Ashley Davis
The Kitchen group's restaurants may be located in landlocked Boulder, Colorado, but chef/founder Hugo Matheson (center) and his team get that on-the-coast vibe from the fish flown to him by Sea to Table.
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Right Off The Boat

Katy Keiffer / March 2012

Real-time technology and speed-of-light shipping are making just-caught seafood instantly accessible. Katy Keiffer looks at how fishermen and purveyors are changing how chefs get their fish.

Navigating the roiling seas of the commercial fishing industry requires more than a compass and sextant these days. Ever shifting regulations, sustainability ratings, seasonality, misnamed fish, and demanding consumers comprise just some of the challenges inherent in sourcing top-notch seafood successfully.

But imagine a system where there’s a direct relationship with the guy who is actually doing the fishing? Suppose you could even watch him working on his boat via a video stream, or text him to ask what he’s catching that day? What if you ran a restaurant in Kansas City and could get just-off-the-boat fish shipped overnight? This isn’t fantasy; rather, it’s an emerging paradigm. Even better, in many cases it’s cheaper than buying through traditional channels: fewer steps between ocean and plate can mean lower costs for higher quality. Two companies—Wild Rhody in Rhode Island and Sea To Table in New York City—have taken the lead in creating these channels, bringing new levels of transparency to the fish business through innovative programs that reflect the demands of the chef for fresh and responsibly harvested product.

Steve Arnold, a commercial fisherman for 28 years out of Point Judith, Rhode Island, spotted an opportunity when he recognized that people were becoming interested in where their food comes from. “I never gave the traceability issue any thought until the past couple of years when I started hearing about the locavore movement,” he says. Enter Leigh Balenger, of Chefs Collaborative, who knew chefs were looking for that elusive direct connection to fishermen. So when Arnold contacted her for restaurant suggestions, she had more than a few good ideas for him. Among them was an introduction to Michael Clayton, CEO of Trace and Trust, whom she had met through the Environmental Defense Fund.

Arnold invited Clayton to participate in a meeting with other fishermen about how to leverage their catch into a better revenue stream. Clayton explained how Trace and Trust, a unique software platform, could help them brand and market their fish more effectively. “What Trace and Trust brings to the table is vessel level identification and accountability,” says Clayton. “With the current system, it won’t have an impact on the price, whether the fish has been immaculately cared for, or not, or that it’s local or not. There is no branding.” Trace and Trust created a software program that “offers everything from the customer facing website, to the QR codes [Quick Response code, a matrix or two-dimensional tacking code] that chefs put on their plates, to the input capability for fishermen of where, what, and when they land the product.” “Once I got them going with a couple of restaurants in Rhode Island and Boston, honestly, the fish sells itself, because it’s so fresh and beautiful,” Balenger says. “And with Trace and Trust, diners literally can scan a QR code at the table as they are eating and find out what boat their fish came in on and who landed it.”

Armed with a new set of restaurant connections and Trace and Trust, Arnold and his fishing partner, Chris Brown, were able to launch the distribution company Wild Rhody in 2010. “It allows us to market fish at a higher price point when we can sell it directly from the boat,” Arnold says. “It goes through the fish house [where it’s landed] and HACCP, but there’s no distribution channel after that. I never lose custody of my fish.”

Thanks to the vessel tracking system, chefs can contact all six vessels in the Wild Rhody network and ask what is being caught at that moment. “We all have smartphones, so chefs can text me with questions anytime we are out at sea,” Arnold notes. This is the trace part of trace and trust. “I’m not just putting my tags on someone’s fish and saying it’s mine,” he says, adding that the group also runs four video cameras on the boats to document the day’s catch. In early January, a fast tide and high seas contributed to the sinking of Arnold’s boat, the Elizabeth Helen. No one was hurt, and the Wild Rhody fleet continues to deliver (see sidebar).

Sea to Table, a distribution company, shipped its first order in 2005. Its model runs a bit differently than Wild Rhody’s, but the principles are the same: a direct conduit from boat to restaurant, giving fishermen a hand in connecting with the restaurants they need to thrive. While on vacation in Tobago with the family, Michael Dimin and his kids went fishing and returned with a boatload of fresh fish, but no place to sell it other than in the local market. Dimin sensed an opportunity to help the Tobagoan community by connecting it directly with restaurants in the United States. At the same time, he realized that this problem held true for fishing fleets at home. Sea to Table works directly with fishermen, packing fish dockside, and shipping it via FEDEX to arrive a day later in a restaurant. The Dimins have developed a network of fishermen from Alaska for salmon, and from Maine down to the Carolinas. They work only with fishermen or groups who harvest fish according to guidelines set up by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s FishWatch.

