On the deck of his trawler, the Elizabeth Helen, Steve Arnold took out his Droid Incredible and photographed the best of that day's catch of fluke. He e-mailed the photograph to a number of chefs and sent them a note saying what he had hauled in, what he would be fishing for in the coming days, and when he could deliver his catch that afternoon.
The chefs fired back requests for squid, fluke, striped bass and a dozen or so other species. In iced containers, the orders would be rushed to restaurants in Providence and towns nearby in Massachusetts in a refrigerated van that Mr. Arnold recently bought.
"I start stressing out if it takes more than 24 hours from sea to kitchen," Mr. Arnold said.
Derek Wagner, the chef at Nicks on Broadway in Providence, answered a call on a recent day and saw a bucket of butterfish on Mr. Arnold's boat with a glove on top to show their size.
"It is amazing," Mr. Wagner said. "This is real time. No middleman. I texted Steve back. He got my brain going about butterfish. As Steve is pulling the fresh stuff out of the water, it shows up at the back door and whole."
This boat-to-table initiative is part of Trace and Trust, a program that Mr. Arnold; Christopher Brown, the head of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen's Association; and Bob Westcott, another local fisherman, started this year to make fishing more lucrative and shopping more reliable. By cutting out the wholesaler, Trace and Trust lets fishermen get a bigger cut of what chefs and stores pay, and lets restaurants and retailers know they are buying the freshest fish possible. (Consumers can go to its Web site, traceandtrust.com, to find participating stores and chefs, and to trace a fish's identification tag back to the boat or fisherman who caught it.)
Trace and Trust comes at a moment when the seafood industry is under attack because of misleading labeling as well as the freshness and sustainability of what it sells. Consumers and fishermen have reacted by setting up community-supported fisheries, in which consumers pay in advance for a weekly delivery of seafood. And fishermen have reached out to chefs before.
But Trace and Trust has used technology to create a more direct and responsive connection between consumers and fishermen than any other program in the country, said Peter Baker, director of Northeast Fisheries Program for the Pew Environment Group.
"These fishermen are cutting edge," Mr. Baker said. "Working together, the Rhode Island group came up with an innovative and unique marketing idea that no one else is doing."
Mr. Arnold said he even follows chefs on Twitter and Facebook to see what fish they are using or want.
Most of the catch from local fishermen goes to processors, who fillet and pack it, in Boston; New Bedford, Mass.; or New York, or, by air freight, even farther away. That's still true of most of the fish Mr. Arnold catches in the 200 days or so that he sets out to sea each year. "We are at the mercy of the processors," he said. "It is no way to do business."
Mr. Wagner, the first chef to participate in the project, said that fish from distributors ends up being two or three times as expensive, and is usually out of the water three days longer than the Trace and Trust fish.
Fish sold through Trace and Trust are not filleted, making delivery quicker and giving chefs more to work with.
"While the whole fish program does tack another six, seven hours onto my week with butchering, packing, etc., we still make more profit off this fish than we ever have before," said John Vestal, the chef at New Rivers in Providence, who goes by the name Beau. "We also get all the odd little bits to play with. When the yellowtail flounder was coming in flush with six-inch roe sacks intact, we would harvest them, pan roast them, serve them with a simple vinaigrette and get $8 a pop. An extra $16 per fish, in our pockets, all the while sharing with our customers flavors and textures they never knew existed."
"In my first phone call to Steve he basically explained his plan and said, ‘We'll give it a try, if you like the fish, then great,' " Mr. Vestal said. "He showed up the next day at my back door with a perfectly packed and iced crate of whole codfish, yellowtail flounder and skate wings. I have been buying all the seafood for the restaurant for over a decade, and what I saw amazed me. The fish was the absolutely most beautiful, fresh, cleanest seafood I had ever seen. I was truly overwhelmed. It also saddened me. Where was all the local Rhody fish that was being landed right here going?"
Sixteen restaurants in Rhode Island are participating in the program, including New Rivers, Chez Pascal and La Laiterie in Providence, and about a half-dozen in the Boston area. Recently River and Glen, a distributor in Pennsylvania, joined in, selling the three fishermen's catch - which goes under the Wild Rhody label - to high-end restaurants in the mid-Atlantic area.
"You can now eat really fresh fish at the Tastings Wine Bar at Gillette Stadium," the home of the New England Patriots, Mr. Arnold said with pride.
Mr. Wagner said: "I have never had such positive feedback from any fish that we have served, ever. The proof is the guest returning more than once a week to have the fluke crudo again, or to try the squid this time, or they had heard about the skate with capers."
Trace and Trust has forged strong ties between the chefs and fishermen. Mr. Vestal said he even told Mr. Arnold early on that he needed to charge chefs more to help guarantee success.
"It is absolutely essential that programs like this survive and flourish," Mr. Vestal said.