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Getting a Line on America's Growing Appetite for High-Quality Fish : Distribution Network Keeps Catch Moving From Sea to Your Table

March 02, 1989|CAROLE SUGARMAN | The Washington Post

GLOUCESTER, Mass. — Health-conscious Americans have turned to fish. While consumption still trails far behind chicken and beef, in 1987 Americans ate a record amount of seafood--15.4 pounds per capita.

At the same time, the cost of fish escalated more than that of any other protein food. This demand has not only put a strain on consumers' pocketbooks, but also on the system's ability to provide fish of consistently high quality.

Transporting all this fish from the sea to the plate is a massive and difficult task, a race against the clock that must maximize shelf life and minimize temperature abuse. For example, if a cod fillet is stored at 32 degrees, its shelf life will be 14 days, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Seven degrees warmer and that cod's shelf life will be cut in half.

From the water, a fish may go through five owners before it is purchased by a consumer. Because of their sales volume, supermarket chains can buy directly from processors who will ship fish to the chains' main distribution centers. From there, the products are shipped to individual stores.

Convolutions, Exceptions

Specialty fish shops and restaurants usually buy from a wholesaler. But there are many convolutions and exceptions. Often, wholesalers sell to one another.

To consolidate orders, processors often ship fish back and forth with no apparent geographic logic; turbot and john dory caught overseas are flown into Dulles Airport outside Washington and shipped to Steve Connelly's seafood plant in Gloucester, where they are repacked and then shipped back to Washington restaurants. Connelly also buys grouper caught in Florida, processes it and then ships it back to Florida restaurants.

"Quiet, boys," the woman orders in a distinctive Boston accent. It is 6:30 on a Monday morning, and the start of the Boston Fish Auction.

In a musty room with the atmosphere of a disinterested high-school class, a group of about 20 buyers from Boston's fish-processing plants are gathered to bid on the morning's catch--a load from about seven boats that have returned from a week out on Georges Bank, one of New England's prime fishing areas. These processors ship fish all over the country.

Aside from Boston, there are four other fish auctions in the country--New Bedford, Mass.; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; Portland, Me.; and Honolulu.

Bought Sight Unseen

In Boston the auction is not a display; processors will purchase fish they have not seen.

A blackboard at the front of the room lists the names of the boats, the type of fish and the amount caught: The Carol Ann, the Captain Sam II, the Nancy & Heidi, the True Life, the Reliable. Haddock, cod, gray sole, hake, cusk, flounder. For example, the Carol Ann is listed for 500 pounds of haddock among its catch; the Captain Sam II, for 500 pounds of gray sole.

The buyers are a hardened lot who know the inner workings of this business like the inside of a timepiece. There are people such as Bobby Brandano, in his shiny black jacket with Great Eastern Seafood emblazoned in gold, his onyx pompadour and his tight-fitting jeans.

Brandano keeps close tabs on what boats have gone out to sea and when they are scheduled to return. Fishermen have reputations, and Brandano wants to buy from the best.

There's Mike Vitales from Puritan Seafood, who sells to seafood distributors who in turn sell to upscale markets and restaurants. (Today, Foehrkolb will buy 200 pounds of cod, 50 of pollack, 160 of flounder and 120 of gray sole from Vitales.)

"All the haddock is for sale," the auctioneer begins. The bidding starts at $1.50 a pound, ends at $1.75. There are 3 minutes to bid on each species until the buzzer is rung.

During the auction, several of the buyers talk in muffled voices on telephones lined against the wall, relaying the bids to their companies as they are shouted, inquiring whether they should up the bid depending on their client's demands. In between, the woman in charge repeats: "Quiet, boys."

There are a lot of things that are not being said openly here, most of them based on the supply of fish landed elsewhere. By 5 a.m., the buyers were in their offices, calling around to find out the amount of fish landed at other New England ports.

More importantly, the availability and price of fish in Canada also has a crucial impact on the price and quality of fish purchased domestically.

Close to 60% of all the groundfish--the cod, haddock, flounder, etc.--that are eaten in this country are actually landed off Canada, primarily off the coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Domestic waters have been largely overfished for these species.

Canadian Fish

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