Pier to plate takes off during pandemic
By Doreen Leggett
Since the state made it easier for fishermen to sell direct from the dock during the pandemic, fisherman Kevin Conway got to thinking of ways to make it easier for people to find out about it. So he created a Facebook page: Cape Cod Local Seafood.
“I went to bed at 2:30 in the morning and when I woke up I had more than 1,000 followers,” said Conway, who had just gotten in his truck after selling haddock at Rock Harbor in Orleans on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon.
The page’s followers quickly jumped to 2,500, then 7,000 and now 10,000 after barely a month. And interest in buying directly from fishermen doesn’t stop there.
A handful of scallopers are taking advantage of new regulations that allow them to sell as soon as they land at harbors across the Cape.
“People on the Cape have always supported the local fleets and this creates a new opportunity that in some ways harkens back to the earliest traditions of the fishery,” said Seth Rolbein of the Fishermen’s Alliance. “People are hungry for fresh local seafood as well as personal connections -- they appreciate knowing where the fish is coming from and that they are supporting local businesses.
Plus, you can’t beat the taste.”
Denice Lapierre is thankful she has two older daughters to help her connect with everyone reaching out by telephone as well as on Facebook and Instagram.
“People are so supportive,” she said.
Lapierre, whose husband Chris Merl captains the scalloper F/V Isabel and Lilee, said she has been thanked many times and is always pointing out that the fishermen are the ones thankful for the support.
“The most important aspect is how personal it has become,” she said.
Merl, of Wellfleet, has been scalloping for 30 years, but with the pandemic closing restaurants to all but curbside delivery, he made the move to direct sales.
He also sells to a wholesaler, Red’s Best. So far the combination is working.
“We’re keeping afloat,” Denice said.
Other scallopers have pre-sold their entire catch, 600 pounds per trip, and have customers waiting as they tie up at the dock.
Captain Jared Bennett, of F/V White Cape was one of the first to go direct, receiving his permit in mid-April. The young captain, a Chatham High graduate, recently diversified into scallops (he is a successful gillnetter).
With a two-year-old daughter, he thought it would be good to be able to fish a little closer to home. So Bennett bought a scallop qualifier from the Fishermen’s Alliance, and had planned to go and catch the valuable shellfish – never expecting to sell from the dock. But he is happy with how it worked.
Bennett’s first day brought a steady stream of people to Saquatucket Harbor in Harwich.
Bennett, gloved, was taking orders and passing the individual bags to the buyers and accepting money, often including a tip. His crew, including his brother Zach and longtime friend Matt Kilkenny, who was wearing a mask, were doing the prep and bagging.
People asked him to continue after the pandemic fades.
“I hope we can,” said Bennett.
There is definitely a lot of leg work involved, he said, and with so many interested buyers there is a lot of one-on-one connections. He decided to send folks through Facebook because otherwise his phone would have blown up.
“There is definitely a learning curve,” he said.
Bennett thinks direct sales might build additional benefits. If people get used to cooking fresh seafood at home and replace steak or chicken once a week, that would be even better.
Most fishermen want restaurants to come back strong and also feel that fish markets are essential. Dockside sales is just another opportunity to introduce people to the local catch.
Captain Jesse Rose lands his catch down the road at Wychmere Harbor, also in Harwich. On a recent spring day, his daughter, blond hair flying, sprinted in grey rain boots to her dad’s boat: the Midnight Our. She then ran back and handed the correct amount of scallops ordered to her dad, masked, who then passed it to the customer, checking off the name from the list of pre-orders.
Stella Rose, 7, said she was glad that she spent a lot of timing running in sports since she and her brother Shorey, 9, had been up early running relay races to get scallop orders to about 130 customers.
“We run to the boat, ask for that amount and just bring it to them,” Stella said. “In the middle I take a little break and catch my breath.”
Tim Barker, of Harwich, had seen the opportunity posted on Facebook, on the Cape Cod Local Seafood page. “Supporting local fishermen in the midst of this Corona madness was number one,” he said, adding that he has all sorts of Cape Cod recipes ready to go. “Fresh and local works for me.”
Dave Condon, who owns Cape Cod Embroidery, had a more direct connection to the Rose family. He had printed the Midnight Our’s logo on some clothing and Abby Rose reached out to get the image sent back to help market their new business endeavor.
“When you get up and running, I am the first in line,” he told her, adding that he was a small business owner too and they had to stick together.
Barker was happy to get his scallops as his haddock order had been pushed back because of the weather. This spring has been windy, so captains aren’t getting out near as much as they would like.
Brett Wilson, who graduated from Nauset High School with Rose, managed to get out a few days later. He brought in 400-500 pounds of haddock to Rock Harbor to find about 80 people waiting – observing social distancing.
Wilson, who owns the Hindsight, has always been a fisherman, but switched to charters years ago. He runs his business out of Florida in the winter, but came back early because of closures brought on by the pandemic.
“This is my first go-around of selling fish right off the boat,” he said. “I’m just trying to help keep my crew busy.”
The ironic thing is that he segued out of commercial fishing because chartering was more predictable and stable, but that changed with the virus. As a “people person” he is happy to interact with folks who come down and buy haddock, kept fresh in ice and brine.
“It’s nice to see how gratified they were,” Wilson said.
Rose feels the same way. Ever since he was young he liked bringing friends and family fish and shellfish he had just caught.
“I have wanted to do this for a long time,” Rose said. “I’ve always enjoyed being the fish fairy.”
He had been up for more than 20 hours when they got in port, with hours more to go, but he was still smiling.
“Best thing I ever did,” he said.
Conway, who crews on the Hindsight, feels much the same. He said they have sold 1,500 pounds of haddock – gutted but not filleted, in keeping with state regulations – and have seen many repeat customers.
He was struck by the number of people who said they have lived on the Cape for decades and this was the freshest fish they have tasted. Many are posting positive comments on Facebook and photos of various dishes.
“It’s pretty overwhelming,” the 27-year-old Barnstable High graduate said. “We aren’t doing it all for ourselves, we are trying to offer a service to the community that they can appreciate during these dark times with COVID … People get genuinely excited about coming down to the boat and picking up their fresh catch.”
Conway has added other fishermen to his page and is hoping to expand this summer to include boats bringing in lobster to different ports as well as bluefish, scup, flounder and bluefin tuna.
For a curated a list of Cape Cod and Southeastern Massachusetts seafood markets and fishermen engaging in direct sales, visit https://capecodfishermen.org/piertoplate