As a lifelong Maryland resident, Stephanie Hall has eaten plenty of oysters. But she'd never shucked one herself until she received a share of the shelled mollusks from Old Line Fish Co. this summer.
Hall was among the earliest customers of the region's first community-supported fishery. Similar to community-supported agriculture, Old Line Fish Co. allows customers to buy shares of local seafood for biweekly pickups. The seafood in each delivery varies from week to week depending on fish and shellfish in local watermen's catches.
An offshoot of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a nonprofit that works to restore the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population, Old Line Fish Co. is as much about educating customers as delivering fresh seafood. In its first season, the organization introduced customers to the watermen who caught their meals, provided some unfamiliar foods and suggested new cooking processes.
Oysters were just one of the species that made it into Hall's reusable bag stamped with an "Old Line Fish Co." seal — the Annapolis resident didn't even have a shucking knife until she bought one on the way home from picking up her share and grilled the oysters on the half-shell.
"If I'm going to say I'm a Marylander, I better be able to shuck an oyster," said Hall, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist who monitors water quality.
Old Line Fish Co. had 39 customers in its first summer, and Kelly Barnes, the organization's operations manager, said the group hopes to double its customer base in the fall. It offered its last summer distribution on July 28 and plans to resume after Labor Day. New customers can sign up on the company's website.
Buyers in Old Line Fish Co.'s first season received five shares over 10 weeks for $225. Each share contained three or four pounds of seafood, enough for about two dinners for three or four people. Stephan Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, said the organization didn't want to overload customers with too much seafood during its first run.
The summer's bounty included rockfish, soft shell crabs, clams, white perch, blue catfish, shucked and live oysters, crab claws and crab meat, and the fall packages will build on that variety.
Old Line Fish Co. got its start at the Anne Arundel Country Farmers' Market and transitioned to a community-supported fishery when the founders realized no such organization existed in the area. Community-supported fisheries, or CSFs, are common along the West Coast, in New England and farther down the East Coast, but there had been none in the Mid-Atlantic. The new CSF filled a gap in seafood-rich Annapolis and provided a new avenue for consumers to get seafood caught no more than a day or two earlier in the Chesapeake Bay.
The organization provided biweekly pickups on a driveway just outside the Westin Annapolis, where employees would load up customers' reusable bags from coolers stocked with seafood.
Because the organization works with commercial fishermen who use sustainable fishing practices, buying into the CSF helps support Chesapeake Bay restoration, according to organizers. Moreover, CSFs remind consumers where their fish comes from by connecting them with the watermen who supply their food.
"When you educate the public on the products that you have that are local, I think it is very key, and also they understand when they see a boat in front of their house that they could actually be harvesting a product that they like," said Moochie Gilmer, a commercial fisherman based in Kent Island. "I've always said that making the public aware of what we have locally is key."
In addition to storage and preparation tips, Old Line Fish Co. provides information about the watermen. Hall said she liked learning their stories as much as she enjoyed trying their catches — eating their products became a more personal experience than purchasing seafood caught in faraway waters from a grocery store.
"Before, I just went to Sam's Club and would get like a big bag of shrimp. There's nothing special about that" she said. "But each time they tell you the soft-shell clams I like so much [came from] this guy over on the Eastern Shore ... you realize these are real people with real careers providing you really delicious food."
That guy on the Eastern Shore was Gilmer. A commercial fisherman for nearly 30 years, Gilmer catches soft-shell clams and razor clams for crab bait.
He sells most of his soft-shell clams to New England, but he saw Old Line Fish Co. as a way to increase awareness about the clams closer to home. The species — served steamed or fried — used to be popular before the early 1970s and is making a comeback locally.
"Everybody seems to be enjoying them," Gilmer said. "A lot of people that I see when I have clams say, 'You've got clams again? I haven't seen them for years.' So the public awareness I think will be a great thing."
Old Line Fish Co. used six watermen throughout the summer, and Barnes said she hopes to include more from Maryland's Atlantic Coast in the future. The CSF also worked with local seafood processors such as Harris Seafood Co. to supply pre-packaged seafood like picked crab meat.
John VanAlstine of VanAlstine Seafood & Farm was another watermen who supplied Old Line Fish Co. this summer. The commercial fisherman of 21 years has worked with the Oyster Recovery Partnership since its inception, and he jumped aboard when the organization created Old Line Fish Co. He works year-round catching and selling "everything form crabs to oysters," he said.
Outside of Old Line Fish Co., he sells directly to consumers from his farm in Dunkirk, but he said he's always looking for new avenues to get his product in new hands. He has strong ties with his customers because he make a point of interacting with them.
"I think any fisherman has got a connection with the consumer," he said. "It's not like a carpenter that builds a house."
Old Line Fish Co.'s six fall distributions will start Sept. 8 and run through Nov. 22. Barnes said she hopes to add more Atlantic species and lesser-known local fish to the mix this time around.
Hall was pleased with the variety and the quality of the seafood she received during the summer, and said it was worth the $225 buy-in, roughly $11 to $15 per pound. Lump crab meat, included with several of this summer's packages, can run more than $40 per pound.
"They ended up actually throwing in an extra week, and especially these past couple weeks, we've really gotten quite a lot," Hall said. "And crab meat is not cheap."
For now, Old Line Fish Co. is one of a kind in the area. But just as community-supported agriculture has expanded, the concept has the potential to grow.
"The time is now because of people wanting fresh seafood," Abel said. "It's a great way to connect people back to the Chesapeake."