, a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, say that with the loss of sea life, knowledge about fishing grounds that is passed on from generation to generation will also be lost by the time fish stocks rebound – if they rebound at all.

Given the rising cost of waterfront land, soaring costs for fuel and nets, and tighter and tighter fishing quotas, the commercial viability of fishing has been waning for years.

"Their challenge is just like [that of the] small family farmer," says Eric Siy, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. "Big corporate interests are edging them out, driving up costs, and consolidating opportunity. We've seen a major crippling of the ability of community-based fisherman to be able to compete."

Consumer awareness about fisheries has begun to change with more frequent reports of mercury in tuna, overfishing in Europe, and fish farmed in suspect Asian waters. The federal government has responded by ordering mandatory country-of-origin labeling. Others, like North Caro­lina's Carteret Catch, have spurred regional recognition of food that up to now had been largely reserved for fancy European wines and cheeses.