When it comes to seafood, “local” means New England
A committed localvore living in Vermont will find no shortage of lovingly grown produce and humanely raised meat, as a trip to any farmers market demonstrates. There are delicate fingerling potatoes, juicy heirloom tomatoes, dozens of cheeses, and pasture-raised pork and chicken, among many other local offerings.
But one thing you won’t find at any Vermont farmers market is seafood. The reason is obvious. While we’re not exactly a landlocked state, thanks to the far-reaching Lake Champlain, Vermonters are still a couple of hundred miles, at least, from the closest seashore. So, what’s a fish-loving localvore to do?
You can turn to freshwater fish such as perch, trout and crappie, which are plentiful in Vermont’s rivers and lakes but uncommon in grocery-store coolers or on restaurant menus. Or you can broaden your definition of “local.” Where seafood is concerned, New England is as local as it gets.
Talk about seafood with any restaurateur, chef or fish buyer, and you’ll get a host of opinions on the subject. That’s because the seafood industry, especially in New England, is freighted with baggage from years of corporate overfishing and mismanagement. By the early 1980s, commercial fishing had become so unsustainable in New England that most of the groundfish population for which the region was known — fish that feed close to the ocean floor, such as sole, flounder, haddock, cod, halibut, pollock and hake — collapsed.
In the years since, the industry has weathered much debate on its future. Today, some see farmed product as the best alternative to resource-intensive fishing; others see a sustainable wild-caught industry as the way to repair ocean fisheries. Still others believe it’s possible to source both wild and farm-raised fish responsibly.
But there’s one thing everyone interviewed for this article agrees on: There are great fish coming from the Atlantic waters off the shores of New England. And, increasingly, consumers want to know about them.
Fishmonger Ethan Wood of Wood Mountain Fish has been involved in the seafood industry for as long as he can remember. Having grown up in Boston, Wood, 31, was exposed early to the bounty swimming just offshore. He developed a taste for local razor clams, Taylor Bay scallops and Wellfleet oysters, and later went to work for Legal Sea Foods.
About six years ago, Wood struck out on his own and quickly developed a reputation for procuring some of the best fish that New England fishermen had to offer. Today, he provides seafood for many restaurants in Vermont, including the Farmhouse Tap & Grill, L’Amante and Bluebird Tavern in Burlington, and the Kitchen Table Bistro in Richmond.
But Wood doesn’t just sell fish; he sells the whole story of the New England fisheries’ rebirth and the small-scale fishermen responsible for it.
For the past decade, consumers have heard that groundfish such as cod are so overharvested it’s irresponsible to eat them. This notion has been bolstered by well-meaning sustainable-seafood guides, like the Seafood Watch produced by Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, which tend to portray the fishing industry with broad strokes. Until recently, Seafood Watch maintained that all Atlantic cod should be avoided, regardless of catch method. Now it uses a more specific index. Atlantic cod caught in the Gulf of Maine by hook-and-line is OK; the same fish caught by a trawl line in the Canadian Atlantic is not.
Wood doesn’t believe that all cod fishing is unsustainable, pointing to the example of line-caught cod harvested in state waters. But, because dragger-boat fishing with trawl nets still occurs, Wood and his customers want to know how their fish got from ocean to plate.
“When it comes to local, those are the elements we try to promote — where the fish came from and who the fisherman was,” Wood says. “We try to provide as much information as possible.”
The education aspect was apparent when Wood was honored at a recent dinner at the Farmhouse. Chef Phillip Clayton prepared Maine lobster salad, razor-clam gratin and New England day-boat-cod cakes, among other regional seafood dishes. The menu highlighted that nearly all the seafood specials came from New England waters, in keeping with the restaurant’s decidedly local bent. (All area producers are celebrated on the menu.)
“People want to know where their food comes from,” and that includes seafood, says Clayton.
Farmhouse co-owner Jed Davis thinks the new menu trend of specifying seafood’s provenance comes in part from oysters. Bivalve names have always reflected where they originated, and those names have some cachet — Thatch Island, Ninigret Cup, Pemaquid, to name a few. As the “buy local” trend helps sell more produce, meat and value-added food products, it makes sense for restaurants and markets to extend their source labeling to seafood.
At Healthy Living Natural Foods Market in South Burlington, provenance is on display in the fish case. There’s haddock and day-boat cod that came from Point Judith, R.I., according to the label on the package, as well as shrimp from Maine. The New England seafood season is just getting going, and soon the whole case will be filled with regionally and sustainably caught mackerel, swordfish, flounder and lobster, says meat and seafood manager Frank Pace.
“Region is very important. That’s the whole way food is going,” Pace explains. “People want it as close as possible.”
But many consumers don’t know New England fish is a safe and responsible choice. The Northeast needs to do a better job of marketing its own seafood regionally, says Clem Nilan, general manager of City Market/Onion River Co-op in Burlington. Roughly 80 percent of seafood caught in New England leaves the area, which in turn ends up importing a large amount of seafood from elsewhere. Nilan believes that if consumers were reassured their choices were sustainable, and if New England fish were marketed as local produce and meat are, more New England fish would stay here. City Market is working toward that goal, he says.
Today, the groundfish sold at City Market comes from small-scale fishing operations that Nilan says make for more personal transactions: He knows the name of the boat that took in the haul, plus the method of catch. Customers still want nonregional fish such as tilapia, yellowfin tuna and sockeye salmon, and City Market carries those varieties. But letting people know there’s a regional, if not local, option goes a long way.
“I think what people want is trust,” Nilan says. “People don’t want anonymity in food anymore. They don’t want an anonymous pantry anymore. They want a name to it.”
At the Kitchen Table Bistro, chef Steve Atkins is trying to get the word out about New England seafood. But, rather than just pushing its safety and sustainability, Atkins is keen to teach diners about the great variety of seafood in the region’s waters. The industry isn’t just cod, mussels and lobster, he says.
Occasionally, Atkins puts lesser-known New England fish such as scup on the menu. Also called porgy, scup is served whole and has been a bit of a tough sell, despite being a “really tasty fish,” the chef says. Some diner education has been necessary, but Atkins believes it’s worth it to promote New England fisheries.
“If we know where it’s from and who we’re getting it from,” he says, “we can have a little more confidence with that.”