By Doreen Leggett
Although Brandon Vieira gets up before dawn, his day usually starts hours even earlier.
“I wake up to 10-15 text messages, maybe a few missed calls,” said Vieira.
Vieira manages the Chatham fish pier operation for Red’s Best, so wants it that way. He has asked fishermen to let him know when they are heading out and what they are bringing in. Sometimes that’s at 2 am.
“If I don’t set myself up good in the morning, it doesn’t end well,” he said. “I like to know what is on my plate before leaving the house.”
No two days, let alone two hours, are the same with different fish species and fishermen coming into ports all over the Cape. The Chatham Fish Pier, built in 1946, is unique in how Red’s, which leases space from the town, has to take every fish brought over the pier; fish come in the back and side as well. The packing facility serves as a central transfer point for Red’s trucks that run to major ports and dozens of hidey-hole spots, picking up more fish before going over the bridge.
It’s a complex, busy operation that stands apart from four other Red’s Best facilities off-Cape.
“I’m an island down here,” said Vieira.
Vieira, 28, had already helped unload tens of thousands of pounds of dogfish, taken in lobster, conch, clams, scallops and one lone, large bass as well as sending Justin to Stage Harbor in Chatham to pick up fluke and Vincent to the Ocean Street Docks in Hyannis to pick up there. And this was all before it got busy.
He’ll run a truck himself as well.
“He will go to people’s houses,” said Jared Auerbach, Red’s Best’s owner.
Red’s Chatham location is on track to hit more than 50,000 receipts. “Every single one of these is a unique interaction,” said Auerbach.
Fishermen need to trust Brandon to take thousands of pounds every day, giving a fair price and offering respect.
“I like what I do a lot,” Vieira said. “I make the effort with the guys.”
If things go sideways, Vieira must improvise.
A sweltering July day was a case in point as Jack, a Red’s Best driver who makes runs with his fluffy sidekick Petey, let Vieira know one of the tractor trailers had broken down.
While Vieira was calling around to find a repair shop and another truck, the team moving fish around the facility then said the electric forklift had stopped moving. Hoping it just needed to dry out a bit, Brandon helped push it outside the doors, near the stairs of the observation deck where thousands of people a day tromp up to see boats unload.
“There is always a problem in day-to-day operations,” Vieira said. “I’ve been through it all.”
The choice is how to handle it. You can get angry or you can stay calm and solve it – fast. Vieira is a master of the latter.
He always stops at Red’s New Bedford shop on his way into work to get extra ice – the lifeblood of the industry. Lately he has gone more often to supplement capacity in Chatham as fans that keep the ice machine cool shut down. While he waits on the new cooling system he brought two bay-window size floor fans from headquarters to add to the others scattered around the shop.
“You have to get on it and stay ahead,” Vieira said.
Auerbach, who started Red’s Best in 2008, and had stopped in for meetings in Chatham that day, stayed out of the way.
“Notice they didn’t look to me for help,” he said laughing. “I am able to think about the future, while these guys are focused on the day to day.
“This is VERY hard, the better you are it you can make it look easy. People underestimate how hard it is.”
Vieira will be celebrating his fifth year at the pier this August.
“Many have come, and many go, but he is still here,” said one long-time shellfisherman who was dropping off oysters and surf clams. “He has endured.”
Vieira has fishing in his blood but fell into the job more by chance.
His parents were born in the Azores, moved to the U.S. – dad at 18 and mom at 21 – but didn’t meet until they were in Fall River where they settled down and had three sons. His dad fished in his home country but ended up in construction. Brandon, the youngest, fished a bit with his uncle but started in construction when he was 13.
Fast forward a decade or so, Brandon’s oldest brother Jordan started trucking fish and soon became manager for Red’s at the pier. Brandon had moved to Rhode Island with his new wife and first baby girl, but came back to help his brother out.
When Jordan left to go back to construction, Brandon stepped in.
When the Vieiras started they worked hard to grow the number of fishermen who sell to Red’s. Brandon still focuses on Red’s motto of “Fishermen First,” written on t-shirts.
“I go to pretty far lengths to make sure people are happy,” Vieira said.
