Fishermen Finding Windows Of Opportunity, Necessity Opened By Coronavirus

Commercial fishermen have diversified their outreach to markets and seafood retailers have thrived amid the coronavirus epidemic.

In the early days of the coronavirus shut-downs, commercial fishermen were among those gut-punched by the impacts of an economy screeched to a halt.

Fishermen were told they could keep working, and the fish they sought were plentiful, but the value of fish at markets reeling from the forced closures of tens of thousands of restaurants and people fleeing into their homes was minimal.

But fishermen say that as the pandemic has settled into the habits of humans across the world, where one window of opportunity has closed, others have opened and helped the industry keep itself … well, afloat.

They have been buoyed by a steep drop in the amount of seafood being imported to the U.S. from other countries — the practice itself a plague that many fishermen said the country needs to rid it self of — and a populace that has still eagerly sought out seafood to eat while in quarantine.

With restaurants either closed or doing a fraction of their usual business, fishermen have relied more on selling to retail seafood markets, or at retail farmers markets, selling fish off the back of their boats or pickups and, in some cases, door-to-door deliveries, to peddle their catch.

“Guys are getting creative,” said Edward Warner Jr., a commercial bayman from Hampton Bays. “You have some guys going on the internet and selling and going to the green markets in the city more. Different people are trying different things to make few bucks here and there.”

Before the epidemic, the majority of fish landed by local boats was simply packed in waxed cardboard boxes, topped with crushed ice and trucked into New York City’s central seafood market in Hunts Point, Brooklyn. Smatterings of fishermen sold some of their product directly to local seafood markets and some of the larger local fish wholesalers like Bob Gosman Co. in Montauk and Cor-J Seafood in Hampton Bays, and took some of the fish that were brought to their packing houses for their own seafood shops and restaurant customers.

In mid-March, when restaurants and thousands of other businesses were ordered to close, and people scrambled to pack into their homes and venture out as little as possible, prices for fish cratered. Entire seafood supply wholesalers shuttered their operations, since most of their customers were restaurants.

But as the epidemic eased slightly and people became more assured in the steps they were taking to protect themselves from infections, the demand for seafood started to climb again, just through different avenues.

At Gosman’s Dock in Montauk, cousins Brian and Asa Gosman, who run the family’s wholesale and retail seafood operations, opened their seafood shop two months early and saw lines out the door the first day. In Quogue, Peter Haskell of Haskell’s Seafood, ramped up his fish-filleting crew to summer levels.

Retail seafood shops have been doing banner sales — though perhaps not on par with the windfalls of what may be a six-month pickled summer season for liquor stores — and the prices for fish from the markets have rebounded somewhat, though inconsistently.

Montauk captain Chuck Morici and crewman Jim Foley became two of the earliest coronavirus celebrities in the first days of the shut down when they returned from a three-day fishing trip and, finding the price of fish at the markets had collapsed, gave away hundreds of pounds of fresh fluke and monkfish fillets on a Montauk roadside.

Since that time, the pair have been running a steady stream of trips, selling all of their catch direct to seafood markets rather than to the wholesalers.

“There’s 13 million people in New York — if you have the right to fish, there’s some money to be made,” Mr. Morici said. “We don’t need a paycheck from the government, we just need the regulations put in order and we can feed this nation. If the governor says he needs a million pounds of food for the city, we can do it. We’re here. The crops aren’t growing yet, but the fish are.”

Fishermen’s advocates say that the local commercial industry — and fresh seafood-loving residents and visitors — has the opportunity to do more direct-to-consumer trade, but faces a few difficult hurdles of logistics and red tape.

Fishermen who have the proper state permit — which is simple enough to acquire, but takes time — are allowed to sell their catch directly to someone just looking for dinner — and many do. The hitch is in turning that fish into something that the average seafood-loving land lubber can turn into a meal.

“The problem is most people are not willing or capable of buying a whole fish and cleaning it themselves,” said Julie Lofstad, a Southampton Town councilwoman and owner of commercial fishing boat with her husband. “We would need to process tens of thousands of pounds, so we’d need a processing facility, which we don’t have.”

Bonnie Brady, the director the Long Island Commercial Fisherman’s Association and the wife of a Montauk dragger captain, said she has been trying to create just such a facility for years, but fitting the myriad pieces together is a slow process. Any such “cutting” facility would have to be stamped for approval by the county health department and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets with a litany of proper refrigeration and sanitary requirements.

