Know Your Fishmonger

Even if it's online

Thanks for visiting The Bittman Project, a place where food is everything (or pretty close).

Before launching into today’s piece about online fish delivery, I’m excited to let you know that I asked Tyson Fick, who runs Taku River Reds, one of the operations I write about in the article, if he could put together a seafood box just for members of The Bittman Project. He came up with this incredible and unique mix of about a pound each of wild, hand-caught Alaska red king salmon, spot prawns, yelloweye rockfish, coho salmon burger, and coho salmon.

Tyson is offering 200 of these boxes, and we’re giving full members of The Bittman Project first crack. So, tomorrow, I’ll send a link to buy the seafood box to all of them (if you haven’t signed up yet and are interested, you can join here). Don’t worry if you miss the link in tomorrow’s email; I’ll keep sending it until the boxes run out. 

The cost, shipped to your door, is $130. That’s a lot (though $25/pound for top quality sustainable and guaranteed to be well-handled fish is fair), so I asked Tyson out of curiosity to send me a breakdown of costs. Clearly, none of this is cheap, but what you’re supporting when you buy from people like this is quality, sustainability, and fair wages for small-boat fishermen and fisherwomen. Anyway, check out the article and see what you think.

Tyson’s Pricing Breakdown

Paid to fishers:
1lb king portions @$19/lb
1lb spots @$19/lb
1lb rockfish @ $12/lb
1lb coho burger @$7/lb
1lb coho portions @$12/lb
Product cost: $69

Packing labor: @$3/box
Shipping to Billings, Montana $1.70/lb = $8.50/box
Product plus labor: $80.50/box

Each box will require 10lbs of dry ice @$10
Pick ‘n’ pack fee @$8/box
Packaging @$12/box
FedEx ground shipping @$18/box

Total for product, packing, and shipping: $128.50/box

About 15 years ago, I met Alex Hay at Wellfleet Farmers Market, on the Cape, and he quickly became my go-to guy for buying fish here; he’s since become a friend. At the time, he and his brother, Mac, jointly owned Mac’s Seafood, a small chain of local restaurants and retail shops. Some years later, Mac stayed with the retail and restaurant businesses and Alex founded Wellfleet Shellfish Co., a wholesale business shipping Cape Cod fish nationally.

Alex and Mac sell beautiful, quality fish — cod, oysters and scallops, black sea bass, tautog, monkfish, swordfish, redfish, striper, haddock, halibut, mackerel, and more — and oh, what tuna! — but that isn’t all that drew me to them.

I have loved talking about fish since a guy first told me that the scallops he was selling me were “sweet as a nut,” and I asked him where they came from. (Chatham: which is known for having some of the Northeast’s best.) Alex and I have spent hours talking fish — what’s running, what is becoming scarce, what a shortage might mean, whether you could convince consumers that a given type of fish or cut is worth trying.

I realize this makes me lucky: I know exactly where my fish comes from, down to the boat and the bay, because Alex knows, and he tells me. And this chronicles the ideal of what we’d all do when it comes to buying fish. (I’m not always in this position; when I buy fish in New York, for example, I’m pretty much clueless.) Ideally, we’d all get to know our local fish guys, who’d direct us to the best choices, both for eating and for values: We’d eat more sustainably, leave a smaller environmental footprint, and support independent fishermen who don’t rely on factory ships or slave labor. We’d be buying high-quality fish and shellfish harvested from populations that aren’t stressed by questionable practices — often wild, or farmed using traditional techniques.

Getting to know your fishmonger goes a long way toward real transparency, something that The Bittman Project seeks across all foods and practices related to growing, raising, harvesting, producing, and processing them. There was a time we all had a local fishmonger, and talking to that person was always a good idea. Now, though, that person may not exist or may be an ever-rotating staffer at a supermarket. Or, in the last year, in particular, we may not even be able to get out to shop.

Two, or really three, related phenomena are beginning to make that more possible. One is the CSF (community-supported fisheries, essentially a CSA for fishers). Another is just a general shortening of the supply chain: You buy from a “retailer” who is buying directly from fishermen — and you do that either locally, sometimes at a central drop-off point rather than a store, or you do that through direct shipping. This piece is mostly about that last option, but since they’re all hybridized, not exclusively so.

