We are, as any mariner would describe it, in uncharted territory.
Now that we have entered “Phase One,” and understand (in theory anyway) how we might begin to tack back to the place called “the new normal,” there are some things we can say about the months we have just navigated through.
None of us have ever experienced anything like this, and on the surface it looked like the doldrums, but actually there was a lot of movement close to the waterline, a lot of effort and coping, a lot of creativity and new tactics.
From the fishing perspective, maybe the most interesting development has been the push toward direct sales, straight off the deck and dock into the hands of a customer. This works especially well with scallops, which are shucked on the steam home and ready to go when the boat arrives, and it works well with lobsters too, which of course show up alive and snapping.
Fish like haddock, cod, sea bass or monkfish can be sold gutted and whole but not filleted, as most of us are used to buying in a market, because of longstanding public health regulations that are not likely to change. So direct sales there mean the customer has to handle whole fish, sharpen a knife and learn how to cut.
We’ve heard a lot about how gratifying it is to move fish this way, that the sense of personal connection and direct support to independent small-boat fishermen is a heartening way to combat the isolation and disconnect that this pandemic can create. And who knows, many the social and psychological parts of it make the world’s freshest, best fish taste even better.
What also strikes us is how a creative response like this actually is a reincarnation of status quo from long ago. Since the first fishermen went at it, people have been heading down to the shore to get something to eat.
Perhaps they bartered, fish for bread. Perhaps they offered coins. Of course they didn’t check Facebook, or text for time of arrival, but surely some of them ordered in advance and became steady customers. We are in a way there again, a virus forcing us to return to a simpler, more direct transaction.
Direct sales will never take the place of the retailers and wholesalers who bring fish to our communities and the world. Display cases will still offer beautiful options. Auction houses will still move thousands of pounds at a time, processors will still cut and prepare, truckers will still move fish in bulk, cases of fillets will still land in markets all over the world. Our fishermen will still rely on more volume than can move one baggy and a couple of pounds at a time, no matter how gratifying that might be.
But this creative response is worth celebrating, and once again reveals how resilient and resourceful the fleet can be. That too harkens all the way back. Independent fishermen have always had to roll not just with the waves but the punches, responding to conditions on land as well as water. Survival means making good, often quick decisions both at sea and in the marketplace. We’re seeing that again.
One longer term hope is that the flexibility and support offered to fishermen wanting to engage in new ways of selling locally will continue, even expand. The state Division of Marine Fisheries has been great about helping fishermen get the licenses and permits required to move product on the dock, while also trying to clear the way to get into farmer’s markets and other more impromptu, direct sites.
Town officials who know their own harbors best can take this on as a priority, work out logistics, be sure that what we’re trying to get to is “yes.” Health and safety always come first, but maybe there are creative ways to expand opportunities for the benefit not just of fishermen, but all of us.
That would be a great part of “Phase Two.”
John Pappalardo is CEO of the Cape Cod Fishermen’s Alliance.