Monday, February 1, 2010

Catch Me if You Can

January 31, 2010

FIELD REPORT

By CHRISTINE MUHLKE, New York Times

Grouper has been a fixture of South Carolina eating for what seems like centuries, but right now it’s harder to source than Iranian caviar.

When I had the locally caught grouper at McCrady’s in Charleston in December, I knew that it was relatively rare: much of the “local” fish served in the port city is frozen or trucked in from the Gulf of Mexico, even Mexico. But I didn’t know I’d be eating one of the last groupers to be caught in Southeastern waters for some time.

As of Jan. 1, commercial and recreational fishing for most species of shallow-water grouper, as well as black sea bass, red porgy and red snapper, is closed in North Carolina, South Carolina, eastern Florida and Georgia for four to six months, after which strict catch limits will be imposed. According to the government, these species are in danger of disappearing entirely.

If this means that chefs like Sean Brock at McCrady’s and those at other Charleston restaurants who make a point of serving local seafood have to get even more creative as they steer snapper-loving diners out of their comfort zone, it also means that one of their purveyors, Mark Marhefka of Abundant Seafood, has to get more creative still to keep his small company afloat. As the 30-year veteran of the sea will tell you, he is caught in the perfect storm of nature, business and government.

“This whole next couple years is gonna be weird,” Marhefka said between bites of triggerfish. His dish was notable, and not just because he caught it. Until recently, such “trash fish” wouldn’t be served at fine restaurants. But Marhefka has introduced chefs to more sustainable species.

For now. “If I don’t make Abundant Seafood work, I won’t be able to survive being a commercial fisherman anymore,” Marhefka said.

The second-generation fisherman has toiled in all aspects of the business. For the last two decades, he has also been active in fishery management, working with scientists and leading advisory panels to protect the populations that provide his livelihood. In 2007, Marhefka realized that he and the fish were in the same sinking boat. How do you make more money from fewer fish? Make people value it. Abundant Seafood was born.

“What was missing in Charleston restaurants was in the fish neck of the woods,” said Marhefka, a solid, ruddy man with a D.J.’s baritone. “Everybody else might go and deal with the chicken leg from Keegan-Filion Farm or Caw Caw Creek pork,” he said, mentioning favored local meat purveyors. But ask your waiter if the fish was caught by a Charleston fisherman and “see what kind of deer-in-the-headlights look they get,” Marhefka said. Even if it is caught locally, he added, it’s often trucked to a warehouse across state lines — sometimes as far as New York — before it’s delivered a few miles from where it first docked. The local fisherman unloading the day’s catch is largely a myth. Or it would be if Marhefka hadn’t adapted his ways.

Now Marhefka is his own distributor. The South Carolina Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Initiative connected him with chefs from restaurants like the Boathouse, Carolina’s, Red Drum and Fish, which are sometimes willing to pay 25 to 55 cents more per pound for his pole-caught fish. He gets their orders while still at sea and delivers in his scale-strewn pickup truck as early as the next morning. (He also buys some species from select boats.)

Closing the loop tighter, last month Abundant Seafood started a community-sponsored fishery. Home cooks pay a share to receive 2 to 10 pounds of fish a month, and the company receives full retail price. Marhefka said he would use the direct relationship to teach the 60-plus members about the future of fish and its true value. “It’s their resource, not mine,” he said.

“He’s really been a pioneer among local fishermen in terms of his willingness to embrace sustainability,” says Kevin Mills, the president and chief executive of the South Carolina Aquarium. “He gets it. He knows it’s not only good for the environment, it’s good for business.”

“This isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme,” said Marhefka, who now sends out a junior captain for every other trip so he can work on marketing and sales. “It was a stay-at-home-and-see-the-children scheme,” his wife, Kerry O’Malley Marhefka, quipped. The couple met when she was a fisheries biologist for the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. “It got to the point where it was a sleeping-with-the-enemy kind of thing,” he said with a chuckle. “Eventually it was too much for her to understand everything that’s going on behind the scenes and then come home and see how it tears me apart.”

He has been steadily disheartened by the decisions of fishery management, even though he agrees that the fish need to be saved — and the only way to do that is to stop fishing. “I want this to last just like anybody else does,” he said. “But does it have to be draconian to the point of decimating our industry?” He says that some of the closures are based on poor scientific data. “Even fishery managers will tell you that,” he said.

Reached by phone eight days after the fishery closure, Marhefka was figuring out what to do with 1,200 pounds of vermilion snapper — one of the few permitted fish besides triggerfish, king mackerel and amberjack. Triggerfish is the easiest sell to restaurants, which prefer larger fish that are easier to clean and require less skill to cook.

Educating chefs about the new reality is crucial. “I don’t think anybody has quite understood what the implications of this are going to be like,” he said. “What we do will affect the local community.” Most clients are onboard. “Basically if Mark brings it in the door, we’ll cook it,” Sean Brock said. “It’s the trust thing.”

Although his business could disappear “with the swipe of a pen,” Marhefka is prepared to weather the unpredictable challenges. “I’ve done things in the ocean that people would pay good money to do,” he said. “I feel like I’ve lived my retirement prior to, and now it’s time for me to go to work.”

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