FIVE GUYS AND A WHARF
words by louisa kasdon • photographs by adam detour
We’re hoping to get to the Fish Auction before it’s over. Speeding along the coast at dawn to Gloucester feels early to us, but it is late for the fish. Overnight and throughout the day, the day boat and trip boat fishermen who set out from Gloucester Harbor each day arrive at Fisherman’s Wharf. Forty plus boats—with names like Terminator, Padre Pio, Cat Eyes and Special K— deposit their catch at Fishermen’s Wharf.
With a roaring burst of bow thrusters, the boats pull up to the dock with their catch of scallops, haddock, cod, pollock, hake, monkfish, gray sole, yellow tail and sand dabs. But no matter when a Gloucester fisherman pulls up to the dock, 3am in the morning or 4pm in the afternoon, one of the four burly Giacalone brothers, Christopher (age 28), Vito (age 27), Nick (age 22), and Mark (age 19), is on hand to greet the crew. Ready with the ice, ready to haul the fresh catch straight from the boat and into the warehouse to make sure that each fish is in the best possible condition for the morning display auction.
The auction isn’t what we thought. It isn’t a group of fish buyers, calling out prices, haggling in real time, wrapping up one monster fish after another. Nope. It’s virtual, and operates collaboratively with New Bedford Display Fish Auction and the Boston auction. In fact, the auction space may be one of the quietest places on earth. A huge, refrigerated window-less hangar with four thousand pounds of fish, neatly stacked and arrayed gill to tail, resting on thrones of shaved ice, each deep bin sporting a small white tag that identifies the species, where the fish was caught, the name of the boat and the weight of the catch. The only sound is the far-off buzz of an ice machine.
The “fish graders” arrive at 4am to inspect the daily catch and decide which lots they want to buy for their wholesale clients. Starting at 6am, the bids are logged in from desktops, cell phones and laptops, and register in real time on a flat screen in the office. Once bids are accepted, bank accounts are automatically debited and credited. By about 7:30am, almost all the fish is sold. “Only 4,000 pounds today. Not a great catch. Haddock, cod, monkfish, hake, pollock, sea dabs, ” says Vito Giacalone Jr., one of the four Giacalone brothers who launched the Gloucester Fisherman’s Wharf Auction a year ago. “It’s Wednesday and that’s often the smallest catch day for the localGloucesterday boats. On Monday we had 60,000 pounds of fresh fish, 8,000 pounds of scallops alone.” Vito’s cell phone rings. A buyer is disappointed. He was caught napping when one of the lots was sold. “Aw shit,” he says. “Do you want to know who bought it? Here’s his number. You can’t go wrong with Padre Pio,” Vito agrees with the voice on the phone. “He always ices his fish.” He looks at the screen and turns to us, “We got seven bids on this same lot of fish.” Vito has been at the wharf since 3am. He’ll go home at lunchtime and try to take a nap as one of his brothers takes his place.
The brothers are sons and grandsons ofGloucesterfishermen, third generation Sicilian-Americans. The brothers refer themselves as “first generation fish entrepreneurs.” They are an awe-inspiring tribe. Four major appliance-sized young men in their twenties, standing shoulder to shoulder, with their dark black eyes and close-cropped heads; they might be clones instead of brothers. None of the boys planned on becoming commercial fishermen like their dad, Vito Giacalone Sr., captain of the Jenny G. and one of the key advocates for theGloucesterfishing industry. Vito Sr. describes fishing for a living as “playing craps. Some days it’s snake eyes. Other days, you’re rolling sevens. You can be out for hours and get nothing, and then boom, the fish are there. Being successful as a commercial fisherman requires a combination of instinct and work ethic. Only the survivors have both.” Though less uncertain than going out in a boat, the auction business is an exhausting 24/7 business.
The four Giacalone brothers started the Fishermen’s Wharf auction out of a familial sense of civic duty to the local fishing fleet. Growing up in Gloucester, they watched as local day boat and trip boat fishermen like their father, Vito Sr., were whipsawed by the competing constraints of regulation and market competition from abroad. Gloucesterfishermen operate in one of the most tightly regulated sectors in the world. Each year, there are tighter catch limits but soaring market demand for local fish. The marketplace gives lip service to sustaining the catch of local fishermen but in the end they still buy fish from far away. It’s been hard on the local fishing fleet. Over one-third of the productive fishing grounds have been closed permanently to protect spawning fish. Every year, the number of Gloucester-based commercial fishermen shrinks as more local boats make the calculation that they might earn more by renting out their fishing permits than going out to sea themselves. “The situation was grim. Guys like my dad who know the sea by instinct were getting forced about of this business. And for the fish that they did catch, they weren’t getting the best possible price. We felt we had to do something,” says Vito Giacalone Jr. His three brothers, gathered around the table in the fillet room, nod in violent agreement.
