The sun was blazing hot, but everyone at the Bass River Farmers Market was smiling as they approached Denice Lapierre at the F/V Isabel and Lilee tent to pick up scallops or put in an order for fish.
They stop to talk about most anything:
Moms, dads, brothers, sisters, kids, a nephew’s golf game.
New friends, old friends, mutual friends.
New homes and hometowns.
Youth and old age.
Pre-school, colleges, senior living.
And a lot about recipes.
Doug Ricciardi had come with his son, who lives out of state, to see Lapierre who has been a constant at the Farmers Market in Yarmouth since it re-opened after COVID.
“According to my calculations I bought 32, no, 34, pounds of scallops,” he said.
Ricciardi is a former chef and can take five to 10 minutes describing how he prepared his last scallop meal. He keeps coming back because the scallops are fresh and he knows how hard it is to run a fishing business. But that isn’t the only reason.
“She has the gift of gab,” he said of Lapierre.
Lapierre was rifling through Isabel and Lilee t-shirts to get the right size for a customer who grew up outside of Worcester, where she used to visit her cousins as a kid.
Behind her, much to his chagrin, is a caricature of her husband Chris Merl, the boat’s captain. The 45- foot boat is named after their daughters who help out as well.
That morning Merl pulled into the Provincetown wharf at 3 a.m. and headed home to Wellfleet where Denice helped bundle hundreds of pounds of scallops into branded containers. The two worked through a lengthy process, which included a permit from the Food and Drug Administration, to be able to process shellfish in a facility attached to their home and sell wholesale or retail.
On Thursdays, after the stint at the Farmers Market, Lapierre and Merl sell scallops at Cape Cod Beer in Hyannis for a few hours. That’s a year-round effort, Farmers Markets are seasonal.
“There is a whole vibe there. I love it,” Lapierre said.
On Saturdays F/V Isabel and Lilee, which sells online under Capecodscallop.com is back at Bass River Farmers Market and at the Orleans Farmers Market as well. Denice makes the trek to Red’s Best at the Boston Fish Pier on Fridays to pick up a variety of local fish for those who pre-order.
Grabbing fish in the height of summer and navigating Boston streets in a refrigerated box truck is a labor of love.
“We offer it because it helps the small guy like us,” she said.
Along with more traditional choices like halibut and haddock, Lapierre will bring down skate, so more people get to know a fish plentiful in the waters off Chatham.
“There is nothing better than a fish with no bones,” Lapierre enthused about skate wings.
Jared Auerbach from Red’s Best is pleased Lapierre is taking advantage of Red’s processing capabilities.
“I think it’s awesome,” he said. “We love doing it and when people use our infrastructure it’s a win-win.”
“Last week I sold out of haddock before we opened,” Lapierre said. Every week she tries to add more fish but it is never enough.
Lapierre and Merl also work with other local, family businesses including Fishermen’s Pantry in Falmouth, where they sell their scallops as well as non-profits like Cape Abilities where you can find their catch in the frozen section. They want to make sure the community, not just individual boats, succeed.
The foray in retail is a new venture for Merl, but fishing is not.
He was born in Provincetown and like many kids used to dive off MacMillan Wharf for coins tourists would throw in the water.
“That was how we made money to go to John’s Foot Long,” Merl said with a laugh.
By fifth grade he was fluking with well-known fisherman Eddie Ritter, a character and institution.
Merl, Ritter’s son Sasha, and Beau Gribbin – now a successful captain himself — all hung out.
Merl remembers Gribbin diving for lobsters, Merl driving the boat and following his bubbles. Merl dove himself, mostly for oysters.
“We were going to bad-ass seafarers,” Gribbin smiled.
They used to beg fish off commercial fishermen at the pier and pretend they had caught it, Gribbin laughed.
They managed to scrap up enough money to buy a boat, The Tiger, that was in the bushes in the corner of a yard.
When they picked it up and dragged it out, they could see the full name was The Tiger Lily – not as macho.
“It was a little pram,” Merl said. “We would go for summer fluke, fillet it and sell it to Buddy, who had a fish fry in the back of the Old Colony.”
Merl moved to Wellfleet before junior high. He started diving for oysters more regularly, his mom giving him a ride down to Keller’s Cove.
He began working for Billingsgate Shellfish company on grants and then oyster draggers. Merl was also part of the group of more than a dozen shellfishermen who established the cooperative Wellfleet Shellfish Company, now owned by Alex Hay.
After he met Denice while she was working at the Box Lunch, “we built our house on clam and oyster money,” he said.
Merl got his own grant in 1995, beginning to go scalloping, which his father had done years before.
“I was pretty good at it and people kept calling me to go,” Merl said.
He worked his own small scallop boat and also big boats out of New Bedford. His was a day boat, the larger boats can go out for more than a week at a time.
He found he was often having to fish his small boat in bad weather, large boats in better weather, not a great plan. He lost his first boat in a “crazy Nor’Easter,” adrift and in the water for six hours before he and crew were rescued.
With his long and varied career in the industry, he feels he can see the bigger picture.
Merl has concerns about the consolidation of the industry. He serves on a panel which advises the New England Fishery Management Council, and was against a recent trip limit increase for day boat scallop landings to 800 pounds, from 600.
Merl thought it would push the smaller “mom and pop” businesses out. He is also against the idea of “stacking” permits on one boat.
“I don’t want to see it go all corporate,” he said.
Back at the Farmers Market, some customers asked Lapierre where Merl was fishing.
She said he was off Provincetown to save on fuel costs, but expected he would be moving to Chatham shortly.
The conversation turned to an upcoming cooking class, featuring Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Seared Scallops and Orange Beurre Blanc. Lapierre works with chef Michele Grillo.
“The cooking classes are terrific,” said Sandra Sullivan, who took the class and ate scallops with her friend, Joanne O’Connell.
“Wonderful,” O’Connell echoed.
Although Denice does most of the work with customers, Merl says he enjoys interacting as well and helps her out.
“I am not a hugely social person, but I like being at the Farmers Market and talking to people,” he said. “They are just a lot of fun.”