High quality fish should equal better price

Mar 26, 2024 | Fish Tales

Black sea bass brought into Chatham Pier Fish Market were among the fish involved in the pilot project to improve marketability,

By Doreen Leggett

Steve Gennodie, owner of Chatham Pier Fish Market, was flying to Florida recently and saw an in-flight advertisement for scallops – from Japan.

“It’s a frozen, farm-raised product. It is just comical,” he said.

But Hokkaido Bay scallops sell for at least $3 less a pound than the ones buys fresh from Cape fishermen.

When Japanese scallops are cooked it becomes clear local scallops are much better, but how do you get the average person to buy more expensive fish?

Gennodie was at a forum in Boston this winter designed to answer that question. The event is part of an effort by Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance and Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association to get local fishermen a better, consistent price by improving quality, shelf life, and yield.

“This is what you guys are fighting for,” Gennodie said.

“We have this focus on quality because we know our region competes with imported seafood, especially when it comes to groundfish and other finfish,” said Kyle Foley, Sustainable Seafood Director with GMRI and the project lead. “We can’t compete on volume with Alaska, Iceland, Norway … So our theory is that we should be doing a better job competing on quality and trying to capture the most value per pound.”

The quest to improve quality is complicated by changing regulations. One year fishermen can catch a lot of haddock, the next year the catch is limited. The quality of a day-boat fishermen’s catch can be top notch, but if a store needs hundreds of thousands of pounds for Good Friday they are looking to haddock from Iceland or Pacific cod from Alaska.

Gennodie and his team at the Chatham Pier Fish Market and Rocky Neck Fish have been involved since the US Dept of Agriculture-funded initiative started in 2022. More than 20 fishermen and half as many processors were interviewed to get information on fish as it moves through the supply chain and how different handling methods – ice versus a saltwater slurry for instance – affect quality.

The day-long gathering in February at a Seaport District hotel marked a halfway point in the project when commercial fishermen and processors, as well as restaurant owners and others in the seafood supply chain, talked about results, barriers to success and paths forward.

“The objective is to get higher quality fish,” said Jared Auerbach, owner of Red’s Best and a panelist. “But how to do that is less straightforward than someone at this hotel may think.”

Working with Cape captains Ron Braun and Kurt Martin, Gennodie’s team recorded black sea bass quality in several different treatments: iced, iced and bled, slurry, slurry and bled. Measurements were also taken for fish caught in Maine, white hake and monkfish packed in standard ice versus cold slurry.

Knowing that bleeding fish improves quality may make it worth the time and effort, but then again fishermen may be better served spending money on slurry instead of ice. The trick is identifying benefits of options and how much benefit fishermen need.

“We would like to find out where there is room to do better,” said Adam Baukus, who has been running the handling methods experiment, crunching the numbers for GMRI. “At the end of the day we would like (fishermen) to be able to make an informed decision.”

That exercise is coupled with identifying the quality processors need to increase market value.

“As an economist I can say there is no good data available to assess associations between quality and price,” said Kanae Tokunaga, senior scientist with GMRI.

There isn’t a specific grading system for many fish caught on the East Coast, though pollock and haddock have characteristics that can be measured by eye through a standardized Quality Index Method (QIM); for example, cloudy eyes will garner a demerit. Commonly caught Cape species, including black sea bass, monkfish and skate have no reference table.

“We don’t have a clear set of best practices,” said Foley.

One goal is to assess visual grading and compare it to the hand-held machine or CQR grading, already used by Cape fishermen this summer and likely to be employed again this spring. “The Certified Quality Reader works similar to an exercise bike,” Baukus said. “Using a small sensor, an electric current goes through the tissue of the fish. The current will go faster if the quality is low.”

The QIM method is similar to what kind of quality grading happens now and processors trust it. If we can show the QIM and CQR data match, then processors could also rely on the quicker CQR method which could help build up a bigger set of data to use when judging the quality of a fish.

The work shows promise. “There are pros and cons,” Baukus said. “But they generally matched up.”  He has also been holding fish in cold storage, measuring them every day to track changes in quality and determine shelf-life estimates. If a certain handling technique lengthens how long a restaurant can hold a fish before serving it, that could justify an increase in price because there is less wasted protein in the kitchen.

Baukus demonstrated the way a mouse-sized sensor worked by measuring the quality of a glistening, grey-green pollock brought in by Auerbach of Red’s Best.

Ken Baughman, a rod and reel fisherman from Falmouth, watched the demonstration and thought it made sense.

“We now have safety training classes that are hugely helpful. A fish quality course might be equally as beneficial,” Baughman said.

The CQR method also sends information into the cloud, so fishermen and dealers can see when things may have gone awry. Now it is a challenge to identify at what point quality drops.

