A High Quality Question
Maine has some of the best seafood in the world. We are fortunate that the Gulf of Maine is filled with delicious creatures who pair fantastically with butter, but the seafood that we eat is a long way from the cold, clean, waters where it lives, grows, and gets caught. When it comes to quality, the journey that seafood takes from the bottom of the ocean to our dinner plate is 90% of what matters and that journey starts with the fishermen.
"Food comes from farmers, seafood comes from the ocean."
For many in the United States, we have a long-distance relationship with seafood. That isn't just because of proximity to the fishing grounds. Of greater importance is how we think about seafood. Former chef, current author and long time seafood advocate Barton Seaver often says that for most people "food comes from farmers, and seafood comes from the ocean,"as a way to point out that fishermen are not seen as part of the food system in the same way that farmers are.
The best seafood in the world, starts with the best fishermen in the world and the best fishermen are constantly striving to deliver the highest quality and most desirable product to market.
MCFA has worked with fishermen over the years to ensure that Maine's fleet is bringing in quality seafood, but as buyers, processors and markets shift we wanted to make sure that our fishermen aren't just delivering quality, but also delivering what the market is looking for.
With fishermen landing fewer fish at a higher quality, the price back to the boat is of crucial importance. This year the price has been historically low.
To that end, Sector Manger Mary Hudson and I took a trip to the Portland Fish Exchange to meet with buyers to learn about what they are focusing on when they look at fish in today's markets. We shared this with fishermen, and thought it might be fun to share with you as well.
Count matters: The GIF at the top of this blog is a fish buyer doing a count of haddock. They count the number of fish in the tote as a way to judge the average size of the fish in that lot. Essentially, there are roughly 100lbs of fish in each tote, if you count the number of fish and it is a low number, that means the fish are larger and of higher value to processors who get better yield from larger fish.
YIELD: yield is the amount of meat you get from a whole fish. When fishermen land a fish, the head, bones, tail etc aren't products dealers are focused on selling. A higher yield, means more meat, which means more money.
Ice, Ice Baby: The faster you get your fish on ice, and the colder you keep them throughout the trip the better the quality. It is a balancing act for the vessel because ice takes up a lot of space and is a significant expense but is necessary for a profitable trip. We were able to examine some fish that didn't have enough ice on them from the boat and the quality difference was easy to see even for the untrained eye.
Treat your fish right: Fish bruise. Don't throw them around the deck, don't tow the net too long, use a sharp clean knife, and get them on ice quick.
Learn your audience: Different buyers and processors might look for different things from their fish. Some buyers want smaller fish, some want it cut certain ways, understanding who is buying and for what market is important and always changing.
Clear Eyes, Full Heart: well, clear eyes at least. Fish graders are looking for fish that are fresh. They look at the eyes for clarity, the look for rigidness, and they smell them to make sure they don't smell "fishy".
Step by Step: The fishermen are step one of a long journey between the ocean and your dinner plate. Step two are the buyers and processors. Fishermen want to get the most value out of the fish they land, and that depends on the processors getting the most value out of the fish they cut. They focus on fish that will give them a long shelf life.
Looks do matter: At the end of the day, fish are hitting a consumer marketplace and right now product that doesn't look good, no mater how it tastes, just doesn't sell as well.
Some species, like monkfish, are landed headed and gutted. That means more work on the boat and more opportunity for mistakes. The dealer we spoke to wanted monkfish cut a certain way and didn't want to buy fish, no matter the quality, that looked any different.
It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it: Reputation matters, have a few bad trips where the quality dips? Buyers remember. One bad fish on the top of a tote, buyers aren't going to take the time to sift through to see if the rest are amazing or not. Quality control on the boat matters more than ever because buyers are extremely risk adverse. A few little mistakes can have a lasting impact to a business.