Fishing for a Solution

When February’s midwinter storm blew through Boston, the strong winds generated waves rough enough to throw thousands of fish and lobsters onto the shores of Massachusetts’ Nantasket Beach. The mess of twitching crustaceans and limp ectotherms was a sight to see against a two-foot deep blanket of white powder. It gave the impression that New England is still a site of storied fishing culture,  its bays  still teeming with fish that fill stomachs from this coast to the next. While many still romanticize New England this way, the image of plentiful oceans is slowly ebbing away.

For years, researchers have lamented extreme cuts in fish stock and have urged reform in the fishing industry. These researchers estimate that Massachusetts cod has declined by 96 percent over the past 150 years and the legendary blue fin tuna is dangerously endangered. While stricter guidelines (particularly the use of wide-mesh nets) have renewed entire stocks of haddock and redfish in years past, the resurgence of other populations is a long way away. Fishery regulators have responded with tighter restrictions and lowered quotas, but not without a fair bit of criticism.

In early February, the New England Fisheries Management Council voted to cut the quotas of two kinds of cod by 61 and 77 percent each. The backlash from fishermen along the Atlantic coast reflected a years-long conflict between the scientific and fishing community. While scientists insist on the necessity of reform to save the already endangered stocks, fishermen are losing their livelihoods in an industry they feel they’ve worked to protect for centuries. Given the current climate, who would enter the local seafood industry as it stands? The answer lies in Boston’s seaport district on the fishing pier just south of the Seaport World Trade Center.

Every morning before sunrise, seafood wholesalers lift the garage doors of their separate warehouses to receive the catch of the day. They cut and package fish and other seafood for  buyers as close as across the street and as far away as Japan. On the east side of the pier, a young company works just as hard as its more weathered counterparts. Red’s Best is a seafood wholesaler founded five years ago by Jared Auerbach, a young upstart from Needham with no former ties to the industry. Since 2008, Red’s Best has attempted to streamline the centuries-old process of catching and selling fish with new technology.

“The software we built can run on any wireless tablet, anywhere,” Auerbach explains. “You unload the boat, run the proprietary software on that tablet and you now have this digital information. Our software allows us to unload a lot of little boats and our transactional costs are minimal because of the backend efficiencies of our software. Not only do we have the best fish, the most environmentally friendly fish, we’re supporting the communities, we’re supporting the economies.”

While seafood was once primarily sold at auctions, many new wholesalers like Red’s Best are trying to minimize the number of hands seafood touches to get to the dinner plate.  Red’s Best’s delivery system is enhanced by their QR code tracking system, which provides consumers with as much information about their food as is available. For every package of seafood that gets shipped out of Red’s Best, the company provides a unique QR code that traces its contents to the location it was caught, the fisherman who reeled it in, and the gear that was used. Last month, the Washington Post published information from a study revealing that 33 percent of seafood sold in restaurants and grocery stores was mislabeled. In Boston, the estimate was 18 percent. Red’s Best’s idea follows the new trend of knowing where one’s  food comes from, and provides a simple solution to a nationwide problem.

“There’s value in the story of the fish,” Auerbach said. “To us, we’re capturing that story anyway and now that it’s in a digital form, we can package that digital information for the consumer to add value.”

Auerbach’s initiatives appear to make the most out of a difficult situation but not every customer is biting. Carl Deal, the owner of the New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge, sees both advantages and disadvantages to advertising the story of the seafood he sells.

“It’s a plus because there’s a heightened sensitivity about that,” Deal said. “What concerns me, though, is that if we don’t have that information, people assume the fish was caught unsustainably. That needs to be put to rest. There’s a lot of information out there. Some of it’s the truth, some of it isn’t, and it’s very difficult to navigate through all of it.”

To eat in the information age is to question what you put in your mouth prior to consumption. But for Deal, whose family has owned the New Deal Fish Market for 85 years, the questions he hears are more about how to prepare the seafood he sells, not how it gets to him in the first place.  This isn’t to say that Deal ignores the concerns of the seafood industry. According to Deal, he doesn’t stock species he believes are overfished, even if it’s not under regulation. He stopped carrying the Chilean sea bass, for example, after he received a letter from a special interest group asking him not to carry the species that was being poached from Patagonia during 2002.

Deal’s efforts are a reflection of the ‘I’m doing my share to help’ attitude many individuals in the seafood industry carry. While certainly not the only viewpoint, this attitude is at the crux of the conflict between seafood industry insiders (fishermen, wholesalers) and outsiders (regulators, scientists).

Laddie Dexter, a lobsterman based out of Marshfield, has been taking his boat ‘Happy Days’ out for over 50 years. To him, fish and lobstermen know their field and understand the nature of the job better than most. When regulators hand down shrunken quotas with little concern for how it will affect other species, Dexter doesn’t hide his irritation.

“You’re not gonna get the regulators to agree with everything I think or do,” he said. “I think people spend too much time on computers on their so-called modules to figure out what’s going on.”

Because of their experience, Dexter believes fishermen are the ones best equipped to judge seafood stock and his actions reflect this belief. In 1994 Dexter was awarded the industry’s Ambassador Award for his commitment to reform in the lobster fishery. 40 years ago, Dexter switched to lobster traps with escape doors that allowed undersized lobsters to escape. He adopted this new trap as part of a season-long study, but kept using the traps when he realized he was not only hauling in more lobsters, but the lobsters he was catching were bigger. These days, he uses traps with two escape doors. It’s these details that Dexter feels regulators ignore.

Despite individuals like Dexter, who have adjusted their techniques to shifting standards, the New England Fisheries Management Council’s recent actions suggest that these isolated efforts might not be enough to stabilize New England’s expended fisheries. For regulators behind the ‘modules,’ reviving the region’s storied fishing culture will require more than a disjointed collaboration between industry insiders and outsiders.

The Red’s Best model acknowledges the need for more comprehensive solutions and their marriage of technology and business puts stake in the future of the industry. For now, it seems to be working. They opened another warehouse in Chatham just last week.

“There’s no textbook to running a seafood company,” Auerbach said. “If there was, we probably wouldn’t follow it because our whole thing is about doing it differently.”

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