By Doreen Leggett
Longtime commercial fisherman Greg Walinski stopped fishing with longlines for awhile, but now he’s back.
“I got back into it this winter thanks to Whole Foods,” the Yarmouth resident told a roomful of Whole Foods employees at the grocery chain’s headquarters in Marlborough. About 50 people who manage seafood sales in stores across the Northeast had gathered for a day-long conference.
Walinski was one of four fishermen who made the trip (in his case after fishing more than 16 hours the day before) to meet the people who sell and promote the fish they catch.
The partnership of local fishermen and Whole Foods, brokered with help from the Fishermen’s Alliance, is a hopeful model for the future.
Whole Foods, whose motto is “Whole Foods, Whole People,Whole Planet,” made a decision to only sell fish that meet stringent “Seafood Watch” criteria. The rating system started in the 1990s, had its beginnings in Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Fishing for Solutions exhibit, and is designed to help people make good decisions about what they buy.
It’s built around the premise that fish caught on hooks and lines is more sustainable, and that knowing who catches your fish is increasingly important in a world that seems to have swung toward outsourcing and away from accountability.
With small boats and lower volumes each fish is handled with care, so the quality is high. And people notice.
Ian Parent is a manager at the Whole Foods store in Hyannis. He said people come in and ask for locally caught haddock or cod and it sells much better. It’s preferred 2-1.
“People on Cape Cod appreciate what you do,” Parent told the fishermen. “Know that.”
Whole Foods created life-size cardboard facsimiles of Walinski and Eric Hesse, who also fishes with longlines, which they placed beside the glass cases showcasing the fish that had just come off the local boats, again reinforcing the personal connection. But this was the first time most of the managers had met the pair in person.
The same with hook fishermen Ted Ligenza and Nick O’Toole who use jigs, the historic hook and line style of fishing, to catch cod and other groundfish.
Ligenza explained the method to the crowd and then asked, “Have you ever read Captains Courageous?” referring to the famous novel by Rudyard Kipling. No hands went up.
“Well, you should,” Ligenza continued. Jigging, which is detailed in the novel, is likely the first way cod was caught on the Cape and the technique was passed on by Norwegian fishermen.
Some people, Ligenza said, would say the method “sounds stupid,” particularly with all the quicker, higher-volume ways to catch a fish.
Lowering a weighted line with three hooks on it and letting it fall to the bottom to catch a passing cod or pollock takes patience, a tremendous work ethic and a deep understanding of the sea, not to mention yourself.
“Not many people can do it,” Ligenza said. “It is not a simple occupation.”
Longlining also relies on hooks, and Hesse was an early member of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association, which became the Fishermen’s Alliance.
“We’d like to see our kids be able to fish and our communities to still have small-boat fisheries,” Hesse said.
With longlining, a baited hook is attached to a short string off a long main line every six feet or so. An anchor weighs the gear down, allowing it to soak for an hour or so, hopefully catching fish all the while.
“Our gear is considered tended gear. We don’t have to worry so much about entanglements (with mammals or other animals),” Hesse said.
There’s another great advantage:
“All of the fish that come up to the boat are still flapping.”
Hesse, Ligenza, O’Toole and Walinski not only bring almost all of their fish up alive, they handle the fish with care on deck, icing or brining it for the best quality possible.
“Having a consistent market for top-quality fish is really important for a small-boat, local fleet,” said Seth Rolbein, director of the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, which is part of the Fishermen’s Alliance. “Whole Foods is a great partner for us in making that relationship work.”
There was a chorus of agreement from those in the room.
“Those are beautiful, beautiful haddock,” a seafood manager from Newton reported. “They look really great in the case.”
The managers wanted more of the Cape fishermen’s product; one said many customers don’t understand why they can’t get more Cape cod. And managers would much prefer to sell local cod over fish from Iceland or Norway.
O’Toole said they may soon get their wish as he is about to put his boat back in the water. He was hauled out because when the ocean temperature drops the cod take off.
Those at Whole Foods were happy to hear it.
“I look forward to continuing our partnership and making it even stronger in the future,” said Joel Emard, who works with both fishermen and the sales team at Whole Foods. “We have a great thing going.”