Downtown View:Big Pharma? Try Big Fish

By Karen Cord Taylor

Last week the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center hosted Seafood Expo, a showcase of more than 1,200 fishing boat companies, seafood packagers and processors, fish farmers and suppliers to the fish industry. I went over to take a look.

I became interested in fish when I visited the Seaport District. Everyone knows about the new buildings and fast-moving construction sites in that location.

I knew less about the actual seaport. Some say Boston has the cleanest harbor in the world. We can swim in it and eat the fish we catch in it. So where are the fishing boats? At any time of day, I saw at most two boats tied up at the Boston Fish Pier.

I hoped the Seafood Expo would give me insight into the state of fishing in Boston. It did. The seafood industry is global. It involves airplanes and remote processors. New England struggles to keep up. The industry is so complicated there are many places where things can go wrong.

Expo exhibitors came from Norway, Iceland, Ecuador, Fiji, Vietnam, China, Chile, Indonesia, Turkey, Scotland, Japan and all over North America.

The vendors offered samples of their merchandise. Salmon dominated. Everything, though, was delicious. Several company representatives bragged of their success in providing “natural” seafood. One displayed a piece of tuna he said a competitor had infused with food coloring so it looked like the un-doctored “sushi-grade” tuna his company sold.

It was obvious from Expo that, unless chefs or supermarkets label their fish accurately, we have no idea where a piece of fish has come from. We also have no idea where it has been. Most fish in the booths was frozen. In fact, most fish people buy, even if it is not in the freezer case, has been frozen.

This is not necessarily bad. Frozen fish handled properly can be nutritious and tasty. But the journey a piece of frozen fish has made could go like this: Unloaded from a boat at the Boston Fish Pier, a monkfish could be trucked to Logan Airport, loaded onto a plane, flown to China, transferred to a processing plant where low-paid workers chop off its head and cut it into serving pieces, packed up again, hauled back to the airport, flown back to Logan, and trucked to a wholesaler, who sells it to a local restaurant or supermarket.

That’s the path of some fish labeled as coming from New England waters. The vendor who described this journey was proud of her company’s management of it, saying it was often cheaper to get fish ready for sale with two intercontinental plane trips than it was to keep the operation in Boston.

Some fish were labeled “organic.” Those were the farmed fish. Other popular words were “artisan,” “ultra-low temperature,” “sustainable,” “certifiable,” “traceable,” and “clean.”

These boasts were a reaction, I guess, to reports of dirty farming practices, false labeling of species and overfishing. Although many vendors claimed their products were traceable, one person told me the systems are rudimentary.

Boston still has a solid place in the industry, but now, as you see when you look around the fish pier, Seafood Way and Fid Kennedy Avenue, it is in processing and packaging. More than 50 such companies exist within a 1.2 mile radius because of the convergence of water, interstate highways and the airport, said Matthew Brelis, director of media relations at Massport, which owns the fish pier and much of the land around it.

But the fishing itself? Not so good. “Landings in most categories are down. Competition from imported fish is up,” said Bruce Berman of Save the Harbor, Save the Bay and a visiting scholar in public policy at Brown University’s Watson Institute.

He is pessimistic about the state of commercial fishing.  “The general conclusion is that nothing is working,” he said.

A few fisheries are healthy. Boston still lands lobsters. Clams and monkfish are also plentiful. Striped bass has seen a successful resurgence, said Berman.

Brelis is more upbeat than Berman about Boston and fish.

He pointed out over the past decade the amount of seafood unloaded at the fish pier or the lobster terminal has grown. In 2004, 8.8 million pounds were unloaded. In 2014, the haul was 16.4 million pounds.

Meanwhile, a few companies are trying to change the way we Bostonians get our fish. It is partly a return to old practices. But it depends on new technology.

Jared Auerbach, who started out fishing in Alaska and on the Cape, founded Red’s Best, which sells to wholesalers who want good, fresh, local fish. He also has a retail outlet at the Boston Public Market. His 20 refrigerated trucks meet local boats, mostly along the South Shore and the Cape. His staff sort the fish and track them with proprietary software from the dock through processing in the company’s facility at the fish pier and four other locations to the wholesalers who distribute to restaurants and retail outlets. They typically handle more than 100,000 pounds a day.

While there is no consistent supply of any one kind of fish, the black sea bass, mackerel, skate, scup and other native species are all nutritious, tasty and fresh. Local cod is scarce so Auerbach suggests trying lesser-known varieties.  “It’s screwy,” he said, “eating junk from other countries.”

Auerbach is proud that his company employs 80 local people, works with about 1,000 local fishing boats and has a smaller carbon footprint than companies depending on Logan Airport.

He rejects the global claims of “top of the catch” excellence. “Who buys the bottom of the catch?” he asks.


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