To ask the question “what boat landed this fish?” may be one of the most important environmental, social and political acts of 2016.
These are some names of Gloucester day boats, boats that make short trips to Jeffreys Ledge, Ipswich Bay and Middle Bank: the Maria GS, the Santo Pio, the Angela & Rose, the Janaya & Joseph, and Cat Eyes. And there are more. These boats land a mix of species that call the Gulf of Maine home, but they are primarily landing codfish, dab flounder, blackback flounder, yellowtail flounder, gray sole and some whiting.
These are some of the offshore Gloucester boats currently fishing the northern edge of George’s Bank: The Miss Trish, The Midnight Sun, the Teresa Marie III, the Harmony, the Teresa Marie IV and the Lady Jane. Again, there are more boats than this. Right now, they are landing haddock, redfish, pollock, codfish, dab flounder, gray sole and some hake.
In port, these boats, and others, can be seen tied up at Felicia Oil, Rose Marine, Gloucester Marine Railways and the State Fish Pier, wharfs along the Inner Harbor, many in clear sight of some Gloucester restaurants.
In an effort to celebrate and promote the quality seafood that these boats land, Gloucester Seafood Processing in Blackburn Circle stamps every issue of fish with the name of the fishing vessel that landed it. They are hoping other processors will, too. Restaurants — particularly in Gloucester — should proudly be announcing to their guests, “This pollock was landed yesterday on the Angela & Rose!” — or the Janaya & Joseph, or the Santo Pio.
I had lunch recently at Hillstone in downtown Boston. The restaurant was mobbed with dining businesspeople. There was a lot of fish on the menu, and I apologized to the server for even taking her time, but I had to ask, “Do you know where any of this fish comes from?” The young woman immediately stood straighter, grinned and declared, “Yes, I do!” reciting to me exactly the body of water where each fish was landed and how it was caught.
She didn’t know the name of the vessel, but she had clearly been educated. Not only did she and the restaurant take their seafood purchasing seriously, they enjoyed being able to educate their guests. Every restaurant in Gloucester — and on the North Shore and Cape Ann, for that matter — should be doing the same. Every restaurant in this city should be serving only seafood landed and cut in Gloucester.
The alternative, the specious siren to a restaurant’s bottom line, is inexpensive, imported fish. When there is no transparency in fishing, when you cannot name the boat that landed that fish, there is generous opportunity for horror.
The least offensive possibility is that fish was farmed with heavy doses of antibiotics. Then there are these very real possibilities: It has been well-documented, particularly by microbiologist Michael Doyle with the University of Georgia, that animal waste (even human) is a primary ingredient in Southeast Asian seafood. This is an extreme case and certainly does not represent all imported fish, but it emphasizes the very real horrors of untraceable seafood.
Another gruesome and very real consequence of fish with no definitive provenance is slavery. The Associated Press received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for its story exposing human slavery in Southeast Asian fisheries that regularly ship their fish to the United States. These are just some of the hidden costs of inexpensive, imported fish, not to mention the costs in losses to local fishermen.
American fishing is the most regulated fishing industry in the world; it’s the curse and the blessing of the American fleet. American fishermen must comply to severe, onerous and what sometimes seems like nonsensical regulations, but those rules make American fish the most responsibly landed fish in the world.
Many Gloucester restaurants have dining rooms with views of the Gloucester fleet; it makes sense that diners from Iowa would simply assume the white fish in the fish sandwich that they are having for lunch was landed by one of those picturesque boats tied up at the dock. If that fish is not Gloucester fish, if it’s an inexpensive “refreshed” imported seafood, that Iowan will walk away feeling nothing special about the taste of Gloucester fish. It’s the same when a restaurant claims to be serving local greens in its salad, and it’s actually California lettuce. The brand the local farmers have worked so hard to develop is undermined. The Gloucester brand that these fishermen have struggled to bring back is destroyed.
It’s almost criminal that when a local chef is asked why they are not purchasing the fish that is landed at his or her feet, the chef must respond, “Show me a price list.” Gloucester-landed fish must still compete with the price of “refreshed” imported products, or whatever fish agrees with its bottom line. The price of imported fish with no transparency is far, far more expensive than that restaurant realizes.
Another important but discreet value to local fish, something built into the dollar amount on that chef’s price list, is the promise of a clean product. Any sanitary questions are eliminated when there is complete transparency. For a look at good, local processing transparency, visit Gloucester Seafood Processing.
Gloucester Seafood Processing processes — or cuts — fish specifically caught in the Gulf of Maine by the aforementioned fishing vessels. I visited the facility to see a high-tech, immaculate operation, rooms filled with filleters — U.S. citizens (to be clear) originally from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, Portugal and Mexico. Everyone who works at Gloucester Seafood Processing is issued a pair of rubber boots and a pair of Crocs. The boots never leave the processing area, and the Crocs are for everywhere else in the plant. No dirt or dust from the outside ever enters the fish processing facility.
Before anyone enters a processing room, they stand for a few seconds in a shallow trough of sanitizer, guaranteeing nothing is ever tracked in. They place their hands in a sanitizer equipped with a sensor that only stops whirring water when the hands register as “clean.” A favorite detail: Gloucester Seafood Processing uses shaved ice rather than traditional chunks, which may otherwise bruise or damage a fish. Also, the fish is not stacked in crates on ice; fish float in a saltwater slurry, even better preserving the quality.