Word around the dock about Brandon appears to back that up: “great guy,” “super reliable,” “hard working.” Doing a good job? “F*ck yeah.”
Auerbach and Vieira had a quarterly meeting and Vieira said numbers are already ahead of the volume they moved all last year. He expects to do significantly better by the time they close the books.
Vieira explained he did some reconfiguring to run the pier and trucking components with less pressure. Both Vieira and Auerbach have said they want a resilient, sustainable operation without people burning out – while making sure fresh product moves fast.
“Preserving the fish is of the utmost importance,” said Vieira.
Aidan Delaney, a Chatham summer kid who grew up in Newton, runs the facility when Vieira is picking up at Stage Harbor, Provincetown, or Hyannis.
Delaney, a finance major at Elon University in North Carolina, also keeps track of the numbers. This summer is his third. The money is good, so he doesn’t have to work during the winter. As he tallies figures, an employee from Whitely Fuel Oil, which runs the diesel concession at the pier, yells into the cavernous space:
“We’re like family here,” says Delaney with a smile.
The team unloaded some boats early, and handled drop-offs at the back. The bulk of the boats were coming in the late afternoon.
Chatham Harbor has continued to shoal in and the open window to get over the bar gets smaller and smaller, for most only an hour or so on either side of high tide.
On this July day, most boats caught their limit of skates and dogfish – which totals more than 10,000 pounds – and were waiting until the water was deep enough to steam in. In the lull, Delaney ran a step ladder over to the bay next door to help with a hoist that had jammed.
Red’s had worked side by side with Marder Seafood, each operating one of two packing bays, until last year when Marder left. Until a new tenant is found, the town permitted fishermen to use that side to unload and several have hired a company to truck off-Cape.
The hoist is vital, and Delaney helped get it moving again for the other bay. They would do the same for us, he said.
Boats arriving almost simultaneously meant the team at Red’s had to work quickly to unload.
The first boat was the Jakob and Megan; captain and crew loaded dogfish into a large metal bucket. Delaney, standing at the face of the pier, had controls in hand and the necessary triple-ply paperwork – covered to protect it from fish slime.
Eighteen totes of dogfish went up in the bucket and down a shoot into an enormous cardboard box, fish layered among ice shoveled in by one of the guys on the floor.
Once the box, close to five feet tall and two feet wide, was full, Vieira used a pallet jack and brought it into a roomy cooler to wait until more boats unloaded. Then it was brought to Red’s facility in New Bedford to be processed.
Many boats bring in skate as well. Skate, juicier than dogfish, is packed in thick plastic containers. Much to fishermen’s and Auerbach’s chagrin, the bulk of the skate is going overseas, though the market is strong.
Boxes are weighed and Delaney tallied up weight on slips and a piece of cardboard that travels with the fish.
As “Around Here” by Counting Crows played from a boat’s loudspeakers, Mike Woods and his crew pulled away.
“Alrighty. I’ll see you tomorrow,” called Woods as the next boat moved in to unload.
One of the boats brought in a halibut, always a bonus. The pancake-thin fish was weighed on a big scale, but Vieira wanted the crew to double check on a smaller scale inside and the weight tallied the same – just under 30 pounds.
Although busy, the day was quiet compared to the four days a week the commercial tuna season is open. Vieira says although his favorite fish to eat is cod, his favorite to work with is bluefin tuna.
Vieira and Auerbach believe Chatham moved the most tuna in the country last year.
“I think we touched 300,000 pounds,” said Vieira. Customers can now buy Red’s bluefin at Hannaford’s supermarkets.
Tuna season is short. The longer fishing season slows down in November and although he still works, Vieira has more time to spend with his wife and two young daughters before things ramp up again in March.
Since the staff is smaller in slower months, Vieira will head down to Saquatucket in Harwich to unload 50,000 pounds of monkfish and skate on his own.
“Brandon is the strongest human I know,” said Auerbach.
Vieira smiles and admits that sometimes when he tells people what he does they think he is “crazy.” Still, he loves telling people about his job.
“I feel good about bringing the country – the world – these delicacies from under the sea,” he said.