Josh Stoll, a professor at the University of Maine who started a CSF, is “seeing an outpouring of interest” around seafood harvesting, which, he said, “is not niche anymore.” CSFs, said Stoll, “are tiny compared to CSAs, but the relocalizing of seafood has the potential of being an important component for commercial fishermen.” While it’s odd for most of us to consider buying fish from Alaska “local” — and certainly the shipping has environmental concerns — it does support small-scale fishers, and it has fewer issues than buying fish of unknown provenance.

“It’s local in a different way,” Stoll continued. “It’s relational. It isn’t just ‘you pay money and you get something’ — these businesses create a new type of relationship between harvester and consumer that goes beyond money": You get to know your provider.” You get to have that relationship: to the flavor of a place, the connection you have to a community, like the fishers of Alaska, or the clams and oyster farmers on the Cape.

Back to Alex. When you go to the homepage of Wellfleet Shellfish Co. under “Shop Now,” you’ll see options to purchase an oyster package called “Taste of Merroir,” an oysters-clams-scallops-lobster package, a dayboat scallops package, and a box of Wellfleet oysters. If you’re looking for other stuff, or if you have questions, you can actually call. Which is not a bad idea: Having a live conversation is the first step in building a relationship with a fishmonger, which you want to do, even if they’re not in your community. “We can tell you the farmers’ names, when fish was harvested, and anything else you want to know,” Alex said. He also encouraged calling for a custom order — not just for his business, but for anyone.

Ordering from a fish place online may seem antithetical to how we bought fish before the pandemic, when you’d look a fish on crushed ice in the eye, to ensure it’s not cloudy.

But, “the business has changed from 20 years ago, let alone in the past year,” said Alex. While shopping for, say, Florida stone crabs in the height of the season used to be a luxury, ordering fish online has now become “shopping for dinner,” he confirmed.

You’re saying, or thinking, and you’re right: Shopping for fish online is not cheap. But unless you have access to plentiful fish options sustainably caught within a few miles of your home, no fish is cheap, nor should it be. (Generally, the cheapness of our food is directly related to its quality, to the toll it takes on our health and the environment, and to the fact that food workers are almost all underpaid.) And if you add in overnight shipping ….

Big picture: I’m suggesting you consider paying a bit more than the price of shrimp at your local supermarket, about which you know next to nothing other than the price. When you buy fish online, or from a local delivery service — whether it’s a one-time thing or a CSA model —you are paying for quality, for sustainability, for a fair price for the fisherman — and you’re still paying significantly less than you would if you were going out to dinner (remember that?) or ordering takeout.

No, not everyone can afford it. That’s true of virtually everything you buy except perhaps bananas or a cheeseburger or Pringles, and obviously, there are issues with all of those and their ilk. What’s great about all of these suppliers is that they’re catching or farming sustainably, they’re paying their fishermen as well as they can, the quality of their seafood is superb, they’re generally concerned about all the right things, and they’re in it together.

My experience with Alex made me curious about what other businesses like his are out there. Then in Monterey a few years ago, I met Alan Lovewell. Alan runs Real Good Fish out of Moss Landing, just north of Monterey. RGF, as you can see on their site, does local pickup of (almost all) fresh fish, shipping to the west half of the country of almost all fresh fish and, most recently, shipping of frozen fish from the Northeast to shoppers in the eastern half of the country. (Lovewell has also started selling meat, but that’s not our interest right now.) RGF is more like a CSF than a retail operation: You can opt for weekly, twice a month, or monthly, and the box that you receive is based on what’s been caught. I’ve received king salmon, mackerel, jack, halibut, squid (Monterey squid is superior, by the way), spot prawns, lingcod … and it changes every time.

I also talked to Tyson Fick on the phone, who, with some partners, runs Taku River Reds. I feel like I have been looking for this company for 20 years, because every year that I haven’t traveled to the Pacific Northwest (and I don’t go that often), I wind up thinking how much I miss good sockeye salmon.