Sea to Table is not the only company to offer next day delivery. Rod Mitchell’s Browne Trading Company in Portland, Maine, was arguably the first to take advantage of the efficiencies of UPS. Similar to Wild Rhody and Sea to Table in the high bar for quality, the company still buys from auctions. However, the emphasis on personal relationships, and knowing whom they are buying from, guarantees the best. “We’re successful because we source quality products all the time,” says Nick Branchina, Browne Trading’s marketing director. “Quality is our mantra, and it’s our reality or we would get our butts kicked.”

Swift delivery is not the only similarity between these companies. They all rely on direct relationships with chefs. Mitchell recognized this when he was approached by the late Jean-Louis Palladin to find him perfect scallops. “What Rod has accomplished is doing the right thing for the right person at the right time, like getting Jean-Louis the scallops,” Branchina says of the origin of so-called diver scallops. “Rod continues to cultivate relationships with young chefs, and that is what helped us to grow.”

That direct connection with the end user is what ensures exceptional freshness. Michael Dimin described an example of a conventional shipping trajectory: “In the Carolinas, a lot of their fish would load on a truck, get driven up to the Fulton Fish Market [in New York City], get sold to grocery stores in Raleigh-Durham, get loaded back on trucks, and go back to North Carolina. So many people are touching the fish that lots of costs get built into that process. We have shortened the chain so it costs less to get better quality.”

On the West Coast, where fish farming is more prevalent, the Port Orford Sustainable Seafood organization offers consumers and chefs wild-caught fish right off their boats. Aaron Longton started this organization 10 years ago as part of a larger conservation group called the Port Orford Community Stewardship Area. Similar to what was occurring in other fishing communities, the locally caught fish were being sent to distant processing facilities and returning days later to the consumer. Fishermen were being paid less, the fish weren’t as fresh, and there was no guarantee that consumers were getting fish from local waters.

However, there was another major inspiration for the Port Orford Community Stewardship Area—the introduction of the system of “catch-share,” or allocations. In 1996, Congress adopted the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, legislation aimed at managing U.S. fisheries more effectively. “Every fishery has different rules concerning catch-share, but the essence of the program is that instead of ‘seasons,’ fishermen are allowed to harvest specific quantities throughout the year,” explains Patricia Fiorelli, the public affairs director for the New England Fishery Management Council. So instead of having a week or two in which to catch a huge amount of one species, which had the effect of flooding the market and lowering prices, fishermen land smaller amounts over a longer period, allowing prices and populations to stabilize. For fishermen with huge boats designed to exploit the “derby” mentality, this has been very unpopular.

There are eight fishery councils in the United States, each one determining the allocation, or catch-share, of the fishery in their geographic jurisdiction. Along with allocations for specific fish, fishermen are also given allocation for by-catch. For example, a scallop fisherman has an allocation for yellowtail flounder because when they harvest scallops, yellowtail flounder tends to come up in the gear with the scallops. To manage the numbers, those flounder are included in the overall numbers for that species, and are counted in the allocation for fishermen who are “directing” toward groundfish (cod, haddock, yellowtail flounder, pollock, plaice, witch flounder, white hake, windowpane flounder, Atlantic halibut, winter flounder, redfish, ocean pout, and wolfish). The quantities of fish harvested are regularly evaluated by NOAA in order to maintain a robust population. Arnold believes the idea of “quotas and accounting for discards is very sound,” but that “catch-share is a good program in general but not well allocated.”

Another unpopular aspect of catch-share is that allocations are based on how much fish each vessel caught prior to the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Thus, if a fisherman ran a trawling fleet, his allocation will be far greater than a single boat. In Port Orford, for instance, Longton points out, “We are line fishermen, and catch-shares have marginalized our fisheries. The trawl fleet has been awarded all the quotas! Along with another small boat organization, we’re suing NOAA over the policy. But at the same time, we’re setting up a community fishermen’s association to obtain quota to be held in trust by the community, and not necessarily by individual fishermen.”

It’s easy to see why there is so much dissent in the industry over how best to manage and increase the fish stocks. Trawling versus line fishing has always been a bone of contention within the industry. Line fishermen, such as Longton’s group, fish with lines partly because they can be more specific in what they catch with particular gear. Trawling, even mid-water trawling, as Arnold practices, brings up a lot of by-catch. If he is unable to trade or sell his by-catch, it becomes “discards,” dead fish thrown overboard. “I prefer to work under a system where I am accountable for my by-catch,” says Arnold. “Right now we’re working with the University of New England to design gear that can be more selective.” Fortunately, restaurants and consumers are ever more willing to try out the less familiar fish, which means that sea robin, formerly a discard, is now making its way onto New England menus.

