Reimagining Dock to Dish for Central America : New Worlder

Early during construction of Lapa Rios, an ecolodge that opened in 1993 on the edge of Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park, owner Karen Lewis asked a neighbor who liked to fish for something the next day to feed a hungry crew, he returned with a 15-kilo red snapper. “Voila!” she thought. “Now we’ll have fish for our Sunday dinners from now on.” It would never be that easy.

The remote and wild Osa peninsula was only populated in the 1960s and communities were generally not united on local food distribution. The people, collections of extended families from the Valle General and a few from the Valle Central, were mostly goldpanners or farmers. Their diet didn’t include fish and even today few are interested in becoming a commercial fisherman. Across the Golfo Dulce in the town of Golfito there were fishermen, but they only worked under contract from San José wholesalers. Therefore, any fish going to Lapa Rios would be sent back to the capital by truck and then back again.

While the lodge can now source fish in Golfito, it’s unreliable and often easier to buy from San José or Quepos. Plus, the variety is limited to around five species that are in high demand: mahi-mahi, tropical sea bass, grouper, and sometimes red snapper, yellowfin tuna, or shrimp. Occasionally shark and marlin from by-catch fish nets are offered. Everything else is tossed out. Yet, there are no small fish species, no local roster fish, or mackerel. For a hotel that prizes itself on sustainability, seafood has long been an exception.

Guests have high expectations for seafood when they come to this corner of Costa Rica too, according to Lewis. “They’ll say ‘You’re in the front of the ocean. I can’t wait for fresh tropical fish options on your menu.’” It just isn’t realistic. The entire system is out of whack.

In January of 2017, Lapa Rios began working with Dock to Dish, the community based seafood sourcing program that connects chefs and restaurants with artisanal fishermen. A few months after the partnership began, I traveled to the lodge to see how it was going.

The hotel was working with a local fisherman named Randal, who everyone called Pocho. He went out into the Golfo Dulce most mornings, using a hand line to catch what he could. The hotel bought whatever he could catch, taking pressure off of the same few species that would normally be available to them. While Pocho was not catching their entire seafood needs, they have been able to transition towards new species that the lodge has never served. For dinner that night there was a special menu displaying that day’s Dock to Dish offerings. Everyone from the experiences director to the front desk staff to the waiters participated.

“Interpretation of the entire process is critical to its success,” said Lewis.

Diners were given a special Dock to Dish menu on top of their regular menu, explaining how Pocho’s catch, pez chancho, or fine scaled triggerfish, was a more sustainable approach to dinner. It wasn’t a pretty fish and there wasn’t a lot of meat on its bones, so Pocho couldn’t sell otherwise. If he landed pez chancho on his line he would either throw it back or eat it at home. Yet here Pocho was, right out in the dining room alongside the chef making triggerfish ceviche for wealthy travelers. The fish was also served as croquettes with blackberry dressing, as well as pan seared whole with plantains. The diners could see the entire chain from the sea to the table right of them. A few still ordered off the regular menu, though most of them went for it.

Unlike other destinations that Dock to Dish has been established, in Costa Rica Dock to Dish is a partnership with a group of 8 sustainable hotels and ecolodges (including Lapa Rios) in Central America called Cayuga Collection. These are hotels that have managed to merge luxury with sustainability. They prove eco-friendly and isolated locations doesn’t mean camping and mosquito nets. Many of the hotels lack air conditioning, but they still have 600 thread count sheets and solar powered hot water. Collectively, they help channel funds to Earth Equilibrium to build schools and provide potable water to rural communities in Costa Rica, plus their restaurants use only grass-fed beef, hormone-free poultry, and organic fruits and vegetables. Yet, sourcing seafood has always been an issue.

“We have been struggling with doing more sustainable seafood for years,” Pfister told me. “We are doing well on not commercializing certain species, but it was always hard for us to check on the way that the fishermen caught the fish and if it was sustainable. We also thought that we should improve variety and not do always the same fish.”

A retired chef living in Jacó, Jon Hochstat, connected Pfister with Sean Barret, who founded Dock to Dish in Montauk, New York. The two hit it off. Barrett’s vision was to remake the way fish is caught and sold. He wanted the seafood industry in the United States to be more like it was fifty years ago. Then, domestic fisheries were the origin of most seafood, as opposed to today, where more more than ninety percent of what is eaten in the United States arrives frozen from abroad.

“We are doing well on not commercializing certain species, but it was always hard for us to check on the way that the fishermen caught the fish and if it was sustainable.” – Hans Pfister

When he launched Dock to Dish in Montauk in 2013 there were 60 members that were buying access to wild, sustainable seafood that was fully traceable to the fisherman who caught it. It cut out the middleman, allowing the buyers to get a better price, better quality, and ensured that the catches were sustainable. Essentially, it was a CSA for seafood.

The program began to expand rapidly. By 2014, they were serving New York City. A dozen or so chefs, including Dan Barber at Blue Hill and Michael Anthony at Gramercy Tavern, were receiving 50 to 80 pounds of fish, within 24-hours of it being caught in Eastern Long Island, on a weekly basis from May through October. By 2015, they were on the West Coast. Then Canada. They’ve become more sophisticated too; even tracking fish in real time.

Once Barret connected with Pfister and learned about Cayuga Collection, expanding to Costa Rica just made sense.

“Everybody likes to talk the talk when it comes to sustainability,” Barrett told me by email, “but Cayuga actually walks the walk. They are authentic and real. We found that all of our values were aligned, and discovered that their vision for sustainable hospitality was remarkable. We knew we could bring a new model for sustainable seafood to them.”

