A Different Fish Story
Buying seafood used to mean picking up fresh catch from local fishermen. With the push for verified sustainable seafood, will the personal connection between customers return?
by Brennen Jensen
It’s 2 a.m. Do you know where your seafood is? If you live in the Mid-Atlantic, there’s a good chance it’s in Jessup, an unincorporated industrial transportation hub some 12 miles southwest of Baltimore, near the neat townhouses of suburban Columbia. The snapper, or scallops, or shrimp you’ll select later from your grocer’s seafood counter or a restaurant menu is likely being processed there in an anonymous warehouse, within earshot of Interstate 95, in the Chesapeake Bay watershed — but far from the source where most of those fish were caught or even a waterway where they would survive.
Capital Seaboard runs one such facility, a 160,000-square-foot building opened in 2017 to distribute fresh and frozen seafood from Richmond, Virginia, to central Pennsylvania. Seafood orders can come in as late as midnight, perhaps from a chef creating a menu that will appear on Capital’s phone app — a sign of how technology has driven major market changes. After 2 a.m., when most chefs have nodded off, the action begins. In a ballet of pallet jacks, workers whisk around boxes of seafood, most of it shipped in from far shores, on the self-propelled devices: squid from China, shrimp from India, orange roughy from New Zealand, ahi tuna from Indonesia. The Chesapeake contributes rockfish and pasteurized crab, as well as raw oysters from Maryland.
With the exception of the company’s administrative offices, the entire facility — a complex of vast, white-washed spaces — is refrigerated, allowing for an unbroken “cold chain.” The term, used commonly by seafood safety professionals, refers to a major safety protocol, which requires that all seafood be kept at an optimal low temperature during the entire time that it remains in the Capital facility. A cavernous freezer is set at a steady minus-eight degrees Fahrenheit. (The floors are heated to prevent ice from forming and workers from hydroplaning.) Warm dress is a must for employees, and regulations also mandate hair and beard nets, rubber gloves, and safety boots. All of these changes reflect a decades-long effort to keep seafood safe — and they have paid off by drastically reducing the number of people who have become ill or died from food-borne illnesses in fish and shellfish.
In one frigid room, fish cutters slice and clean whole rockfish, salmon, and mahi-mahi. (The latter is what’s called a histamine fish, a biological classification that includes tuna, mackerel, and herring — all species capable of emitting potentially harmful secretions. To avoid food safety risks, workers process these fish at separate color-coded cutting stations.) Watching over the knife-wielding workers is one of Capital’s clipboard-wielding food safety inspectors; any waste that hits the gray floor does not stay long, as other work-ers wielding hoses and long-handled squeegees quickly wash it away.
By 3 a.m., workers load the first delivery trucks. As the fleet fans out, a computerized GPS system tracks each vehicle on a giant map while monitoring the cargo area’s temperature. It’s not the way your grandparents bought seafood. But is that a good thing?
The answer is, it may be a mixed bag. On one hand, seafood is safer. Robust science and technical protocols have determined how quickly and for how long fish needs to be iced, and federal and state inspection teams monitor carefully to make sure that processors follow the rules. No one wants to break them: a single outbreak of a food-borne pathogen that sends diners to the hospital can cripple the industry, potentially turning diners off for the long term.
But diners and cooks are losing their connection to the Chesapeake, and possibly as a consequence their impetus to restore the Bay.
“I think when people talk about the health of the Bay, it’s always been very much linked to the health of iconic species, like the blue crab. It’s hard to just say, ‘Let’s restore the Bay ecosystem,’ because most people don’t know what a healthy ecosystem would really look like,” said Douglas Lipton, a longtime seafood economist for Maryland Sea Grant and now a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “But they would know what having abundant crabs, oysters, and striped bass looks like — that’s an easier sell.”
Consumers are buying fish, both from aquaculture and wild sources. According to NOAA’s most recent data presented in its 2017 Fisheries of the United States report, the estimated per capita consumption of fish and shellfish was 16 pounds. Fish comes to the table from both domestic and imported sources. In 2017, edible fish products from imports were valued at $21.5 billion, and domestic products at about half that amount, just $11 billion. In 2016, U.S. aquaculture production contributed $1.45 billion in edible fish products.
Those in the wholesale fish business will always find a sizable market among consumers who simply want their seafood to be safe and cheap. But sellers are responding to a new buy-local movement. Steve Vilnit, Capital Seaboard’s vice president of marketing, promotes local seafood, even in this era when exotic fish ordered from New Zealand can be delivered in 48 hours. “If we’re about getting the best quality products, of course it’s going to be fresher sourcing something from the waters of our own Bay, as opposed to the other side the world,” he said. “It makes business sense to carry it.”
He also has seen a trend at local restaurants and upscale chains where a fish dinner will come with a tail — and a tale. “Menus are adding descriptions,” he said. “Now you [see] things like ‘hook-and-line-caught eastern Chesapeake Bay striped bass.’ People want a story — [it’s] almost a romance of being connected with their food.”