Filleters at Gloucester Seafood Processing begin at $16 to $17 an hour and are trained to cut fish, an important skill that has almost vanished from our work lexicon. From there, cutters have the opportunity to develop that skill and earn more, as well as move up within the company.
Closing the sustainable loop, Gloucester Seafood Processing fish frames go to lobstermen for trap bait.
Frankie Ragusa, director of fresh seafood at the plant, grew up in the fishing industry in Gloucester. He bemoans the fact that there are few local people working there.
“It’s a good job and a skill. We would like to have a facility filled with local people!” he said.
But there are not enough Cape Ann residents walking in the door to keep up with production.
With the decline in the fishing industry over the last 20 years, Gloucester fishing has lost a generation, Ragusa said. Gloucester High School once trained students in jobs associated with the fishing industry. Not only is fishing a fraction of what it was in the old days, but the shore-side industries that supported it are equally diminished.
And yet, with an intelligent, regulated fleet of local fishermen, and with thorough transparency from landing to processing, Gloucester fishing may be able to return as a vital, environmentally responsible industry. A shining new website, Gloucesterfresh.com, is part of the city’s full-on effort to make Gloucester a proud fishing town again.
As America’s oldest seaport, Gloucester has had its struggles. Today, the city stands at a crossroads: Will it be a tourist town with a little engineering thrown in, where the restaurants serve “refreshed” imported seafood, and guests visit the new wing of the Cape Ann Museum dedicated to yet another lost industry — fishing? Or will it be a city unique among others that proudly goes fishing, where people come to eat its delicious seafood, where the fishing boats line up along Rogers Street, where there’s a waterfront festival once a year, and where the sea gulls still squawk overhead?
I recently heard Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, describing a visit to San Diego, no longer a fishing town. She sadly identified the strangeness of that place: to be standing by the ocean in a busy city, with the sky empty of sea gulls.
Ultimately, this fate hinges on whether or not Gloucester fishermen can afford to go fishing, and so much of that depends on whether their own city supports them. In response to overfishing and fishing degradation around the world, people everywhere should be demanding to know what boat landed their fish, but in Gloucester, a city fortunate to have its own local seafood, it is an even more poignant question to ask.
Gulf of Maine dab flounder is currently my favorite seafood. These small, delicate fillets are so versatile, you will never ask for cod again. Two pounds of dabs at first may look like a daunting number of fillets, and they are if you imagine standing at the stove frying, but in the preparations below, the fillets are simply layered and baked. Easy, easy. The Thai recipe is loaded with flavor, and proof that this fish can wear cilantro and chilis; I offer the butter and breadcrumb recipe so you can taste the singular delicacy and sweetness of this fish. It’s hard to say which recipe is better.
THAI STEAMED DABS
This recipes makes a lot of rice, but it is so delicious you might want seconds. Cut the proportions in half if you do not.
For the Thai paste:
1 large bunch cilantro, stems removed
2-inch chunk of fresh ginger, peeled
3 cloves garlic
1 fresh red chili pepper, deseeded and roughly chopped
2 teaspoons sesame oil
5 tablespoons soy sauce
2 limes, juice and zest
1 can (400 milliliters) light coconut milk
For the dabs and rice:
2 cups basmati rice
Freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds dab fillets
1 cup (roughly) sugar snap peas, ends trimmed and strings removed
1 cup spring onions, halved and thinly sliced in half-rounds, plus green tops thinly sliced
1/2 a red chili, deseeded and finely sliced
1/4 cup cilantro leaves for garnish
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, process the cilantro, ginger, garlic, chilis, sesame oil, soy sauce, lime juice and zest, and coconut milk. Set aside.
Cook the rice in salted water as directed (1 cup rice: 13/4 cups water). Stir processed paste into rice, and spread out on a 9-by-11-inch glass baking dish.
Lay dabs on top of rice, overlapping fillets as necessary. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Toss snap peas loosely over dabs.
Seal dish tightly with aluminum foil. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until fish is cooked through.
When it’s done baking, remove the foil and distribute spring onions and red chilies over the fish. Squeeze the lime over all, and garnish lightly with fresh cilantro leaves. Serve immediately.
(Recipe adapted from Jamie Oliver)
DABS WITH LEMON-MUSTARD BUTTER AND CRUMBS
2 pounds dab fillets
1 stick butter
Juice from 2 lemons
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
3/4 cup unseasoned bread crumbs (more or less)
Lemon for serving
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Melt butter in a small saucepan.
Add lemon juice, mustard and Worcestershire.
Brush the bottom of an 8-by-8-inch glass baking dish (or 7-by-11) with the butter mixture.
Lay down 2 or 3 fillets, depending on their size. Brush the fillets with the butter mixture, and sprinkle with salt. Then sprinkle breadcrumbs over fillets to cover.
Continue layering fillets this way: fish, butter, salt and breadcrumbs. When finished, pour remaining butter mixture generously over top of breadcrumbs so they will brown well in the oven. Bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until fish flakes easily in center.