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Jul 3, 2018 12:26 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Seafood: A Tricky Journey To The Plate

Captain Peter Haskell of Haskell's Seafood of Long Island checks his crab pots in East Quogue on Monday afternoon.  DANA SHAW
Jul 3, 2018 12:26 PM

As founder of a company that originally only promoted the East End commercial fishing trade, and now has more than a half dozen outlets in North America and Central America, Sean Barrett is intimately familiar with the importance of time.

Heading Montauk-based Dock to Dish, whose business model strives to ensure that wild seafood landed at local docks is safely handled, closely tracked and quickly transported to area restaurants, his day often begins at 3 a.m. It requires significant coordination, and a mutual cooperation among commercial vessel captains, to guarantee that what is brought to dock one day can appear on the next day’s menu—across multiple time zones.

It is also why the company, founded in 2012 and now boasting locations in San Francisco, Vancouver and Nicaragua, refuses to transport hauls outside a self-imposed 150-mile radius of wherever they made landfall. The reason: The more time that’s allowed to pass usually means the more that can go wrong—and seafood is not a forgiving commodity.

Those strict rules underscore his company’s main mission, which is to turn consumers on to the cornucopia of fresh seafood caught in local waters, species that oftentimes fall under the local radar after flounder, fluke and scallops.

On the South Fork, those overlooked species include golden tilefish, a sweeter and denser cousin of the codfish that Mr. Barrett has dubbed “the darling of the Montauk fish business.” Another is the scup, commonly known as “porgy,” which Mr. Barrett notes is a “robust” fish that has earned an unfair reputation due mostly to its name.

In contrast, more popular fish like the yellowfin tuna—a staple at most restaurants and sushi bars—can only be caught off East End waters for a few months in late summer, while other popular choices, including salmon and shrimp, are never pulled locally.

“Expecting yellowfin tuna in January [out of Montauk] is like expecting to have local and fresh pineapple grown in Riverhead—it’s just not a reality,” Mr. Barrett said.

That is why, unlike other companies that attempt to meet the demands of restaurants and other customers, Dock to Dish’s chefs and clients must agree to accept whatever happens to be landed on any given day by local fishermen. “They cannot say, ‘We want swordfish,’ or ‘We want tuna,’” said Mr. Barrett, who says he has several hundred potential clients on his waiting list. “They agree to accept whatever is coming from our fishermen. Our model is totally different.”

It is also one of the reasons why he and other industry experts weren’t surprised when a recent Associated Press investigative report revealed that Sea to Table, a New York-based national distributor of purportedly locally caught seafood, had apparently strayed from its core mission.

According to the article, preliminary DNA testing suggested that some of the yellowfin tuna had been imported, while other high-demand species were actually caught in different states, their origins mislabeled on shipping containers before being trucked to different restaurants and consumers.

Sea to Table Founder Sean Dimin has challenged some aspects of the Associated Press article, saying in an extensive statement posted on his company’s website that the AP story contained “numerous misstatements and false allegations.” In the same statement, Mr. Dimin notes that “building a scalable supply chain for a highly migratory species is really challenging,” while also taking responsibility for an “error” that led to North Carolina-sourced tuna being described on invoices as being caught in Montauk in the winter months.

But the apology rings false to Mr. Barrett, who said that the investigative article shed the spotlight on a company that was loose with its internal regulatory controls and was simply expanding at too rapid a pace. It also highlights the troubling issues of the international fishing industry, one that continues to thrive in the shadows of a sea of fleeting regulation.

“It wasn’t a surprise to us at all,” Mr. Barrett said, adding that Sea to Table had invested a lot of time in building “a very sophisticated illusion that had duped a lot of reputable” organizations and individuals with crafty marketing. “If you worked inside the industry, you realized what was going on with Sea to Table.”

Referencing a confidential investor report obtained by its reporters, the Associated Press story states that Sea to Table works with more than 60 partners and that it expects its overall sales to climb from $13 million in 2017 to more than $70 million by 2020. That staggering figure caught Mr. Barrett’s attention, because based on his personal experience, the line between breaking even and making a profit is razor-thin in the heavily regulated and closely monitored U.S. fishing industry.