The standard way of doing business in Gloucester was for day boat fishermen to make one-on-one deals with large-scale fish buyers, with no real knowledge over what the fair market price might be on any given day. “That’s the idea of a real market,” says Christopher Giacalone. “Buyers and sellers each get a fair price. With the auction in place, the fishermen are assured that whatever the best price is that day for scallops or haddock or monkfish tails, they get it.
Prices for fish can vary wildly. The auction price for Atlantic Bank Haddock, for example, bounced from $4.01 to $7.99 a pound just in the course of a single summer week. The Giacalone brothers charge a nominal flat fee based on the weight of each boat’s daily catch. “We wanted our fee for the unloading, for the ice, for the computer system and software, for everything—to be based on weight not price. That way, everything is transparent,” explains Vito Giacalone Jr.
When the old wooden Fisherman’s Wharf building burned down, Vito Giacalone Sr., decided to buy the real estate with a partner. A passionate and powerful advocate of the local fishing industry, Giacalone pledged to “do something with the ocean-frontage that was fishing-mission related. I wasn’t sure what we’d do, but whatever we did it had to support our community. Most of us are old school Italians, Sicilians mostly. Fishing is what we do, what defines us as a community.”
Running the auction wasn’t the father’s vision of his sons’ future. Each one of the Giacalone brothers had been to college. Dad, a lifelong fisherman, dreamed of his boys going off to work in shirts and ties. Definitively not in the fish business. But the sons saw a market void and were passionate about the opportunity. As a foursome they came to their father with a business proposal: they’d put education on hold, and invest their combined energies into building the infrastructure for a local wholesale auction. The father “wasn’t thrilled at first. But my four boys wanted to take it on. We were a blue-collar working fishing family, without any real means. So we all went to the bank together to convince the bank that a local fish auction could be a successful business.”
The Giacalone family’s gamble seems to be paying off. Gloucester Fisherman’s Wharf now represents a large majority of the local day boats, and the boys are busier than ever. Last year they handled just under 2 two million pounds of local fish. When Whole Foods Market announced a policy change last April reducing their purchase of local fish, moreGloucesterboats decided to sign on with the fish auction. “We do the direct connect between Gloucester fishermen and the fish on your plate,” exhales brother Nick with pride. The family is planning on expanding their services in the fish business, and contemplating a CSF (Community Supported Fishery), which may launch in early fall 2012. They are near completion of a HACCP-compliant “filleting” room at the wharf so that they will be able to prepare consumer-ready fresh fish on premise. The Giacalone brothers will purchase whole fish at their own auction, assuring their fishermen partners the highest and fairest price, and then process the purchased fish on-site. Their plan is to direct-deliver freshly filleted fish to chefs and retail consumers to customers via a system like FedEx or UPS. “We went into this business to support the guys we grew up with. We’re totally committed to making sure that the fishermen who are part of our auction always get the highest and best price and share in whatever success we create,” says Vito Jr. “If we can educate the consumer to care about fresh fish fromGloucester, we all win.”
It’s an intense and focused family. The rowing machine in the office is in constant use, especially in the months leading up to July’s Saint Peter’s Festa. Following the Sicilian tradition, the brothers and several cousins competed in the annual seine boat race, a six-oared boat coached and captained by their father, Vito Sr. “It was pretty amazing to see seven Giacalones all rowing in one direction,” Vito Jr. chortles. “Ten minutes of total torture.” Not surprisingly, the Giacalone’s boat won the mid-day heats on Wednesday and Friday and qualified for the final race on Sunday, competing against the boat that won the championship the year before. The Giacalones lost. But only by a hair. I think they’d be a safe bet for next year.
Louisa Kasdon is the author of more than 500 published articles about food, restaurants, health and business and the winner of the M.F.K. Fisher award for Excellence in Culinary Writing. She is the food editor for the Boston Phoenix/Stuff Magazine and a regular contributor to ZesterDaily.com. Kasdon is the founder and CEO of Let’s Talk About Food, www.letstalkaboutfood.com, an events-based organization that bring community and the public together around issues in our food system. She can be reached at Louisa@letstalkaboutfood.com.