Allocations and discards are monitored by the Coast Guard, dealer reports (dealers must be authorized), observers on vessels, and by fishermen themselves. If a vessel goes over its limit in a species for the year, it’s taken out of the next year’s allocation. Every vessel has an annual catch limit.

A major upside to catch-shares is that fishermen can trade or lease their allocations with other fishermen. The result is a more cooperative approach to fishing, and more consistent pricing, and availability. Rich Garcia, the Boston chapter leader of Chefs Collaborative and executive chef for the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel and 606 Congress, explains: “Take fluke, for instance. Before catch-share, I could only get fluke a couple of months a year because that was the season. With catch-share, fluke is available more or less year-round.”

Garcia is one of many chefs who buys from both Sea to Table and Wild Rhody. “With Wild Rhody and Sea to Table, we can consistently buy product from reliable sources, and include both local product and more exotic species,” he says. “To say to someone I’m not going to serve something because it’s not local, that’s crazy! I can get local fish from Wild Rhody, and buy from Sea to Table when it isn’t.”

Last May, Trace and Trust sponsored a workshop with major buyers such as Whole Foods, service provider groups, auction houses, and fish processors. The 20 participants revealed that they all had the same concerns: price instability, supply instability, quality control, and consistency in messaging. In addressing these issues, the ability to premarket has been hugely helpful. Companies such as Wild Rhody or Sea To Table can sit down with restaurateurs in advance and tell them what will be coming in from different sources and essentially presell the fish. Knowing what to expect helps them plan menus and better manage costs.

“In the auction house, fishermen don’t know what they’ll be paid until after it’s sold,” notes Garcia. ”By using a program like Trace and Trust, we can do a handshake deal and agree on a price. That works for both of us.”

Drama at Sea

Katy Keiffer

Think about this the next time you order fish: while fishing for skate three miles off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island, on January 7, 2012, at 3:20 p.m., the Elizabeth Helen, captained by Steve Arnold, of West Kensington, Rhode Island, founder of Wild Rhody, capsized and sank in 135 feet of water. Arnold and his mate, Kevin Barber, survived. But barely.

Arnold’s tale:
“I got trapped under the boat when it flipped over. I didn’t panic; actually I felt kind of calm. I was underneath the boat, and I could see the surface, but I was having trouble swimming up to it. It felt like the boat kept sucking me back under. Then something happened, divine intervention, or more likely the boat rolled, let in a pocket of air, and I was able to get a breath and pop up to the surface.

“Once I got there, I looked up and saw the boat upside down, and thought, ‘Well that’s not good.’ I looked frantically for Kevin. The life raft had deployed automatically, thanks to the hydrostatic release. It was still in a canister attached to the boat, but it was floating about 50 to 60 feet away. It was very hard to swim with my oil gear on. I was trying to get it off but I started going under, so I said screw it! I just struggled over to the raft canister. As I was doing that, I saw Kevin climbing up on the stern of the boat and was hugely relieved. In 50-degree water, we would have survived 90 minutes. Once I got to the canister, I put my arm around it, pulled the painter, and the raft inflated. I pulled the raft over to the stern and collected Kevin. We high-fived.”

Arnold bought the Elizabeth Helen in 2002 for a little more than $200,000 and added $300,000 in upgrades to the steel-hulled, 55-foot trawler, including the installation of safety sensors, which, according a report, the Coast Guard said made the rescue easier. Today, that same boat sells for over $1 million,

Arnold notes. What compounds matters is that he has to replace it with a boat that is identical in length, tonnage, and other specifications in order to match with his fishing permits. “I’ve had a couple of fires on board, rode out a few hurricanes, and now have added a capsize to my portfolio. But I have no anxiety about going back out,” Arnold says resolutely. “It just takes a while to get another boat, replace all my paperwork, permits, and such, but it’s all doable.

“I gotta say, though, the outreach and support from the chef community has been humbling,” he continues. “I got calls from Matt Jennings [Farmstead, Providence], Rich Garcia [Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel], Derek Wagner [Nick’s on Broadway, Providence]—too many to count. And numerous e-mails. Chefs from Chez Pascal [Providence] want to organize a benefit. I said, ‘You guys are gonna make me come up and talk there and make me cry.’ The support has been immediate and amazing. Before even the fishing community’s. I really appreciate it.”

Even with its captain in dry-dock for a while, Wild Rhody continues to make deliveries, with no reduction in service or supply. His boat’s down, but Arnold and Wild Rhody are not.