November 16, 2007
Following Fish, From Sea to Dinner Table
By VERENA DOBNIK
POINT LOOKOUT, N.Y. - The journey starts at the dock here, on Long Island, about an hour's drive east of Manhattan. And it all comes back to Point Lookout, too.The worn wooden dock is home to a fleet of three commercial trawlers, plus dozens of scallop and hook-and-line boats that go out into the cold Atlantic Ocean and return with the fruits of the wild, salty waters. The catch goes to seafood dealers near and far - or, delicately garnished, to the tables of swank New York restaurants.
For Mike Mihale, co-owner of the dock, it means more. He has been fishing here since he could walk, carrying on a tradition going back to his Greek grandfather and going forward to his three young daughters, to whom he's passing on his passion.
Fish or die could be the motto of those, like Mihale, who accept the challenges of weather, danger and what they see as over-regulation, to keep the tradition going.
"I'm doing what I was born to do," the 40-year-old Mihale says. "If you told me I couldn't fish, I'd jump off that dock!"
To glimpse the world he inhabits, one corner of the $1 billion a year commercial fishing industry in New York - and to see how fish goes from sea to table - an Associated Press reporter and photographer spent time in the Atlantic on a Point Lookout trawler, then followed the catch from the ocean to Mihale's dock, where it was loaded onto trucks headed for restaurants and markets. They also met with vendors at the nation's biggest seafood market, in the South Bronx. And in Manhattan, they visited with a chef at a high-end restaurant.
Come aboard, then, and follow the fish.
Capt. Anthony Joseph's rusty steel trawler, the Stirs One, pulls away from Mihale's dock at 10:30 p.m., its smokestack spewing steam as it cuts through the dark waters. The 119-ton Stirs One is headed about 100 miles out into the open ocean for a fishing trip expected to last three days, aiming to return with a catch of 30,000 pounds or more.
As one of Mihale's main suppliers, Joseph, with a crew of up to four deckhands, prowls these waters year round, in rain and shine, brutal winds and cold.
It's not always a bonanza: Sometimes Joseph catches too little even to cover his costs - about $4,000 each time he goes out, including 25 gallons of diesel fuel per hour, food for the crew, and 10 tons of ice. Fuel costs have risen sharply in recent years, as has the price of a commercial license.
"It's a struggle to make a living, and I have four daughters," says the 43-year-old captain, who's been in commercial fishing for 17 years. "But I love it."
As the mammoth green net dragging off the back of the boat rises from the depths of the sea, he pulls on his rubber boots, lights a cigarette and strides across the slippery deck - ready for the catch.
And here it is: a torrent of wriggling sea life spills from the bulging net into a container on the deck.
Hands go to work, pitching back overboard thousands of pounds of seafood - from sand sharks, for which there's little demand, to fish not allowed to be caught by regulations. Seagulls cry with delight, nosediving for effortless meals.
A mound of ocean treasure remains, including monkfish and squid that will end up on Manhattan restaurant plates.
Joseph's 28-year-old trawler has a touch of home: a doorbell he'd bought for his house in Levittown, N.Y. His wife didn't care for the loud, eight-tone ring, so the captain attached the push button to the ceiling of his boat's helm and put the bell below deck in the crew's cabin - to ring them awake when it's time to pull up the next net, then sort the catch for the conveyor belt and pack it under ice in wax-coated cartons.
There's no such thing as a good night's sleep on an Atlantic fishing boat.
That's made clear the second night out on this trip.
Around midnight, loudspeakers on deck carry Billy Joel's unmistakable voice over the damp, salty air - "In the middle of the night... We all end in the ocean..." - but nobody's listening. There's trouble out in the choppy waters: Another trawler has broken down, 10 miles away.
Joseph doesn't hesitate. Under a full moon, he steers the Stirs One toward it.
When the dark hulk, the Sea Rambler, finally appears on the water, Joseph and his crew improvise rigging to tow it. Pulling iron cables across the deck in a noisy jangle, they use a blowtorch to create hooks to grasp and hold the inert vessel.
"Got it?" Joseph yells out to Juri Jeganov, a sailor from Estonia with a craggy, sea-worn face as they wrestle the chains into place.
A cool breeze sweeps in as Stirs One gets under way, a savior to its fellow trawler at a loss of a whole day's catch. This is the ethos of fishermen on high seas: Next time, the favor would be returned, if Stirs One were in trouble.
"This is the last frontier. We're the cowboys at sea," says Keith Stock, a 28-year-old deckhand. He cranks up the rock 'n' roll on the XM satellite radio as the engine revs up, powering the trawler toward Point Lookout.
Joseph is grateful the waters aren't stormy. In his pilot house, one of the DVDs on a shelf is "The Perfect Storm," about a 1991 gale during which six crew members of a fishing boat were lost in the Atlantic off Massachusetts. That same night off New York, Joseph fought 25-foot waves, barely making it back safely.
Commercial fishing is the deadliest job in America, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 140 fishermen die for every 100,000 working.
They hit fast-rising storms that can't be outrun or rogue waves that wash men overboard. On board, fishermen work with power winches and hoists that can catch a limb and drag a man into the ocean, or heavy nets and cages that turn lethal on a slippery deck.