“If I had a dollar for every time a farmers market called me and said they could really use some fresh wild-caught fish purveyors,” Ms. Brady said. “It’s even more so now. The farmers markets in the city are jammed. It’s a ripe opportunity, but there’s a lot to figure out: Do we try to set up a cutting house with all that entails? How do we get the cut fish to the inland markets following all the health guidelines? It’s not something we can expect anyone to invest time and money into until we make sure we’re getting things done right.”

Farmers markets, both locally in the summer and the larger, year-round markets in city boroughs, have proven lucrative to the few local fishermen that have tackled some of the hurdles themselves on a small scale.

Montauk fishermen Chris Scola’s stand has been a popular fixture at the Springs Farmers Market in recent summers — and will be at the Sag Harbor market this summer — and is often sold out of the sea scallops, monkfish, blowfish, fluke and other popular species he brings packed in ice well before the rest of the market packs up. But working the deck of his sea scallop boat and then tackling the preparations of a retail salesman is a tasking duality. The time and expenses of retail — Mr. Scola pays to have the various fish that he takes to the farmers markets cleaned for him at a local restaurant — and layers that many fishermen aren’t willing to take on after returning to land from rigorous trips to sea, but the prices of retail make it worthwhile for those willing to put in the time.

“It’s a whole other job, basically,” he said. “Gathering up the product, preparing everything. It’s a lot of extra work. But it’s a good gig.”

Hampton Bays fisherman Jeff Kraus says he knows consumers would always prefer to buy their fish directly from the fishermen who catch it, when possible. He has been supplying some of his catch to local shops, some to other fishermen who are setting up stands at city farmers markets and some he has been selling just out of the back of his truck.

“Early on, I was driving all over the place trying to hawk stuff,” he said. “So now I am just selling off the back of my truck, and that’s been going well. Now the markets are starting to come alive, so we’ll see how things go.”

The rebound in prices for the fish local fishermen are catching has been spurred at least in part by some of the same effects of the pandemic that drove it down to start with. Fishermen say that one of the most welcome impacts of the protections against the spread of the virus has been the halting of millions of pounds of imported fish.

“We have to change the way Americans choose the fish they want to eat,” Ms. Brady said. “It’s salmon, which is usually farmed, cod from Iceland or it’s shrimp from China. There’s so many amazing fish to eat, and people don’t know the difference and don’t know what it is they are actually eating.”

Retailers, too, have welcomed the forced shift in demand to local fish species coming off boats just a few miles from where they will be cooked and consumed.

“Our model when we started out was to put more focus on the local products,” Peter Haskell, owner of Haskell’s Seafood in Quogue, said. “This has actually helped that mission a little.”

Mr. Haskell speaks proudly of being able to go to local captains when prices were cratering from city wholesalers and say he was eager to buy their product.

The Haskell’s Seafood cutting room, and its now 14 workers — as many as the shop had on in height of summer last year — has also been filleting fish for some of the captains they buy from regularly who are now also looking to sell some of their catch at retail farmers markets in the city.

The localization of fish has had some depressing effects too, of course. One of Long Island’s largest fisheries, squid, has seen prices fluctuate wildly because of the work slow downs at processing plants in Rhode Island that clean and freeze locally caught squid for export — largely to European countries like Italy and Spain — and those markets have been closed off as well.

Among the most resilient corners of the seafood market has proven to be one of the most locally abundant: the lowly porgy. Fishermen and restaurateurs have labored for years to try to earn a better view of the fish with the two odd and poorly-descriptive names: scup and porgy.

But demand for the bread-and-butter-plate-sized fish, perhaps simply because the broader population has not yet embraced them, so prices are relatively low compared to species like fluke and striped bass, has remained steady in largely Asian and Hispanic immigrant communities.

For fishermen like Ed and Vinnie Warner, the ups and downs of the market are just part of the latest hurdle those like them who endeavor to earn a living on the water have been navigating for decades.

“Like I said to my son, at least we can go to work,” Mr. Warner said. “A lot of people haven’t been able to do that, and so we have to consider ourselves lucky no matter what. And if can’t sell what we catch — we can always eat it.”