Beth Grant, former buyer with Stop and Shop now owner of EKG Seafood Consulting, said it wouldn’t be unusual for readings to change between the boat and the store, “especially if you are in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the bridge in August.”

Fishermen involved in the program may have signed on because they already are focused on quality.  Jen Levin of True Fin, a former premium seafood buyer, showed a picture of fishermen stepping on and gaffing fish, not icing.

“So many things are going wrong on these boats,” Levin said. “It’s a rational behavior because they aren’t getting paid.”

True Fin tried to change that by paying a 20 to 400 percent premium for high-quality fish and it worked for a time. They bought more than 20 different species from 35 different boats. The catch went to 250 direct commercial customers, 95 percent of them out of the region.

“There is a lot of real potential in those markets,” Levin said, adding that once customers got accustomed to skate, it was sold out.

She also said they sold “Bento boxes” which were typically discarded parts of bluefin tuna – cuts from the head and tail, even the eyes.

“We had a waiting list,” she said. They also sold fish collars – the meat right behind the gills.

The company opened just months before the pandemic and continued to grow in spite of food service shutdowns, but ultimately shut its doors in mid 2023 because of lingering depressed markets resulting from COVID.

Gennodie pays fishermen a higher price for quality. A wholesaler with three markets and a restaurant, he still is limited in the number of fish he can take. He will pay a higher price for sea bass landed by captains who deliver top quality, but bigger customers he sells to are offered less expensive, lower quality black sea bass from Connecticut; don’t get him started on frozen Chilean Sea bass.

Fresh fish come through his door at the Chatham Fish Pier and the Boston Fish Pier. Both help his three retail outlets.

“Having that business on the Cape helps the Boston business. We like that,” he said.

Gennodie added that fine dining establishments serving skate and monkfish are turning the tide with consumers, and “that has trickled down to the retail end.”

Chef Jeremy Sewall, who owns Row 34 in Boston, will get fish for his upscale restaurant from Red’s Best. Years ago, he flipped his strategy: Instead of designing the menu and finding the fish, he gets the fish and then designs the menu.

But again, the amount of fish he buys is limited. He works to make sure he offers local fish and has built an enviable relationship over the years with customers who trust his offerings.

“Monkfish right now is one of our best sellers. Redfish, I sell a ton of it. Hipsters love hake,” he said with a smile.

Hipsters may be out of luck because regulations change and now fishermen have to pay more for what was inexpensive hake quota, which drives up the cost to go fishing.

If quota costs $1.70 a pound and fishermen are getting that price at auction it doesn’t make sense to land it. That prompts wholesalers who made promises to their buyers to fill orders elsewhere, sometimes overseas.

The room agreed there needs to be a bi-annual New England market update to buyers, so they can plan ahead knowing which fish are going to be scarce or readily available.

Sewall also tried to explain why fishermen may be paid $3.75 for a whole monkfish that sells for $28 on the menu. More than 50 percent of the cost of serving fish in a restaurant has nothing to do with the fish itself – its labor, utilities, rent.

Sewall told the group he only makes a two-percent profit on black sea bass, but is enamored of the fish so continues to keep it on the menu. He offsets the loss by selling monkfish, easier to prepare with a higher profit margin.

His goal is to clear 10 percent every year. In the 10 years he has been in business that has happened once.

Mel Sanderson, chief operating officer at the Fishermen’s Alliance, shared fishermen’s costs versus profit compared to a decade ago. Business expenses – black sea bass pots, moorings, permits – have gone up 60 to 366% since 2014.  But the average price fishermen receive for a pound of black sea bass has decreased 32% (when corrected for inflation).  The take-home message: Fishermen’s costs are going up considerably, but they can’t pass those on to the buyers. “This isn’t sustainable for local fishing businesses. Fishermen have found efficiencies – like longer days on the water to fish black sea bass and lobster on the same trip, saving fuel and steaming time – or have sold a portion of their catch direct to consumers at a higher price. But eventually they have to be paid more if we want to continue to eat fresh local seafood.”

“I understand the constraints on the supply chain, and why everyone’s costs are going up,” said Ken Baughman, “yet I do not concede that this cost should be solely borne by fishermen … If you accept free market economics and the law of supply and demand, then a reduction in quantity – for example quota versus no quota – results in an increase in price. That is not happening.”

Baughman said selling direct from the dock and at Farmers Markets has yet to achieve required volume or fulfill market demand, but the price received by fishermen is more in line with costs.

Foley, from GMRI, said no fishermen and processors want to believe they don’t have good quality fish. But there is inconsistency and opportunity to level up, which would have benefit in the marketplace.

“This is a big challenge and not one that we can solve overnight, but we have an opportunity to think differently about the future of seafood in New England and how we keep fishermen on the water for the long term and our seafood industry thriving,” said Foley.



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