Tyson is shipping good sockeye salmon back East, with a bit of a different model: You are essentially buying large quantities, wholesale. (For example, I bought 40 pounds of sockeye at the end of the summer, figuring that would last me all year.) The price is fair but it’s a lot of money at once. The quality is over-the-top: Each package is labeled with the catch vessel and date of catch, and the freezing technology is near-perfect. It’s not just sockeye. Depending on the season, you’ll find spot prawns, snow crab, halibut, assorted Alaskan whitefish, coho, king, and more.

I also spoke to Marsh Skeele, one of the owners of Sitka (Alaska) Salmon Shares; he’s a second-generation fisherman who has recruited more than 20 other fishermen-owners, and he’s built a plant with blast freezers. They use their own fish, along with fish they buy from other fishers (about half of the fish comes from Sitka, the balance from places like Kodiak, Haynes, and Juneau) to fillet by hand, freeze, and ship in bulk to Seattle and Illinois; orders are then sent to individuals. The fish is of impeccably high quality. I’ve bought sockeye, king, black cod, halibut, and more that’s mostly sold by a CSF model. FYI, Sitka is offering 10 percent off this CSF share to anyone who wants it; just type in the code BITTMAN at checkout.

The prices paid to fishers are higher than standard dock prices; Sitka is getting its B-Corp certification and is committed to long-term relationships. He claims that their suppliers are earning as much as $40,000 more per year by selling to them. “Neither our customers nor or our fishermen are anonymous to us,” said Skeele.

Fishermen know what the market is, too; neither fishermen nor customers are anonymous. Furthermore, said Skeele, “We are building a climate-resilient supply chain, and thinking constantly about what the future of fisheries looks like, especially as it relates to salmon.”

Below you’ll find some other options for fish-by-mail that you can trust from Team Bittman.

Kerri Conan: Lucky me, I DO live in the Pacific Northwest, where we get incredible local fish and shellfish from Puget Sound, with the regional fishery extending up into Alaska and down the western coast of the Pacific Ocean. Snow and Dungeness crab. Oysters (obviously). Manila and other clams. Mussels. Sometimes shrimp. All kinds of wild salmon. Halibut. Pacific cod and rockfish. Sable. Sustainably farmed steelhead. Some of these are hot-smoked in a mild way that tastes like cold-smoked only with a slightly firm and flaky texture.

The prices indicate how precious these foods are. Most weeks, my neighborhood farmers market has as many as three vendors and one, Wilson Fish Markets, delivers around the Seattle area. Other folks sell online, such as Seattle Fish Company and the famous Pike Place Fish Market, but I haven’t tried them. I’m lucky enough to be able to visit Hama Hama Oyster Saloon, but you can order those shipped anywhere, too. I regularly buy smoked oysters and salmon from SeaBear Smokehouse and man, are they good. Next step: Go out on a boat and try to catch something myself.

Melissa McCart: Though I live in Jersey City, New Jersey, I visit Asbury Park every week in no small part to pick up fish from Local 130 Seafood, the town’s fantastic retail fishmonger. Though prior to the pandemic, Local 130 had been supplying restaurants, the shop has pivoted to include shipping and home delivery. Like any good fishmonger, they know their fishers — who is harvesting local scallops, bluefish, fluke, or sea bass, and the two-times a day fourth-generation clammer, Dale Parson in Tuckerton, who’s hauling in clams.

Local 130 started as an all-local seafood outfit, but people love their salmon, understandably, so they’ve evolved. The good thing is, everything is labeled as to where it’s from, so people like me can still buy stuff that’s caught nearby.

Local 130 founder, Eric Morris, pointed to an added incentive to go out of your way to buy fish in winter: Flavor. With colder water temperatures, “Fish stays fresher longer,” he said. “It holds salinity.” In the case of scallops, for example, though they’re available year-round, much like clams, “the best time of the year is now,” he said. And while it has to do with temperature and transport, it’s also connected to what’s around.

“People rush to the shore in summer,” he said. “But a lot of places in seasonal areas are buying what’s cheap and not necessarily what’s best.”