Catching a Break
FISHERMEN, OYSTER GROWERS EXPLORE NEW MARKETS AS COVID TRANSFORMS SEAFOOD INDUSTRYBy Kate Masury | Photographs by Jesse Burke
Cover Image: Briana and James Leonard market their catch to customers through social media and their website, which includes videos on how to fillet and skin whole fish.
I TURN LEFT OFF GREAT ISLAND ROAD INTO THE PARKING lot near the lobster boats, put my face mask on, and walk towards dock TT, the second dock down from Great Island Bridge.
It’s July and this is the first time I’ve visited Point Judith since COVID-19 started, and I’m not sure what to expect. But on this Wednesday afternoon, things seem fairly normal. The port is bustling with tourists heading towards the ferry and beach, in the distance I can see boats returning to the docks from a day of fishing, and over near the lobster boats things are active yet calm. There are a few people waiting in their cars as a lobsterman wearing a mask approaches them and asks how many lobsters they want before turning to his friend, who hands up four lobsters in a bag from the boat below.
“Lobsters?” another fisherman asks me. “Not today,” I say. “I’m looking for James and Briana Leonard, from the F/V Briana James.” “Second boat from the end on the left,” he says, pointing towards the end of the dock.
James Leonard is one of over 75 fishermen who have signed up for the new direct sale dealers license that allows Rhode Island fishermen to sell their catch directly from their boats to consumers. The emergency regulation establishing this temporary license is an effort by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to provide relief to both harvesters and consumers during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We understood from the industry that the traditional markets had collapsed. There was this break in the seafood supply chains. Many of the major dealers had closed [or] were unable to … accept catches during the early weeks of the virus because their market had crumpled. That left the commercial fishing industry high and dry,” explains Bob Ballou, assistant to the director at DEM.
Previously, it was illegal for Rhode Island fishermen to sell their catch to anyone but a licensed dealer, who would then in turn sell to the public, restaurants, and into the wholesale and retail markets. This dealer/fishermen relationship isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Dealers take care of the business of catch reporting, marketing, and selling the product that the fishermen harvest. Fishing is a full-time job with long hours and so is being a seafood dealer. The division of labor allows each side to focus and do what they do best.
However, because of the way the license structure was set up, fishermen were beholden to the dealers, and when the dealers had to close their doors, fishermen were left with no one to sell to.
“There were actual indications early on that there were fish sitting on the dock going nowhere and were just being wasted. Yet at the same time, we were hearing that there were food shortages. So there was a clear need to open up a channel whereby fishermen could continue to fish, and consumers could continue to get the food that they were harvesting,” Ballou says.
With the temporary direct sales program in effect until October (with the permanent adoption of the program possible if approved through a formal regulatory process), fishermen with the new license now have the option of selling their catch direct to consumers with some restrictions. The fishermen can only sell fish from their boat or nearby dock within the same 24-hour period in which it was caught. The exception to this is lobsters and crabs, which, with the new license, can now be delivered and also stored live for longer than 24 hours. Finfish must be sold whole and crustaceans, live.
While over 75 fishermen have signed up for the new license, as of July 31, only about 17 fishermen are actively using it, and those fishermen have landed just over 20,000 pounds of seafood with a value of approximately $74,000, according to DEM.
Leonard is one of those, and for him and the others, direct sales give them an opportunity to get better prices in a market where prices are still reduced. But Leonard says his favorite part is interacting with his customers.
“I’m very happy when my customers show up, whether they buy one fish, 10 fish, or 100 pounds of fish. That’s the best part for me—I love teaching the public about our local fish and engaging with them.”
The Leonards try to set up dockside sales every Saturday, and they have customers from Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey making the pilgrimage to Point Judith specifically to purchase fresh local seafood. Briana started a Facebook page for the boat, and they also started using the new FishLine app to advertise their catch. The app, which is available free in the Google and Apple app stores, allows fishermen to share with consumers when and where they will be selling their catch, what species they expect to have available, prices, and preparation tips. This allows the Leonards and other fishermen using the app to reach a broader range of consumers—people they don’t already know or who don’t follow them on Facebook.
The direct sales program is not without its challenges, however. “The biggest obstacle at the end of the day is we don’t have enough customers to sell our whole catch,” says Sherry Kourtesis, wife of fisherman Jon Kourtesis from the F/V Christopher Andrew, based in Newport.
Their son Seth, who fishes with his dad and helps with the dockside sales, explains,
“We aren’t getting enough consumers, especially in this area [Newport]. Not enough people who want whole fish, fresh like this. A lot of people want it filleted, and we aren’t allowed to do that. In Newport, there are a lot of people around, but many are tourists staying in hotels and they can’t fillet a fish in their hotel room. If you go to other areas, like a city where it’s more populated, you get people who are comfortable buying whole fish in large quantities to eat. We get people coming down from the cities to buy from us, which is great, but we need more people like them to make this work.”
For fishermen targeting finfish, the restriction of only being able to sell whole fish from their boat means customers need to come to them, and they have to be willing to work with a whole fish, which, while simpler than it sounds, can be intimidating to some people. Therefore, both the Leonards and the Kourtesises have spent time educating their customers on how to prepare the different whole fish they sell.
