By Roz Cummins
It is still dark at 6am on this cold January morning as I drive down Northern Avenue. The first light of day can’t be far off, but the area is so deserted that it feels like it’s the middle of the night. A few cars drive past now and then, but other than that there are no signs of human activity.
After sitting in the parking lot for what seems like a long time, it no longer feels like the middle of the night: It feels like the middle of the night on the surface of the moon. I decide to seek out other members of my species, so I take myself to the local Dunkin’ Donuts. Here it’s warm and bright and there are signs of life: Harried men rush in and out, dressed in heavy jackets and rubber boots. Everyone has somewhere to go, so nobody stops to chat beyond placing an order and thanking the staff for the hot coffee and calorie-packed donuts and breakfast sandwiches that will fuel the morning’s heavy labor.
After fortifying myself with coffee and a muffin, I drive back to Northern Avenue to meet up with Chris Basile, who has kindly offered to let me accompany him as he makes his rounds buying fish and shellfish for his store, The Quarterdeck, in Maynard.
Chris and I have agreed to meet at John Nagle Company, and as I step inside the offices I see a sign hanging above the counter that says “Sarcasm… just one more service we offer here.” Below it is a sign that reads—in bold letters—“Cash Only.” A job description is posted on the glass panel that separates the customers from the sales staff. It’s for a position working in the freezer: The applicant has to be able to lift 50–75 pounds and be able to withstand working in 0–10 degrees. The thick hats and gloves that I see on many of the men here are not to protect them from the cold outside, but from the cold they are exposed to in the many walk-in freezers.
Yellow price lists covered in plastic sleeves are taped to the counter. They list dozens of species from across the globe, available in a myriad of forms: fresh or frozen, gutted or whole, heads on or off. Some species, like squid from Point Judith, Rhode Island, simply aren’t available that day. It’s been stormy of late, and many of the boats haven’t gone out as often as they usually do, reducing the local offerings for the moment. Other species that are sometimes caught locally are not available because they are not in season.
I see Chris’s truck pull up to the loading dock. He introduces me to the staff at Nagle, and explains to me that Nagle is one of the biggest seafood dealers on the East Coast. He buys his swordfish, tuna and salmon there as well as “odds and ends” and striped bass.
As we run down the list of items Chris needs to pick up, he talks to me about buying seafood wholesale. “There are several auctions: Boston, New York, Gloucester, New Bedford and Portland. The prices are determined by auction, except for the farmed fish,” he explains.
We pop on our hairnets and walk into a space that looks like a large garage, where Chris picks up a swordfish. He explains that swordfish weighing over 100 pounds are called markers and anything under that is a pup. The swordfish have been graded on their fat content and the color of their flesh. I meet Joe who grades the fish. He and Chris remark that prices are historically high. They are seeing fewer fish—expressed here at the market as “less volume”—than ever. They cite a combination of factors ranging from more regulations and higher prices to the weather. The swordfish Chris bought this morning came from South Carolina.
The scene is hectic, but not chaotic. It’s a well-choreographed ritual, with Nagle employees taking orders from buyers and retrieving the fish from coolers and freezers. The buyers bend over the fish and scrutinize them. They decide whether they want to purchase the fish based on their own first-hand inspections. Scooter, who is moving plastic containers of fish across the wet concrete floor with a large iron hook, says that when the public compares the price of fish to that of chicken, it’s hard to compete. “Things will get better in the spring, though,” he remarks in a reassuring tone. As he drags the fish to Chris’s truck he tells me, “The art of buying seafood is getting the right fish at the right time.”
The John Nagle Company is huge: Founded in 1887 and passed down and expanded over four generations, the business is now spread out over 10,000 square feet. There are seven coolers. To maintain the freshness, safety and quality of the seafood sold at John Nagle, public access is limited and products are carefully tracked and rotated.
As Chris settles up in the office he runs into a friend, a fellow retailer there to buy a day’s supply of fish. “What’s going on?” his friend asks him. “Just trying to make a living,” Chris replies. They exchange a look that only lasts a second but which speaks volumes, and Chris smiles and adds, “Silly, huh?”
When we emerge from Nagle, the sky is a pale gray. It’s finally and officially morning. With our first errand accomplished before the new day has even begun, we hop in the truck and Chris drives around the perimeter of the Fish Pier. A lone gull paces slowly up and down the pavement, looking as if he is wondering, as I myself was only a little while earlier, “Where is everybody?” Chris tells me that boats used to dock here two abreast. Today there are only five or six tied up alongside the pier. “There’s not much left of the fleet,” Chris laments, “everybody’s getting out.”
We talk about the reasons why fishing has become harder. There’s the cost of fuel and, rightly or wrongly, the burden of increasing regulation, but most disturbing is the fact that there seem to be fewer fish. I ask him what he attributes this to and he says that he thinks that technology is the biggest factor. His brother had a boat and told him that with the new technology, “You can practically count the eyes on the fish.” He says that he thinks that the fish populations simply couldn’t keep up with the tools now at fishermen’s disposal. As he says this, I am looking out at the water through the window of the truck, thinking about the fact that, in the ocean, there’s really nowhere for the fish to hide.
