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Fishermen's business remains in the doldrums even as restaurants reopen

Kenny Jayne, captain of the fishing trawler Lady

Kenny Jayne, captain of the fishing trawler Lady J, at the Shinnecock commercial dock in Hampton Bays last week. Credit: Mark Harrington

The reopening of Long Island restaurants for outdoor dining hasn’t translated into banner days for the region’s commercial fishermen and fish dealers, who say demand for wholesale fish, clams and oysters is inching up but nowhere near past levels. 

While many local fishermen sell to local retailers, a steady local business even through the pandemic, the lion’s share of local fish go to companies that distribute to restaurants throughout the region and across the country. Three months of lockdowns over the coronavirus has backed up the market for the products, leaving warehouses for local frozen fish such as squid fully stocked, while drastically reducing demand for local clams and oysters. Market prices for most have fallen, though some, like fluke, are on the rebound.

Local fishermen have been catching and selling fluke, but with the New York quota at 100 pounds a day, the market isn’t lucrative. The market for porgies, also known as scup, has picked up as the plentiful fish come into season and more consumers learn to appreciate its value (and cook it whole).

Bill Zeller, owner of Captree Clam in West Babylon, said his business is down by around two-thirds from where it was a year ago, nearly all of  the drop tied to restaurant closures. He delivers to distributors across the nation — Florida, Boston, the West Coast, where protests in recent weeks also led to some order cancellations just as some states were reopening.

“When this [COVID-19] first happened my sales went to near zero,” he said. “There’s been a gradual incline, with some consumption shifting to retail, but it has not made up what my company [normally] does in its entirety.”

Zeller said it’s still “too early to tell” how the opening of outdoor dining at restaurants will fare for the shellfish market on Long Island, which picks up in summer, but the New York City market remains relatively “shut tight.”

Many of the people who would normally be dining in Manhattan are “our here” sheltering or summering on Long Island, he said. Broadway remains closed. The retail market for clams is picking up at Captree Clams' small retail shop connected to its warehouse, but oyster growers continue to struggle. One  reason, he said, is that most customers don’t know how to open them. Oyster farmers are “really hurting,” Zeller said. Still, he said, he hopes to get his business back up to 70% of normal by July 4, with an expansion of restaurant dining.

The summer  is normally a prime time for fishing trawlers that harvest squid, said Greenport commercial fisherman Mark Phillips, but the market has been backed up by months of shutdowns and a closure of some export markets, including to China. Phillips said he was hopeful the start of restaurant reopening increases demand for squid, his primary fishery right now.

“It’s tough,” he said. “The processors have a lot of inventory.” Wholesale prices that usually range from $1.25 to $2.25 per squid depending on size is now 90 cents to $1. He’s managed to sell to one of the three or four big squid processors that is still buying, he said, adding restaurant business will determine how fishermen fare this summer. “I didn’t realize how dependent we were on the restaurants,” he said.

Phillips' boat was tied up at the dock for nearly two months during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York, a big blow to his annual revenue, and some big boats like his remain off the water, he said, waiting for markets to pick up. His crew members went on unemployment. The only bright note is that fuel prices went down.

His family operates Alice’s Fish Market in Greenport, which has been seeing an increase in walk-in business for whole fish. Porgies are plentiful and the market is steady, he said.

Riverhead fisherman Phil Karlin, who operates a commercial trawler out of Mattituck, said he’s kept a steady business selling in a Manhattan outdoor green market and at a small fish shop near his Riverhead home. Right now the daily trip limit for porgies is 900 pounds, and he’s been catching and selling them steadily, he said. He’s also catching his daily limit of fluke, at 100 pounds a day, and black sea bass at 50 pounds, he said. The striped bass commercial season is open, but the wholesale price is around half its normal price — $2.50 a pound compared with a normal $4.50 to $5 a pound, he said.

“It’s tough going with those prices,” he said. “The market is down on a lot of stuff. Fluke is holding up, but striped bass is real cheap. That’s a restaurant item. …As long as these restaurants are closed it hurts the industry.”

Kenny Jayne, who operates the Lady J trawler from the Shinnecock Commercial Dock in Hampton Bays, said while he’s remained on the water, fishing, it’s been far from lucrative. His and his wife operate Lady J Seafood, which makes local deliveries from Hampton Bays, and he sells to some local markets like Mastic Seafood, which have kept a steady stream of customers through the pandemic.

Still, he said, “We are in survival mode.” New York’s 100-pound limit for fluke makes the trip to sea barely worth the fuel and ice costs, a particular frustration given that North Carolina boats that fish nearby can take 1,000 pounds of fluke three times a week, under the arcane federal rules. The fish must be landed back in North Carolina.

“They’re all working right here,” he said of out-of-state boats. Under federal rules, North Carolina gets more than 20% of the federal coastal quota for fluke, while New York fishermen get just 7.6%.

Overall, Jayne said, the damage from the pandemic “is done, and it will take a long time for things to turn around.”

One fishermen at the Shinnecock dock this week saw the writing on the wall and got out. Brian Trujillo, 81, of Hampton Bays, was completing some last-minute repairs on his longtime trawler, the Patriot, before selling to a fisherman in Montauk.

It wasn’t just the difficulty making a living with quotas and expenses, he said. His stepson, Scott Brzesinski, who ran the boat, died last year, and with it, he said, the end a line of Patriot boats at Shinnecock. “It’s too expensive to operate here,” he said.

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