WESTERLY — Hit hard by restaurant closures due to the coronavirus, Rhode Island fishermen welcomed a 120-day pilot program announced in May by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management that allows them to sell directly to consumers. 

Now, there’s a free app called “FishLine" that shows which fishermen are selling which types of fish and where to find them. The app is a collaboration between the Rhode Island Seafood Marketing Collaborative, the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island, Eating with the Ecosystem and Rhode Island Sea Grant.

Westerly fisherman Josiah Dodge fishes for lobster, black sea bass, fluke, scup and sea robin from his vessel, F/V Cricket. Dodge’s family has been fishing since 1661, but having a long history in the industry doesn’t mean he’s not open to new ideas. 

“This app is super helpful and really easy to use, and hopefully, more people catch on to it down here,” he said. 

Dodge and other participating fishermen can be found on the FishLine app under the tab “Find Seafood.” The user enters a zip code and the app finds fishermen close by. Clicking on an individual fisherman will bring up GPS coordinates that will guide the user to the vessel.

The University of Rhode Island’s Fisheries Center Research Assistant Mitch Hatzipetro described FishLine as another way to connect Rhode Island food producers with consumers.

“It’s a great way to bridge the gap between consumer and fisherman,” he said. “Fishermen are constantly working and it’s really hard to advertise their catch in a successful manner.”

Hatzipetro discovered the app, which focused on California species and had to be adapted for use in Rhode Island.

“The app has actually been out for eight years in California,” he said. “There was all California-based species, abalone, stuff like that, so we needed to modify it to put black sea bass, sand crab, any species that we really market, butterfish, scup, that are all native to our waters. The species list is ongoing. We can update it at any time.”

Kate Masury, director of the Wakefield-based group Eating with the Ecosystem, which promotes local, sustainable wild fisheries, welcomed the app.

“The app, from Eating with the Ecosystem’s perspective, is another great tool for fishermen and consumers to really connect, and for consumers to be able to source local seafood,” she said. “…The nice thing about the FishLine app is that it allows them to buy directly from a local fisherman, and you’re actually able to interact with the fisherman that caught your fish. You get to ask him questions. You know your fish is fresh, because it’s being sold the day it’s caught, so there’s a lot of benefits I think in terms of consumers being able to use it. It’s a really nice experience for them.”

Fish sold directly to consumers are whole, which can be daunting for those accustomed to having someone else do the work for them. Eating with the Ecosystem has partnered with the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Food Policy Council to offer online “Cook a Fish, Give a Fish” classes on how to cook whole fish.

“We partner with different local chefs who will walk our participants through the steps of how you create a delicious dinner using one of our local, whole fish,” she said. “So you actually get those skills, whether it’s cooking it whole or learning how to filet it.”

Dodge said as far as he is concerned, cooking fish whole is the only way to go.

“America fell out of love with the whole fish,” he said. “We got sold a bill of goods on filets and that’s the best way to do things. A majority of my friends are cooking their fish whole and almost every one of them says they’ll never go back to filets. The amount of meat you get off of them, it can’t be matched. It’s like going to the store and buying a chicken breast versus the whole chicken.”

The app has been out for only a couple of weeks, but Hatzipetro said consumers were already using it. Another incentive for buying directly from fishermen is the cheaper price.

“They love it,” Hatzipetro said. “They love being able to buy fish at a reduced price, not market price, and to get the off-the-boat prices.”

The FishLine app can be downloaded free from the Apple or Google app stores.

More information on the cooking classes is available on the Eating with the Ecosystem website at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/cook-a-fish-give-a-fish-tickets-112145084968.

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