One constant in the wholesale seafood business is the flurry of early morning activity. But just about every other aspect of the industry has changed substantially over the years: what and how fish are sold, and to whom. And the pace of change is accelerating.
For the bulk of the last century, the region’s wholesale fish trade operated out of a brick building in downtown Baltimore, two blocks from the Inner Harbor. But 35 years ago, fishmongers decamped to Jessup and the large, purpose-built Maryland Wholesale Fish Market. They had outgrown a facility built for horse carts and clashed with leaders in an urban area that was tilting more towards tourism than trade. While some cities managed to preserve the vitality of their downtown fish markets, most, like Baltimore, have seen their markets move out to industrial fringes or suburbs, where many have merged with produce markets. (Washington, D.C., still has its wharf, though it’s being squeezed by new luxury condos, a nightclub, and an oyster bar.) This invisible warehouse model is long on efficiency but short on charm and pedestrian traffic.
Over the past decade, even wholesale markets like Jessup’s couldn’t manage the burgeoning fish trade. Many companies have built their own facilities in the shadow of the wholesale market to accommodate swelling inventory needs and the growing battery of quality-control requirements from grocery stores. They have become contemporary nodes in a 21st-century global seafood supply chain, where products often come from the other side of the world rather than from the Chesapeake, fewer than 20 miles away.
“Very fishy smelling”
The building that housed Baltimore’s downtown fish market still stands, but the signs on the arched entryways now say “Port Discovery,” identifying the children’s museum that took up residence there. The original market cost $101,000 to build in 1907; it replaced an earlier structure that had burned down in the 1904 Baltimore fire, continuing the tradition of a downtown seafood marketplace that began before the Revolutionary War.
George McManus was a teenager in the mid-1970s. He worked weekends and summers icing fish in the old market.
“Our day started around 5 a.m., when we’d roll up our big, rusted metal doors and let the air from the city flow through the building, even
if it was a 90-degree summer day,” said McManus, who now owns J. J. McDonnell Seafood, one of the Baltimore (and then Jessup) stalwarts. He, like others, has now left the Jessup market for a 62,000-square -foot stand-alone facility near it. “A truck would come in at the back of the market and unload ice into these big 50-gallon metal barrels, which you would literally roll into market to get ice to your fish.” The market’s aged cement floor was riven with cracks and fissures. “You could never have that now,” he added. “The health department would shut you down.”
Pat Welsh of Reliant Fish Co. remembers that floor, too. “There was not a smooth piece of concrete down there,” said the third-generation president of his family-run company, now also on its way to becoming a stand-alone facility. “As a kid learning to use a hand truck, I dumped a lot of boxes of product.”
The stalls of competing fish merchants lined both sides of the rectangular building; each merchant had an office upstairs. Fish and shellfish sat on ice-filled wooden boxes and bushel baskets along a center concourse, where customers wandered through. Today, nearly all of the product is delivered via trucks. But 40 years ago, most customers took their seafood purchases with them — crabs, lobsters, oysters, rockfish, yellow perch, whiting, monkfish, hake, spot, ling, croakers. Buyers included the public, chefs, and small-scale resellers who came in pickup trucks or horse-drawn carts. Larger wholesalers from Virginia and Pennsylvania took away truckloads of seafood for resale.
“People came in because they wanted to see the fish they bought,” Welsh said. Most seafood was caught domestically, he added, from the Mid-Atlantic up to New England and down to Florida. “And of course, back in the really old days, product came up the harbor by boat.”
Though heavy lifting and harsh aromas were part of the merchant’s experience, some aspects still evoke wistfulness. “Oh, it was very fishy smelling — there was no mistaking that,” Welsh said. “But the market had a lot of character. You could see your competition, you could see your customers. There was always a buzz in the old market. It was alive.”
City leaders first threatened the fish market’s downtown location in 1963 with proposed plans for a new women’s prison. Then it was to be razed for a new highway project. The brick edifice dodged both of those perils. But by the early 80s, the fishy-smelling, bustling market was at odds with Inner Harbor development and the area’s transition to tourism. The city was on the move; the fish market was in the way. One proposal that drew support from some fish sellers incorporated the market into a hybrid trade-tourism attraction, where fish mongering would flourish alongside restaurants and shops in the style of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. But that plan depended on federal relocation dollars for a highway expansion — which never occurred.
The market’s fate played out in the pages of the
Baltimore Sun. “The dank, smelly old building is a treasure,” ran one impassioned letter to the editor. “The fish market is a remembrance of a simple city life . . . close to the heart of older Baltimoreans.” Meanwhile, the merchants grew exasperated with the less than optimal working conditions in the undersized building that lacked heat, air conditioning, and hot water, and with the talk of increasing regulations to refrigerate seafood more consistently. Shipping bays where horse carts had once parked were already catering to refrigerated tractor trailers — or trying to. “I’d watch the poor truck drivers work like an hour just to back into the market,” McManus recalled.
