Local Business: Fish Story

A local distributor brings sustainable seafood to Philly 
by Scott Orwig

Philadelphia boasts ever-growing options for obtaining fresh, local fruits, veggies, meats and cheeses. From farmers’ markets to CSAs, it has never been easier to find affordable, sustainable food.  But when it comes to seafood, options dwindle and prices skyrocket. Otolith Sustainable Seafood—located in, yes, Fishtown—is looking to change that.

Since 2007, Otolith’s husband-and-wife owners, Murat Aritan and Philly native Amanda Bossard, have worked with small Alaskan fisheries to provide the Philadelphia area with high-quality, responsibly-harvested seafood. Last year, the couple started Philly’s first CSS—community-supported seafood—program.

“We both moved to Alaska separately in 1992—[Aritan] went to southeast Alaska to be a deckhand and I went to Anchorage to go to school at Alaska Pacific University,” explains Bossard. “He had been fishing about 15 years when we started Otolith.” A biology student, Bossard knew how ecologically damaging commercial fishing could be, and encouraged her husband to harvest fish responsibly. “The sustainability part came from me,” she says. “Straddling the fine line between profitability and positive social and environmental contribution makes our business possible.”
Many commercial fisheries catch fish using an effective but unsustainable technique called “trawling”—a huge net is dragged behind the boat, scooping up everything in its path. It’s a fuel-intensive method, and a primary cause of over-fishing and seabed damage. Bossard is selective with the fisheries she’ll buy from, ensuring that all of Otolith’s seafood is harvested through alternative techniques. “The goal is to keep the most environmentally-friendly, least invasive fishermen financially stable,” she says. Taking it a step further, Otolith only sells fish that is custom-processed by small, socially-responsible facilities.

Though tiny in comparison with commercial distributors, Otolith still manages to catch and process over 100,000 pounds of fish every year, thanks in large part to money generated by the CSS. “With the CSS, you’re contributing to the up-front costs and helping to get the boat off the dock,” says Bossard. “The point is to let customers know that we can’t do it without them.”

CSS participants receive 12 to 15 pounds of wild Alaskan salmon in three deliveries beginning at the end of July. The shipments can be picked up at locations across Philadelphia, including Otolith’s Fishtown store, Blooming Glen Farm in Perkasie, Arrow Root Natural Food Market in Bryn Mawr, the Rittenhouse Farmers’ Market and Milk & Honey Market in West Philly.

Bossard believes that buying into an Otolith CSS—shares are also available this summer for Dungeness crab and halibut—isn’t just about getting fresh fish, but supporting change in the seafood industry. “Through the direct relationship with the fisheries, we can help evolve fishermen into the equivalent of environmentalists," explains Bossard. "This kind of market can make people think that way.”