Eliot, Maine — The vibrantly colorful Memorial Bridge passes overhead, briefly cutting through the early morning darkness, casting alternating hues of blues, reds, greens and yellows on the slack tide waters of Portsmouth Harbor.
It is 1:36 a.m. Friday, Sept. 8 and the crew of the small fishing boat F/V Finlander, a 36-foot Northern Bay, leaves the protection of the channel and ventures into the open Atlantic Ocean.
The pilot house of the Finlander is dark, illuminated only by a sole Global Positioning System (GPS) display screen showing navigational information and an eastward course plot. The boat begins to pitch as sea swells grow larger and cross winds increase.
“Today is going to be a rough one.” says Capt. Tim Rider, a Dover, New Hampshire, native and owner of the Finlander. “The wind is coming from a different direction than the swells, it’s going to bounce us all over. It’s going to get rougher the farther out we go, but I think we can handle it.”
The Finlander and her five-member crew are headed to fishing grounds approximately 60 miles due east of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, an ocean-going commute of four hours in five-foot seas. They will be fishing for Atlantic pollock, considered a successful and sustainable species of whitefish, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service FishWatch website, and whose popularity among Seacoast chefs is increasing.
Demand for locally caught fresh fish by Seacoast restaurants has created a viable market for the crew of the Finlander.
Finlander is the fish harvesting entity of a federally licensed Dover-based seafood business called New England Fishmongers. Its unique approach of directly wholesaling fresh fish caught off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire to the restaurant industry is inspired by similar “farm to table” agricultural models.
Where local food producers wholesale goods by selling shares of their harvest to the public through programs such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) or Community Supported Fisheries (CSF), New England Fishmongers targets the restaurant industry with a “fish to table” concept.
“Most fish is sold to a wholesaler who sends it off to some processing plant, then it is sent back. It’s weeks old, travels thousands of miles until it eventually ends up in restaurants and grocery stores. We sell our fish ourselves to restaurants on the Seacoast of New Hampshire and southern Maine area” says Rider. “We are fishermen selling fish.”
Great day for pollock
The morning sun breaks the east horizon of the Atlantic just past 6 a.m. as the anchor is dropped in 350 feet of relentless swells. The crew ties lures or jigs onto 80-pound test line on the rods and reels and they are dropped to the bottom.
“Most other commercial fishing operations use either fixed gear or trawl gear like gill nets or drag nets,” Rider says. “They are mostly automated, we do it all manual with poles and jigs.”
F/V Finlander heaves and sways in all directions adding difficulty to even the most simple of tasks. The five-member crew has a lot of collective experience that aids in making the day’s catch a profitable one.
Deckhand Garrett McKinley, 42, a full-time crew member of Finlander, has been fishing his whole life and is also a licensed captain. The crew relies on McKinley’s vast experience to ensure a successful harvest.
Karl Day, 64, is a retired Verizon employee of 41 years. He has been a recreational fisherman his whole life, but started fishing part-time with the Finlander in 2015.
Connecticut resident Michel Djordjevic, 53, or “DJ,” is a retired U.S. Army tank commander and is working as a volunteer fisherman this weekend for the enjoyment and experience.
Spencer Montgomery, 29, is a Concord native and the novice of the lot. He started learning to fish from Rider in 2014 after meeting him at a policy hearing for the Fisheries Management Council. He is a full-time crew member and one of the co-creators of New England Fishmongers.
At the helm is Capt. Rider. He has been fishing most of his adult life and was inspired to become a fisherman after his mother took him mackerel fishing on a party boat as a boy. “My mother said it was the worst mistake of her life” he says jokingly. “When most kids were asking for Nintendos and whatnot I was asking for party boats tickets to go fishing.”
Lowered lines almost immediately start jerking as fish bite the jigs. “You can feel when you have a solid bite” says Day. “But you don’t want to reel it in right away. You will know when you have two, three even four fish on your line, then you reel them in. Saves a lot of work catching more than one at once.”
Over the next nine hours jigs are repeatedly dropped to the bottom and reeled in with fish. Large gray plastic tubs are filled over and over as each fisherman pulls in their line with multiple pollock thrashing about. “We want to catch as much as we can. We can hold as much as 2,500 pounds, but anything over 2,000 pounds is a good day and it looks like today will be a good day,” Rider says happily.
The pollock caught this trip will be offered for direct sale to restaurants. The fish are bled, gilled, gutted, washed and packed in ice after being caught. “We are very clean and we take very good care of our fish,” Rider said proudly.
Rider’s “clean” statement refers to “bycatch,” an industry term for fish or other marine species caught unintentionally while targeting certain species and sizes of fish.
“We have almost no bycatch, which is the stuff people catch when they are trying to catch fish that they have to throw back,” says Rider. “Because we are so clean we have a NOAA Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) that allows us to fish hook and line in areas that are not open to other types of commercial fishing.”
The region Finlander is fishing this day is in a permit area. And its EFP requires they take less than 5 percent of their catch in cod and have a NOAA Fisheries Observer on board to record all catch. On board is Andrew Short, 25, an observer from NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.
“I record all the fish they catch, take weights and measurements, note bycatch” says Short. “These guys have the lowest bycatch of any boat I have been on.”
