When it comes to seafood, fresh is a term of art. Consumers may be unaware that it’s illegal, in most cases, for restaurants and markets in Florida to buy directly from fishermen. To do so, the fisherman needs a valid Saltwater Products License and may be required to obtain additional permits and endorsements. The result is a scenario where the fisherman sells his catch to a broker, who is often located out of state; the fish is shipped elsewhere, then returned to Florida before being sold to the person who will sell it to you.
Given all that, it’s not unusual for fish to be out of the water for a week or more before you buy and cook it. And the motto of a local supermarket’s seafood department (“Our fin fish is never frozen”) doesn’t sound too reassuring anymore. You’re often better off with frozen fish, which is filleted and frozen on commercial boats within hours of being caught.
An unexpected blessing of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a realignment of the food supply chain to eliminate the middleman. On a local level, more and more consumers are participating in community supported agriculture, buying weekly supplies of produce from organic farms unable to sell to shuttered restaurants. A similar phenomenon is happening nationally with sales of mail-order seafood, which are exploding as small fishermen around the country suddenly have an audience of consumers stuck in their houses by necessity or choice.
Last summer, I subscribed to an Alaska-based community supported fishery called Sitka Salmon Shares (sitkasalmonshares.com). The arrangement is simple: you choose one of three quality levels, your credit card is billed monthly, and a package shows up at your door at a prearranged time each month. You receive roughly 4.5 or 9 pounds of fish (depending on your budget and how many people you need to feed), portioned and wrapped, shipped with dry ice. The species vary with each shipment, but you also get a newsletter with recipes and details about the specific fisherman who caught your catch.
This post isn’t intended to be an advertisement for Sitka Salmon Shares, as there are many other services available that vary in terms of price and selection. I like salmon, and I happened to subscribe at the beginning of the Alaskan salmon season and was treated to a supply of coho, sockeye and king. As the months passed, salmon gave way to albacore tuna, halibut, Pacific and black cod (otherwise known as sablefish), spot prawns and Dungeness crab. The quality of the fish is nothing short of amazing—far better than what you’ll find at your local boutique seafood market, and cheaper as well.
On top of that, there’s a feel-good element that accrues from helping small family fishermen survive. In many cases, these are multi-generational companies that painstakingly built up their restaurant and retail business over the course of decades, only to have the coronavirus erase it overnight. Patronizing a community supported fishery is good for the stomach, good for the oceans and good for the soul. Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.