The difference in Costa Rica from how Dock to Dish typically operates in North America has been the size. In New York or Los Angeles Dock to Dish works with “dozens and dozens of contributing fishermen and thousands of pounds of seafood being distributed to a big network of high volume restaurants multiple times a week,” according to Barrett. In Costa Rica, operations are customized to fit Cayuga properties. From the onset, they decided to start small. Only one or two local fishermen and their families work exclusively with each Cayuga Collection property.

“As Hans likes to say, things that grow very fast can get blown over in the breeze, but things that grow slowly ­– and grow deep, strong roots – they can stand up to a hurricane,” Barrett said.

When Barrett arrived at Arenas del Mar, a Cayuga Collection hotel in the resort town of Manuel Antonio, he went out with the local fishermen and asked them about all the fish they catch, how they catch it, when they catch it, and what’s most abundant. They singled out cuminaté, a type of catfish that seemed to be everywhere but wasn’t being consumed. They checked it out with Mar Viva, a local NGO with science-based data about local fish populations, and they determined cuminaté was indeed a very abundant and sustainable local species. They then determined how far the fishermen had to go to find the species. In this case, it could be reeled in right off the beach. Once the determined it was an ideal fish to use they began working with the hotel’s chef, Adrián Cerdas, who was able to craft half a dozen dishes with cuminaté.

​He went out with a local fisherman and asked them about all the fish they catch, how they catch it, when they catch it, and what’s most abundant.

“So, it’s sustainable for the environment, and its sustainable for the community,” said Barrett. “That’s the balance we seek, that is the key to success for true sustainability.”

The goal is to reconnect local fishermen with the staff, management, and ultimately guests of the hotels on a first name basis, which is working. Once those relationships are formed, according to Barrett, then the rest of the benefits of the relationship begin to cascade over time.

“It is an improvement over the CSA format in many ways,” he says, “because at Cayuga they are relying on trust bonds that they are building with the fishing community, and here in the States we need to rely on the CSA economic model to keep everything running smoothly. I actually wish we could import parts of the Costa Rica format here sometimes to tell you the truth, its a much more pure and simple way.”

Right now, the Dock to Dish format is being installed at each Cayuga Collection hotel one by one throughout the year. Next they will work with Harmony Hotel in Nosara in Guanacaste, and then the first-ever freshwater Dock to Dish program at Jicaro Island Ecolodge in Lake Nicaragua. The hotels where the project has been in operation continue to experiment with different species of fish and additional fishermen.

“The impact has been very positive,” said Pfister. “It has raised awareness about the issues of sustainable seafood in our staff and we are much more critical about what we serve. We have been able to make economic contributions to artisanal fishermen. Guests love the program and are learning about this subject that is not on their radar normally. We still have a long way to go, but are very happy.”

Early one morning I met Santos, the 68-year-old fisherman who Dock to Dish connected to Arenas del Mar, at the marina in Quepos and we went out on the water. Cerdas and another member of the staff tagged along. They have been joining Santos on occasion to learn more about the fish.

We climbed aboard Santos’ 14-foot dingy, along with a friend of his that typically joins him out at sea. Within a few minutes of the marina we were in open water heading south, passing the steep, jungle clad hillsides that surround the shores beyond Manuel Antonio National Park. Santos’ friend cut the bait with a machete as we sailed.

Santos had been working with Dock to Dish since the program launched in Costa Rica six months before. Before he could only sell tuna and mahi mahi. Now he was getting good prices for other fish. The relationship was working great for him and the hotel.

We stopped about an hour south of Quepos. We were close enough to the shore that I could see spider monkeys in the trees. A few pelicans stood quietly on a rocky islet beside us. We fished with handlines, and I don’t mean poles. They were iPhone size pieces of wood with fishing line wrapped around them, attached to a a couple of hooks and a weight. Still, whatever we dropped in, the fish would bite. We pulled up pargo manchado, cuminaté, and a half dozen other local fish they had no commercial value, yet were delicious.

Santos was careful to respect size limits and not keep any species that were endangered or he wasn’t licensed to catch. A moray eel and fish that were too small were tossed back in. He followed every rule of sustainable fishing that he learned from Dock to Dish and was proud of it.

After about an hour a coast guard boat showed up. There were six of them on a boat with three engines. They were armed and intimidating. They immediately accused Santos of not having too many people on the boat and that there weren’t enough life jackets. They asked for his license and he didn’t have it with him. He became angry digging through his wallet. Cerdas told him to calm down and had the hotel send an image of Santos’ paperwork to the coast guard. Santos and the captain of the coast guard boat began arguing about ridiculous things like how much hair they had. Santos was old but proud. He wasn’t taking any of their shit. Why should he? After thirty minutes of this Cerdas calmed him down and we decided to just head back.

Ten minutes later they turned on their sirens again and came after us. They said he lacked proper documentation for the boat. It was in his son’s name. One member of the coast guard kept putting his finger right in Santos’ face.

“You need more life jackets,” he screamed. “We could take this boat if we wanted to.”

They just wanted to keep fucking with him. It was a technicality. If it wasn’t one thing it would have been the other. They wrote out a fine and we waited an hour or so in the hot son as it was processed. The hotel would eventually pay it and clear everything up. If we weren’t there they would have taken the boat and thrown Santos in jail.

Off in the distance we could see shrimp trawlers dragging their nets along the ocean floor. There’s a fleet or 40 of them in the area, destroying large swaths of the reef and leaving fewer fish for fishermen like Santos to catch in the future. However, they had all of their paperwork in order.