Move over Iceland, New England competes on quality

Sep 27, 2023 | Fish Tales

Josh Goodrich, manager at Chatham Pier Fish Market, measures the quality of black sea bass.

By Doreen Leggett

Anyone standing near the side door of Chatham Pier Fish Market this summer may have heard an unusual phrase as totes of glimmering black sea bass were brought into the building:

“Delivering the science!”

On one hot, sunny day Mike Holubesko, who works for Captain Ron Braun, was standing in the cool back section of the market with two totes of black bass, lobster-filled tanks gurgling in the background.

Holubesko, smiling after a day fishing, was waiting for Josh Goodrich, the market’s manager, to measure, weigh and assess 30 sea bass, while Braun was delivering the rest of his 500-pound catch to Red’s Best across the parking lot.

The sea bass were part of a USDA grant-funded effort led by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute to accomplish a suite of objectives, the most important being to get local fishermen a better and more consistent price for their fish.

“We know that our seafood industry competes in a massive global seafood marketplace. That can be challenging when there is cheap, readily available seafood coming into New England from all over the world,” said Kyle Foley, Director of GMRI’s Sustainable Seafood Program. “We have lots of responsibly harvested seafood in New England, but we’re competing against other regions landing much larger volumes of similar species – particularly finfish.

“Fresh fish is obviously a perishable product, and the clock starts ticking as soon as it’s out of the water. Improving quality means results like improving shelf life, improving the yield a processor gets from each fish, and making local fish more appealing to buyers willing to pay for high quality.”

Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance and Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association are partners on the project, which involves more than a dozen commercial fishermen and a half a dozen fish processors in New England.

“Traditionally fishermen are price takers and have little control over how much they are paid,” said Melissa Sanderson, who is running the project for the Fishermen’s Alliance. “The reasons for low prices often include quality issues, lack of consistent supply, and cheap foreign imports. We are trying to demonstrate effective ways to improve quality, with the goal of getting fishermen paid more.”

The project was launched more than a year ago, interviewing industry members up and down the coast. Fishermen were asked questions such as, Do you have options when it comes to deciding who you sell your fish to? Do you receive feedback from buyers about quality? How do you treat your fish (ice, slurry, brine)? Do you bleed them?

Processors’ questions included: Do you have access to enough ice and freezer space? How do you grade fish when it enters your facility? Are there things fishermen could be doing differently?

The interviews were used to devise a series of approaches fishermen could use to measure differences in the quality of their catch and if it diminished moving through the supply chain.

The study references Iceland and Norway, where, with government support, large at-sea processing platforms, sophisticated freezing technology, and quality standards are part of supply chains.

That cuts against a point of pride for people in New England, where small, independent businesses land fish caught that day. Processing is done onshore and regional processors are taking in dozens of different species at once and dealing with inconsistent catches due to weather and seasonal variations.

If New England can’t compete on quantity, local fishermen need to win on quality. The project partners aim to help answer the question of how to do that.

Additional handling practices and investments are believed necessary, but there is little or no hard data showing what investments would bring the greatest return.

For example, fishermen bring a lot of ice when they go out to sea. Is there a way to use less ice, and keep the same quality of fish by running cold ocean water over the catch? Or is there a way to use a more expensive, space-taking, salty slurry and catch less fish because the higher quality nets a better price?

“There are many factors that could impact the quality of fish,” said Adam Baukus, Sustainable Seafood Project Manager at GMRI, “like water temperature, soak time of gear and quality handling techniques after capture, and we are working with captains to get information on many of these factors and try a variety of quality handling techniques. The next step is working with seafood dealers to help record measurements on the quality of the fish once they are landed.”

Baukus doesn’t expect easy, clear answers, especially early in the learning curve. Collaboration with captains and dealers has been essential to kick off this work, he said, adding the captains have been very engaged and enthusiastic and buyers like Steve Gennodie, who owns Chatham Pier Fish Market, has volunteered his time – and Goodrich’s.

Holubesko wasn’t surprised to find himself spending extra time hanging out waiting for data collection. He has worked with Braun long enough to know “this is just like him. He is all about the science,” Holubesko said.

Initial measurements focused on sea bass and included Captain Kurt Martin along with Braun. Each captain made four trips when black sea bass was either put on ice or placed in a slurry. In each tote, five of the fish were bled. The captains kept log sheets for time of catch, location, temperature of the water and other details.

Both captains switched to smaller, insulated coolers instead of a vat for the slurry because the ice was melting too quickly.

Each tote had a temperature logger about the size of a ping pong ball that tracked the temperature of the fish and Goodrich also graded the fish, paying attention to clarity of the eyes and the color of gills, called the Quality Index Method. The newest bit of technology was a sensor, the Certified Quality Reader, which measured the health of the fish.

Goodrich, who would also excel as a radio DJ, wore a powder blue Chatham Pier Fish Market t-shirt, and bounced back and forth from the busy fish market counter and the revolving door of fish drop offs in the back: My buyer didn’t show, can you take another five totes of lobster? Can you take some hake? Here is the striped bass. A fellow from the yacht club wants to see you.

The black sea bass was flagged to keep them separate from the rest of the catch and Goodrich filled out his sheets, noting weight and condition.

“I would say this is iridescent, wouldn’t you?” he asked, grinning.

The sensor he was wielding “sends a very light current through the fish and measures how degraded the fish are,” he said. The current moves slower through a higher quality fish because the cells are more closely packed together, as cells break down the current moves faster.

“It does feel like a high school science project,” he said. “I’d like to know what it reveals. Does it actually make a huge difference?”

For both Braun and Martin, it’s a given that brine slurry is better than ice and bleeding is better than not. The question is how much better and if the market will reward proper handling.

Both captains have invested in an ice machine. Braun also has a chiller he could install on his boat to keep the fish alive, but it doesn’t make sense economically.

Braun used to bleed his fish as well, but the extra work is not rewarded.

“I don’t now because the market doesn’t demand it,” he said.

It’s a matter of pride that they provide quality fish, so even the smaller fish that are less valuable get ice.

But the market is not always responsive.

“There is a guy next to me, and he has his fish baking in a skiff and he gets the same price as me,” Braun said.

Martin had a similar experience. A fish that was dried out and had scales falling off was deemed worth the same as his glossy, beautiful fish.

“That is just the fish world, unless you find a niche market,” he said.

Martin did find that when he bought his own ice machine and started selling to Chatham Pier Fish Market, he received a higher price. Now he sells all his black sea bass there.

Gennodie, who owns the market and Rocky Neck Fish, sells part of Martin’s catch at his five retail outfits, the rest he wholesales. The catch limit for black sea bass is relatively small, 500 pounds, niche markets for fish with larger limits – skate for example – gets exponentially harder.

Data from the first round of the project suggests there is not much difference between using slurry ice versus standard ice, but a slight improvement in quality from bleeding fish rather than keeping them whole. But, there is variation that can’t be explained solely from the treatments and drilling down to find out why could be helpful as fishermen plan future trips, particularly in a changing environment.

“We will need to dig into the data further to look for patterns in quality that might be explained by temperature or other factors,” Baukus said.

Plans are being made to have fishermen and processors meet to discuss what they have learned and what could happen next. Groundfish boats in Maine are now going out with the sensors and this winter Cape fishermen will be collecting information on skates and monkfish.

This article is the first in a continuing series on the ongoing research.


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