Slice into a succulent summer flounder or crack open a lobster claw; seafood-feasting season is upon us. With Rhode Island’s lengthy coastline and excess of thriving marine habitats, we are a seafoodie’s haven. Oysters, clams, bass, flounder, squid... the Ocean State is so lucky to have a plethora of fresh, locally harvested fish and shellfish to choose from. In recent years, demand for expertly caught and cared for “boat-to-plate” fare has only grown. Whether dining out by the shore or frying up fluke in the comfort of your own kitchen, locals and tourists alike now have so many options when it comes to the water-dwelling creatures they put in their gullets. Our suggestion? If you can, choose the ones sourced in Rhode Island, every time.
Straight From the Boat
Commercial fishing in the Ocean State is predictably a major industry. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Point Judith in Narragansett ranked 25th (55 million pounds) in the United States in commercial fish landings and 23rd in revenue from fish ($47 million) in 2013.
Second-generation fisherman Donald Follett grew up amongst the waters he now scours for marketable seafood. “I started fishing with my dad when I was six and I worked on boats before I got out of high school,” he says.
Follett began running his own small vessels at 16 and became captain of his first trawler at 22. He’s fished all over the East Coast, down to the Gulf of Mexico and spent 12 years on the West Coast fishing for King Crab and Cod. “It was Deadliest Catch kind of conditions,” explains Follett. In 2001, he returned to Rhode Island and now works off of Point Judith, where he harvests mass amounts of squid as well as other fishy friends.
“Fishing in RI... there are so many great products that are here, all kinds of fish. We are considered a mixed species area in the business,” says Follett. “Most boats make short trips so the fish are unloaded every two or three days, where other places in the market send out boats for eight to nine day trips, so the fish are on ice for that long. The good local restaurants source from Rhode Island because [the product] is twice as fresh, and they want to have the best.”
Ocean to Market to Fork
“Farm to table” dining is undeniably a responsible and conscientious way of purchasing and consuming food. Unfortunately, the idea has been somewhat bastardized as a fleeting trend, or as a luxury for those living in the upper echelons of society. Luckily over the past decade, many chefs, restaurateurs and fishermen in Rhode Island have been fine tuning different systems that not only directly tap into our state’s abundance of seafood in a way that provides consumers with an “ocean to fork” product, but does so with affordability, access and transparency in mind.
Captain Richard Cook, founder of The Local Catch – a fishing and processing plant based out of Galilee – is at the forefront of this movement. On any given day Cook and his wife Ann can be seen at one of the many farmer’s markets across the state, selling some of the freshest seafood available to the average consumer.
After years as a commercial fisherman, Cook decided to get licensed as a seafood processor and distributor, essentially cutting out the middlemen and the inevitable extra costs that goes along with them. Cook can now catch the fish, process them and get them packaged and ready for market within hours. He can tell you how the product was handled, how it was caught, the time frame of process – everything a consumer might want to know about the fish. Rather than selling to restaurants, The Local Catch focuses on selling straight to those perusing farmer’s market stands for fresh ingredients. The company also offers a Community Supported Fishery (CSF), which acts like a debit system for loyal customers. Buy a half ($144) or full ($288) share and use the credit whenever it is convenient. In South County, find The Local Catch stand at the Coastal Grower’s Market in North Kingstown on Saturdays and at the South County Food Co-op on Fridays.
Brown Family Seafood (BFS) is another pioneer when it comes to bringing fresh, quality fish to the end user. While The Local Catch deals directly with consumers, Brown Family Seafood sells their product to restaurants around the state. “We’re a family company,” explains Sam Brown, son of fisherman and founder Chris Brown. “The seafood industry is more complicated than it should be. We get the fish directly from my dad’s boat to the restaurant. There are no middlemen, and our traceability system verifies everything about our products – even tasting notes.”
Even though BSF sells to businesses, they do also sell at farmer’s markets, and it’s during these distributor-to-consumer conversations where the Browns see a demand for change in the industry. “At the markets, that’s where people are showing a lot more interest in the quality and history of what they’re buying. I now see soccer moms buying Bluefish and other underutilized local species because they know that it’s fresh, they know where it came from, they can even ask about the boat,” he says. “Because we’ve cut out so many steps in the processing, it’s less expensive than the store, especially when buying something like Scup, which is a high quality protein. Tuna isn’t available all year round, and you can’t catch a Salmon in Rhode Island; we are trying to highlight the ones we catch on a daily basis.”
Oysters, a Growing Seafood Industry
It’s the coldest June 1 on record and I’m shivering in my navy blue Hunter boots. But all is well because while the wind whips my face, I hold a sack full of oysters, oysters that I now feel I know intimately after spending an early afternoon at the Walrus and Carpenter Oyster Farm in Charlestown.
Jules Opton-Himmel, founder of the farm, is my tour guide on this gloomy Monday. The farm has grown exponentially over the past years and now covers six acres of Ninigret Pond. “We’ve seen more and more that people in the state want local oysters,” says Opton-Himmel as we glide across mildly choppy waters towards his oyster processing headquarters, A.K.A. a boat currently occupying five men sorting hundreds of bivalves by size. What began as a 60,000 oyster operation has grown to a 2-3 million operation, and the farm provides their product to over 30 restaurants in Rhode Island. In South County alone, W&C oysters can be found at The Rathskeller, Breachway Bar and Grill, TwoTen Oyster Bar & Grill and the Coast Guard House.
Later this summer, Walrus and Carpenter will host their third series of Oyster Farm Dinners where they invite interested parties to tour the farm and sit down for an in-the-water-raw-bar dinner provided by celebrated local chefs committed to sourcing local seafood. For more information or to purchase tickets, head to www.walrusandcarpenteroysters.com.
The Ever-Evolving Industry
Local. Fresh. Quality. Affordability. Transparency. These five words define the future of the seafood industry in Rhode Island, not because of trend or fashion, but because consumers are finally realizing how over processed and unnecessarily complicated the structures are behind their supermarket tuna steaks. People are demanding quality and freshness because they can, and because as Rhode Islanders, we are literally surrounded by an ocean teeming with edible treasures. Affordability comes with simplification – the more convoluted a process, the more steps added, the greater the cost; it’s simple economics. And without this somewhat recent demand for transparency for knowing everything about what one puts into their body, then major fishing companies could continue operating in the same ways they have been for years.
So, the next time you see both Salmon and Scup on the menu, which will you choose?