It is after 4 p.m. and the Finlander is into its four-hour voyage back to port. Aside from a few haddock and one monkfish her storage bins are packed with 2,300 pounds of pollock that will be repacked in ice and loaded into New England Fishmonger’s refrigerated truck upon return to Portsmouth Harbor for morning deliveries.
Captain Tim uses a satellite phone to text message the day’s catch to Fishmongers co-founder Amanda Parks, 25, who will then text message more than 25 restaurants in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.
“The average seafood has been around for seven to 10 days before it touches your plate, transported thousands of miles. How good of quality can that be?” he asks. “Some of the fish caught today will be in Finlander Fish Tacos at 7th Settlement (a Dover restaurant) tomorrow night. It doesn’t get any better.”
How the business works
It is 10:30 a.m. Saturday morning and Amanda Parks has been making deliveries since 5:30 a.m.
“We sold over 600 pounds from yesterday’s catch,” she says while hauling bins of pollock from their refrigerator truck into 7th Settlement in Dover. “Not every fish will sell locally. We will bring our overage fish to Pigeon Cove Seafood Facility of Wholefoods. They help us out quite a bit, but our goal is to sell the fish ourselves.”
New England Fishmongers is the result of collaboration between Rider, Montgomery and Parks, who met in 2014 while Parks and Montgomery were were studying ecogastronomy at the University of New Hampshire.
“Spence got to know Captain Tim from attending fisheries meetings,” Parks says. “He was getting frustrated at the auction prices since he takes very good care of his fish and he was getting the same price as others whose fish had been sitting there for a week or more. So through brainstorming we came up with the idea of doing what farmers have been doing by selling it directly.”
In 2015, New England Fishmongers was established as a federally licensed dealer in order to sell Finlander’s fish to the public. In the future, they hope to be able to offer the same service to other boats in the fishing fleet.
“I’d like to be able to buy more species from other boats. Right now, we buy some seasonally like scallops and squid, but it would be great to buy more from other local boats where we can give them a better price for their fish,” Parks said.
Getting fresh local produce is a challenge for those in the restaurant industry seeking to offer customers the highest quality of cuisine. 7th Settlement executive chef Taylor Miller said Fishmongers has the product he’s looking for.
“From a chef’s perspective, any chef that knows fresh seafood knows what to look for in fresh seafood and it doesn’t get any better than this,” Miller says. As for the cost he notes, “It’s more expensive for us to buy fish like this since we are buying it whole, so the labor is more intensive but for us it’s about serving our guests what they expect, which is fresh local food.”
Miller offsets labor costs in shelf life. “This isn’t fish that has been sitting around for days that you have to throw out if you don’t sell it immediately,” he says. “Since this fish is only hours from being caught, we don’t have to worry about it spoiling. Where is the savings when you buy 100 pounds of week old fish and throw half of it out in a day or two?”
The great fish swap
New England Fishmongers’ business model faces many challenges from the established fishing and seafood industry.
“One of the biggest challenges is imported fish.” says Parks. “It’s tough to compete when you can buy Icelandic pollock fillets cheaper than we can sell a whole fish.”
Rider adds, “We have a limited resource in New England and it would be nice to see that resource fully utilized in our local markets before it gets shipped off somewhere else and we get imported Icelandic fish or our own fish imported back. How does that even make sense?”
Parks and Rider are referring to what has been coined “The Great Fish Swap” where the bulk of the U.S. seafood harvest is exported and foreign farmed fish imported, or it is sent to countries in Asia to take advantage of inexpensive processing labor then re-imported to the U.S.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website, the United States exported a record $5.3 billion worth of fish and seafood in Fiscal Year 2014.
According to NOAA Fisheries’ FishWatch website ”…The United States imports more than 80 percent of the seafood we eat. A significant portion of imported seafood is caught by American fishermen, exported overseas for processing and then re-imported to the United States.”
Rider believes part of the solution could be with a locally owned or community owned processing facility.
“We just don’t have the means to process our own fish any more,” he says. “It is cheaper for wholesalers to send it to China for processing. If we had our own plant, then we wouldn’t be shipping it overseas.”
Another challenge facing New England Fishmongers is convincing restaurant chefs and consumers to place more consideration on sustainable marine species.
“When we get farther from the coast it gets more difficult for us to sell fish, especially in larger cities where they only want cod or haddock or flounder,” Parks says. “It’s getting people to look at pollock the same as more popular white fish.”
New England Fishmongers works to educate consumers about the seafood industry by holding events and workshops for the public. “We do things like fish fillet workshops where we teach how to fillet fish, make broth, simple cooking tips. We participate in local food events,” says Parks.
They also participate in local restaurant events such as “know your fish” where guests can talk with the Finlander fishermen and learn about the industry and how their seafood is caught.
New England Fishmongers continues to grow, currently serving 25 restaurants in New Hampshire and Maine and recently expanding by adding four restaurants in Burlington, Vermont.
“We believed in ourselves when we started Fishmongers when not many people did and now it’s developing into a successful model,” Rider says. “Our customers get our fish within 24 hours of being caught. These fish we catch today will be on customers’ plates tomorrow and no wholesaler can beat that.”