However, for lobster and crab fishermen, direct sales have been a bit easier. Most people are familiar with steaming a lobster and can apply the same concept to the less well-known crabs, so there is less of a knowledge barrier there. Lobstermen, like the ones I passed on the dock in Point Judith, have been able to survive this season of low boat prices by selling at retail-level prices direct to consumers.
The new program also brings the added freedom for lobster and crab fishermen to offer delivery, and for some, that has been a game changer. “As part of the new program, they allowed us to deliver lobsters and crabs, so that lets me sell in Bristol, where I live. My boat is in Newport right now, but I don’t know anyone there. All my friends, family, and connections are in Bristol. So, I’ve been bringing crabs and lobsters, live on ice, back to my garage and selling them once a weekend. I’ve sold every lobster I’ve caught this year, and it pretty much saved our season,” says Kenny Murgo from the F/V Johnny B.
Fishermen aren’t the only ones adapting to changes in markets due to COVID-19. Dealers are feeling the same impacts and are also turning towards more direct-to-consumer solutions.
“In March, we were at zero sales at one point. We had a handful of markets, but we aren’t a supermarket-oriented business; we primarily sell to local restaurants,” says Tom LaFazia, sales and purchasing manager at Narragansett Bay Lobster. “With restaurants shut down or trying to survive on takeout, it wasn’t enough. We started doing the whole home-delivery service thing initially to just try to keep staff employed.”
With the help of his wife, LaFazia put together a new website for home deliveries where customers can place their orders, leave a cooler outside their homes, and later that week, the Narragansett Bay Lobster delivery trucks drop off anything from locally caught tuna steak, to littleneck clams, to picked crab meat, to whole scup and flounders, to live lobsters, to fillets of a variety of different local species. LaFazia says while it’s more work dealing directly with consumers, it’s been going well, and they plan on continuing the home delivery option.
Graham Brawley from the Ocean State Shellfish Cooperative shared a similar story.
“We were having a good winter. It wasn’t great, but it was good, and things were picking up as we expected. And then literally it was March 11th, and it stopped, and it stopped for two solid weeks completely. No sales. Nothing,” says Brawley, director of sales and marketing for the cooperative, which buys and distributes oysters for 12 different oyster farms in the state.
As another business that had relied on restaurant sales, Brawley says they got hit particularly hard when their New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia customers disappeared. He said with local restaurants opening back up, things have improved somewhat, but he still hasn’t been able to replace those big city markets, which represent about 50% of his revenue, and he’s worried what that will mean come fall. Brawley also added a way for consumers to order oysters directly from the cooperative’s website.
“I have some restaurants I have known for 25 years, and they aren’t opening, and so their customers have come to us asking for our oysters because they miss eating them in the restaurant,” says Brawley.
For consumers, with all these businesses focusing on direct-to-consumer sales, accessing local seafood has never been easier. “A lady came from Connecticut last week and bought over 100 pounds of butterfish. She spent like $300 on fish because she said she normally can’t find these local fish and she loves them,” Seth Kourtesis shared.
Locals have also taken advantage of the direct-sales program, such as Tricia Perez of Newport, who is now a regular customer of the F/V Christopher Andrew.
“I’ve definitely bought way more seafood during this time. I feel like it’s way more accessible, and I’ve made a point to buy it. It’s my new weekend thing. This weekend my roommate and I will buy some scup, maybe some black sea bass, squid, or fluke, too, scale and clean it, and have a big dinner together. It’s been fun!” Perez says.
The freshness of the fish is definitely one of the draws for her, but she says another thing she really likes is the opportunity to try some “weird” fish or fish that she wouldn’t normally be able to get and experiment with in the kitchen.
“Like I had weakfish for the first time!” she shares. “It’s not something that I’ve ever seen in a fish market, but it was so good!” She also has really enjoyed being able to support her local fisherman. “I think it’s so cool that I got to meet a Newport fisherman, truly like my local fisherman who is going out fishing every day. It’s also a family affair—his wife is there, his kids, and his in-laws. It’s nice to be able to support this family.”
For Laurel Ruma of Medford, Massachusetts, eating Rhode Island seafood during the pandemic has helped her connect with the Rhode Island experience she had been missing. During the early part of the pandemic, her partner, Mike, actually drove down to Narragansett specifically to pick up 100 oysters from the Ocean State Shellfish Cooperative, and after enjoying the oysters raw, fried, in oyster stew, and sharing with some friends, they later had 100 more shipped from the cooperative to Medford.
“Without COVID we would usually be in Rhode Island every two months just to hang out and explore. During COVID, we were still looking for that Rhode Island experience, and eating Rhode Island oysters helped provide that. We’ve absolutely missed Rhode Island and shopping for our seafood and oysters there. One of the last trips we did was down to Bristol to Andrade’s Catch, and we can’t wait to come back to get more fresh fish and see what they have. And of course, following them on Facebook has been so much fun,” Ruma says.
While this year has certainly been a difficult one, especially if you work in the seafood industry, there have been some silver linings. According to Kenny Murgo, “One of the only good things to come out of this was that people realized that they want food from close to their homes. The support around me has been great!”
Serving Up Rhode Island's Seafood
We’ve got great local fluke and black sea bass recipes from Briana and James Leonard. Click here for these and where you can find more.