Circling the lot, we chat about swordfish and we talk about the moon. Chris says that when the moon is approaching fullness, swordfish and tuna start to come to the surface to feed. He tells me that swordfish hunt in packs, encircling schools of fish, driving them to the center of the circle and then to the surface. He thinks that perhaps the light of the moon helps the swordfish to see their prey better. I tell him that I think it’s interesting that there are some Sicilian fishermen who still go after tuna by putting together a mattanza, a traditional cooperative fishing technique that essentially follows the same plan. The fishermen drive tuna into the center of a series of successively smaller nets, ending with the tuna being caught in the final one, the camera della morte—the chamber of death. As we talk about the kind of intelligence, communication capability and societal organization that swordfish must have to pull this off, I reflect on the fact that I’ve yet to meet a fisherman or fishmonger who doesn’t have a deep fascination—and even admiration—for fish. They know better than anyone that they are working with wild creatures, not widgets. That can get lost when speaking of fish as a commodity on an industrial scale. At that level, fish are simply referred to as biomass and calculated in tons.
We pass a building where the Boston fish auction is held, but he comments that the auction is much smaller than it used to be. He shows me where the guys known as “lumpers” used to take fish off of the boats and into the scale house to weigh them.
Next we stop at Boston Sword and Tuna. Men in safety orange waders are working in what looks like a clean but damp garage. Classic rock plays on the radio. We meet with Peter, who Chris explains is one of the major scallop distributors in Boston. “I can’t think of a bigger one,” Peter agrees, nodding, adding that his business is “a fresh house. I don’t sell frozen.” He talks to me about the constant vigilance required to guarantee a great product, noting that, at the same time, the fact that nothing’s ever the same is one of the exciting if exasperating aspects of the business. There are tuna and swordfish laid out in rows on pallets on the floor. The tuna have core samples of their flesh placed on top of them so that buyers can inspect them for color and content. Chris bends down and shows me that the series of little fins that run along the top of the tuna are all able to move independently and that the larger dorsal fin is retractable. Chris looks as impressed by this brilliant little piece of nature’s design as any car aficionados is when they are checking out the latest features on the new models at the car show.
The swordfish at Boston Sword and Tuna today are from Australia. Bending down over the swordfish, I see a few pale brown ovals that look like wounds that have healed over. They look as if they could have been created from the paper used to make brown paper bags. Chris explains that those are scars from lamprey attaching themselves to the swordfish. There is one wound, though, that’s clearly not from a lamprey. It’s a cut made by a sword during some kind of swordfish-on-swordfish act of violence.
I’ve seen tuna at aquariums, but I’ve never seen one this close up, surrounded by air rather than water. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a swordfish at all except in films and photographs and mounted on the walls of seaside restaurants. It’s sobering to see these fish in the flesh and witness the marks left on them by their individual experiences, from blood-sucking lampreys to high-stakes swordfights. I can’t help wondering what the swordfish fight was about. Was it over territory? A mate? Hunting strategy?
We move on to Portside, where a large machine takes up one quarter of the space. A conveyor belt moves fish that are being cleaned and filleted by skillful, lightning-fast workers. Fish heads and skeletons, falling off the end of the conveyor belt into an awaiting bin, are put aside to be used as lobster bait.
Chris picks fish to take back to his store, inspecting each one individually and, if satisfied, adding the fish to a large plastic tub on a scale. When the scale hits 50 pounds, he uses a shovel to add a layer of ice.
As we wait for the paperwork for his purchase to be processed, he tells me that he wishes that people would eat more of the sustainable species, like pollock. I tell him that I really like to use pollock in seafood stews, but he says he enjoys eating it every conceivable way: roasted, broiled, fried and baked.
When I talk to Chris and another retailer who is there shopping about the reasons they continue to sell fish despite all the increasing difficulty, they both talk about how much they enjoy it. Furthermore, they note, after 30 years each in the business, “What else would we do?” Particularly at this moment in our nation’s economic history, that is not an idle question. “Besides,” his friend says, “if you grow up in this business, it’s in your blood.”
As we’re getting back in the truck, Chris walks around to the passenger side and motions for me to roll down the window. “Try this,” he says, as he lifts the lid on a bucket of fresh Nantucket Bay scallops and offers me one. It’s tender and yielding and tastes sort of like sweet cream. Despite not being at all salty or briny, it still clearly carries the message of the sea.
Next, we drop in at Pangea Shellfish. Pangea carries shellfish from all over the world, including over 50 kinds of oysters. I am entranced as I walk into the large cooler and find myself surrounded by bag after bag of oysters, clams and mussels from every shore: I see farm-raised Hollander & DeKoning mussels from Maine; clams from Rhode Island and Cape Cod; oysters and Manila clams from Washington State and British Columbia. East Coast oysters on hand today include Blue Point oysters from Connecticut, oysters from the Acadia region of Maine and Nova Scotia and, closer to home, Duxbury and Cape Cod.
It’s now 9:30 and Chris’s rounds here are done. He heads back to Maynard with the fish his customers will be cooking and enjoying later today, and I am heading home to write up my notes. I’ve seen the Fish Pier in the darkest, coldest part of the year, and I look forward to seeing it in the spring, when the Earth tilts on its axis and everything stirs.
Please note all of these businesses are wholesalers and none of them is open to the public.
Roz Cummins writes about food and sustainability with a particular emphasis on sustainable seafood. She celebrates Meatless Monday by making it Mollusk Monday