In 1981, the merchants voted unanimously to move out. They began discussions with the Maryland Food Center Authority about a new home in the emerging food hub of Jessup, where the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market had set up shop in 1976. The market closed for good on January 14, 1984; two days later, the new suburban facility opened. Among the 10 proposals for converting the old market, one called for development of an entertainment complex affiliated with the flamboyant pianist Liberace. Ultimately, Baltimore’s old fish market became a nightclub called the Fish Market; it was dead in the water by 1989.
Meanwhile, some seafood companies that had relocated to Jessup struggled to adapt to the ways of the new business model — deals made over the phone instead of with a handshake, and fish that was flown in or farmed. (The most popular fish and shellfish consumed in the United States are shrimp, tuna, salmon, and tilapia — none of which comes from the Chesapeake Bay or from local rivers. Tilapia, for example, is farmed, mostly in Mississippi and other southern states.)
Consolidations ensued as corporate big fish gobbled little ones. The ever bigger firms sold to ever bigger regions, and the Bay and adjacent Atlantic waters became a diminishing component of a far-flung piscatory protein chain, with familiar local names adopted by national and regional chains.
Mild vs. wild?
“Maybe about 20 or 25 years ago, we went to the sexy fish,” said John Shields, co-owner of Gertrude’s restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art and a vocal local seafood evangelist. His latest cookbook,
The New Chesapeake Kitchen, came out last fall. By that, he’s referring to fish like salmon, which comes from elsewhere but features on menus of most area restaurants. “People forgot about fish that is native and local here.”
These popular nonlocal fish varieties are mild in flavor, sourced or farmed globally, and not subject to seasonality or supply disruptions — whereas a patch of bad weather can keep Bay watermen onshore and local fish off dinner plates. They have become so ubiquitous that they hardly seem special anymore.
Shields recalls visiting the downtown fish market — “It was gritty and real, with people shouting” — and spending time at his great-uncle’s seafood packing house on Tilghman Island. He opened Gertrude’s in 1999 to reconnect with the seasonal rhythms of the Bay’s bounty.
Regional chefs gather around oyster farmer Johnny Shockley (in red shirt) at Chesapeake Gold, his oyster farm on Hooper’s Island, where he shows them his oyster nursery. Steve Vilnit, formerly with Department of Natural Resources and now with Capital Seafood, organizes trips so chefs can meet watermen.
Photo courtesy of Steve Vilnit
The Baltimore native promotes cooking and eating species like yellow perch and rockfish. Younger chefs, including Thomas Zippelli, owner of Columbia’s Turn House, have gotten the message. The previous generation of diners “kind of grew up eating a lot of packaged foods,” he said. “But now you see a lot of the younger guys, like me, starting to really shift that mentality.” Zippelli honed his skills as a chef in New England where he developed relationships with Rhode Island fishermen. He loves serving regional seafood, including snakeheads from the Potomac and bluefish from Ocean City. “There’s really excellent fish here if you look for it,” he said.
During a four-year stint as director of fisheries marketing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Vilnit connected chefs with seafood by getting them out of the kitchen and out on the water, where they met Chesapeake watermen and oyster farmers. Capital Seaboard runs similar chef tours for its customers. For chefs too harried to take time out to tour, Vilnit videotapes his visits with suppliers. “In a minute and a half of viewing, a chef can see where the food is coming from,” he said. “They get the story.”
J. J. McDonnell, where Vilnit worked previously, also conducts tours under the name School of Fish.
Might this renewed interest in the Chesapeake Bay as a seafood source bolster consumer commitment to improving its water quality?
“It certainly helps reinforce the need,” said Doug Lipton of NOAA.
Some years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program launched a campaign to get people to connect a love for seafood with Bay restoration. Many conservation groups adapted slogans like “Save the crabs, then eat them” and “The lunch you save may be your own.” The campaign urged diners to fertilize their lawns less and plant native trees.
There’s still plenty of work to be done to hook consumers on seafood, now that the buying and selling of fish no longer happens under the public eye. But modern-day fish sellers, like Stephanie Pazzaglia, McDonnell’s business development manager, are not giving up.
“Just the other day, someone asked me for halibut — but only from the Chesapeake Bay,” she said of the popular fish that usually is sourced from deep northern waters off Alaska. “I didn’t criticize them: it was just another opportunity for someone to be educated.”
These photos show how far seafood safety has come in the decades.
At the old market, men wore jeans and flannels, produce sat on the floor at times, and rubbish shared space with seafood about to be picked.
Photos, courtesy of Reliant Fish Co.
In the new facilities at Jessup and next to it, workers wear oilskin overalls, head coverings, and gloves. They cut fish on sanitized surfaces with clean knives. Boxes are organized on palettes for shipping, and inspectors from the company and government agencies routinely check to ensure that everything is sanitary and clean.
Photos, Brennen Jensen