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Rocked by coronavirus, LI fish markets are bouncing back

Commercial fisherman Chuck Morici on his trawler in

Commercial fisherman Chuck Morici on his trawler in Montauk on April 1. "People are eating fish ... The market is there . . . , " Morici said. Credit: Newsday / Mark Harrington

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Long Island seafood markets, rocked by the coronavirus pandemic, are slowly bouncing back from sharp drop-offs in restaurant orders and other broadsides, some by branching out. 

The state’s order to pause nonessential businesses until April 29 had a quick and sharp impact on most fish dealers, who buy from local fishermen, importers and big fish markets such as the New Fulton Fish Market Coop at Hunts Point. It has backed up the supply chain, sent prices plummeting and idled some fishing boats. Local dealers and retailers have taken on new models to adapt.

At Gra Bar Fish in Copiague, the wholesale-centered operation was forced to cut its staff from 30 people to 16, but has found a new sales outlet that is helping to keep revenue coming in: home delivery.

“We go all over the Island,” said co-owner Bart Molin, a former chef who has also begun selling prepared food from the facility. Orders come over the phone with a $50 minimum, but even that’s occasionally overlooked for seniors who are advised to stay in to avoid virus exposure.

“I appreciate these [new customers], we’re getting great feedback and I want to stick with it,” he said. “We’re having fun, people are sending me photos of their meals. They’re getting cooking lessons. It’s nice.”

The warehouse is stocked, but the former ease of buying fish has become something of a challenge.

“We’re trying to get handfuls of anything we can,” Molin said.

At the other end of Long Island, Southold Fish Market in Southold is officially back open after several workers tested positive for COVID-19 and one was hospitalized. That worker is recovering out of the hospital, and business is slowly returning to normal.

“I’m happy to be back,” said Charlie Manwaring, the owner, who tested positive but had no symptoms. His prepared-food takeout business is scheduled to restart today. Patrons inside are limited to four at a time, and the store has been deeply sanitized.

“You have no idea how much we scrubbed and bleached and cleaned this place,” said Manwaring, who lost an uncle and a neighbor to COVID-19. “I wash my hands 200 times a day to begin with.”

He said the improving weather has brought a wave of customers, but it’s not what it was pre-pandemic.

“It’s a struggle, but I think everything’s starting to turn around,” he said. “Prices are starting to turn around … We just all have to deal with it.” 

Mastic Seafood in Mastic had planned to start deliveries to customers to make up for a sharp drop in its wholesale business, but retail has been brisk from the store and deliveries remain wholesale only, a manager said Tuesday. With four customers allowed in at a time, there’s a line out the door, he said. “Retail is doing pretty good.”

Big boat owners who supply much of the porgies, squid, fluke and sea bass for the region say they are still seeing an impact. “The market is going day by day,” said Dave Aripotch, a trawler captain from Montauk. With restaurants largely out of the picture, whole fish like porgies have come into higher demand, but prices have fallen. “If something has to be filleted, there’s not a lot of people to fillet it,” he said. He’s still fishing his fluke quota, but prices are lower than he’s ever seen them.

“It’s definitely not sustainable,” he said, with fluke as low as 50 cents a pound in recent weeks. “You build finances on fish being a certain price. There’s sort of a baseline.”

Chuck Morici, another Montauk trawler captain, said he’s finding local markets for his fish. “Now that there’s no imports, the supermarkets and seafood shops are looking for more local fish,” he said, noting porgies, whiting and fluke continue to sell. “People are eating fish … The market is there, but anything that needs to be processed is not in high demand.”

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