“This is a labor of love—this is not a lucrative business to get into,” said Mr. Barrett, who splits his time between his apartment in Manhattan and his home in Hampton Bays. “We’re trying to sell what is ‘wild and local’—and it’s a hard sale.”

Other questionable practices—such as the sale of seafood at significantly lower rates than competitors—also suggest companies turning lucrative profits are getting the bulk of their fish from importers who don’t have to play by the same rules as their American counterparts. Industry experts, like Long Island Commercial Fishing Association Executive Director Bonnie Brady, estimates that more than 90 percent of all fish consumed in the Unites States is now imported. In 1996, she put that figure at closer to 55 percent—mostly due to a growing demand for specific fish and cheaper prices.

“People kept eating fish, they just stopped eating certain domestic fish,” said Ms. Brady, whose husband, Captain Dave Aripotch, has sold scup to Mr. Barrett a time or two in the past. “Why? In restaurants, it’s all about price points.”

That explains tilapia’s popularity—it has grown from a $55 million industry in 1996 to a $1.2 billion or $1.3 billion industry as of 2016, according to Ms. Brady. She has an unfavorable opinion about the species—“That’s a science project, that’s not a fish”—noting that most if not all tilapia is raised in farms, resulting in a cheap fish that restaurant owners can easily turn into profits.

Captain Peter Haskell, owner of Haskell’s Bait and Tackle in East Quogue, which also has a smaller outpost in Westhampton Beach, recently launched a seafood preparation side business, Haskell’s Seafood. His new business plan has many similarities to Dock to Dish, in that he only uses locally caught fish to make his meals, which include stuffed flounder and clams, for example, and are prepared at kitchen facilities in Calverton and, more recently, Quogue.

Noting that he was only 14 when he secured his first commercial fishing license while living in East Moriches, Mr. Haskell runs a 21-foot charter boat out of Shinnecock Bay when he’s not tending to his tackle and food businesses. As with Mr. Barrett’s business model, Mr. Haskell says he lets the season—and the type of fish available—dictate his offerings.

“When we process, let’s say, flounder, we have a window when flounder is locally available,” Mr. Haskell said. “If we should run out of that product, we can change the fish.”

He explained that his prepared seafood meals can also be flash frozen and shipped around the country, noting that he has some clients in Florida.

Regarding the recent story focusing on Sea to Table, Mr. Haskell said he hopes it can serve as a warning to those who enjoy seafood but have been lax in caring about who is catching it and where it is coming from: “I hope that it is really a call to action for consumers to be that much more interested in the backstory [of the fish they’re eating].”

Another part of Dock to Dish’s master plan is to steer diners away from farm-raised and imported fish, the latter of which is almost never inspected after entering the country, according to industry officials. Citing studies, Mr. Barrett said that approximately 2 percent of all the fish entering the country is inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and, of that amount, roughly 60 percent gets rejected, usually due to either improper handling and unsanitary conditions.

In contrast, local commercial fishermen—in addition to adhering to strict quotas and regulations—also have their catches closely monitored by either the State Department of Environmental Conservation or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Licensed commercial fishermen must follow specific guidelines so state and federal agencies know what’s been landed, when and where it was caught, and how much was taken aboard. Most of that information is included in a vessel trip report that, in turn, is entered into a company database so the details can then be shared with customers.

Mr. Barrett said his company’s biggest responsibility begins once harvested fish enter the supply chain on land. Thanks to new technology, Dock to Dish’s customers can track the progress of their orders on the company’s website. “It’s about a five-second delay, so you cannot technically say it is ‘real time,’” Mr. Barrett added.

That technology was blended with a sophisticated Fish Trax program that allows for the close monitoring of fish on land. “Basically, the ancient art of commercial fishing is finally being married, or blended into the digital age,” Mr. Barrett said of his business. “We’re reconnecting our community with the commercial fisherman.”

And that comes back to the primary mission of Dock to Dish, which is to encourage and increase transparency by encouraging consumers to know their local fisherman. On a greater level, it is calling upon the same people, whether they are dining at a favorite restaurant or picking up fillets at the local seafood market, to ask where the fish they are buying originated.

“Twenty years from now, people are going to say: If you cannot track it, don’t buy it,” Mr. Barrett said.

Mr. Haskell agreed: “If enough people ask their local fish monger where their fish was caught, the fish monger would have to change their policy.”

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