The average pay for taking on such risks is about $40,000 a year for a deckhand, and close to $100,000 for a captain like Joseph.
Joseph is at the helm when Stirs One, with the broken-down Sea Rambler in tow, finally reaches the Point Lookout dock. A lone gull settles on the mast of Stirs One, giving a plaintive cry as the ropes are secured.
The catch stored in the trawler's belly isn't as big as expected, but it's still plentiful and varied: more than 10,000 pounds of fish, plus bushels of porgies and sundry other delicacies like Dungeness crab and lobsters. The monkfish, along with mackerel, fluke and squid, will go straight to a Manhattan restaurant.
A lineup of trucks drives away the catch - but only after Mihale takes what's needed for the business he owns with two brothers, Bruce and Rolf Larson: the retail fish market and clam bar by the dock, plus the adjacent Fisherman's Catch restaurant.
The walls of Fisherman's Catch are lined with black-and-white photos of men who have worked at the dock since the 1930s.
In one old image, Mike Mihale's late grandfather, George, stands proudly, a snow-white Greek cap gleaming on his head. As a young man, he sailed the Mediterranean "with just a compass, the wind, the sun and the stars," says his son John, Mike's father - who at 65 still brings fish to the dock, but with a global positioning system guiding his boat.
The bulk of the Point Lookout catch goes to the New Fulton Fish Market in the South Bronx, America's largest seafood market. As long as two football fields, it moved from the old, outdoor Fulton market about two years ago.
At 3 a.m. on a typical day, Roberto Nunez is wide awake. A regular buyer for top-of-the-line New York restaurants who purchases up to $15,000 worth of wholesale fish per night, he has a hawk's eye for assessing freshness.
"For that, there's nothing like touching a fish," he says.
When stopping to check out some scallops, his hands go to work, feeling the texture - which should be smooth and firm, "like a baby's bottom" - then he wrinkles his nose. He moves on to a batch that looks translucent and feels firm, biting into a raw one and smiling. Fresh.
Nunez picks out razor clams and looks for monkfish liver for specialties made by a Manhattan restaurant called Esca.
After a chat with Patty Duke, a vendor who buys regularly from Joseph, Nunez is walking out of the market to his truck, filled with seafood. It's sunrise, and he's ready to drive into the city.
Commercial fishing and related businesses like this employ more than 20,000 people on Long Island alone.
Mike Mihale remembers when the industry operated on a smaller scale. He'd go out in a boat with his father, pull up 100 pounds of fish with hook and line, "and I'd put it on my little red wagon, walk 10 blocks and sell my catch to Artie." That's Arthur Hoerning, who fled his job as a Wall Street trader to run a seafood market.
As the industry has evolved, regulation has become more complex, a subject that prompts grousing along the docks. Whatever the quotas are, most commercial fishermen say they obey - and yet they seethe at the notion that decisions about their livelihood may be made without good information.
"They just keep taking more and more away from us," Mihale complains.
For those who keep fishing in spite of the setbacks, it's a passion - even if it's just a day trip in Jones Inlet off Point Lookout.
One frigid day, with a stiff wind rattling his 28-foot fiberglass boat, the Icebreaker, Mihale's father, John, and his fishing partner, Brian Caravana, were the only ones out in the gray waters except for a Coast Guard vessel.
Mihale worked with his bare hands, one finger bound with tape covering a cut he got pushing a coded tag into a striped bass. Each fisherman gets a limited number of bass tags - 221 for John Mihale this season.
The silvery striper was almost extinct by the early 1980s. In 1986, the striped bass fishery was closed for four years, reopening in 1990 with severe restrictions. Its populations are now back to historic highs, a success for regulation. Dozens of police officers are deployed on Long Island by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which enforces federal quotas.
In Mike Mihale's office, where windows look down on the dock, the phone rings. It's his father, calling to say he's coming in with a batch of bass.
The son immediately follows up with another call:
"Davey, I've got somethin' good for you!"
On the line is David Pasternack, one of America's top seafood chefs - but also a fisherman who often joins his friend Mihale on the water.
Pasternack presides over the stoves of Esca, meaning "bait" in Italian. The draw is "crudo" - a kind of Italian sushi made from raw ("crudo") seafood, livened up with simple ingredients like lemon, olive oil, pepper and salt.
The key, he says, is freshness - nothing more than a day out of the ocean.
The bass, $3.50 a pound wholesale, ended up as a $27 Esca entree, "Roasted local wild striped bass with hubbard squash, caramelized apple and wild mushrooms."
The monkfish the Stirs One caught 50 miles out in the Atlantic, and sold wholesale for $3 a pound, became a $32 Esca entree with roasted beets, fiddlehead ferns and sorrel mushrooms.
As for mackerel, the cheapest of seafood, Pasternack has been known to serve it raw, slicing it very thin and pouring hot oil and fresh ginger on it. And that's the art of a master chef, turning into a meal what comes from the ocean that very morning.
"It's a passion: It's knowing when something needs a little something," the chef says.
The indispensible "something" starts along the docks, with the fishermen.
Billy Joel, himself a Long Islander who says he chucked clams as a kid and once was arrested during a protest over fishing limits, reflects in his song "Downeaster Alexa" on the fiercely independent breed who "go where the ocean is deep. ...
"They say these waters aren't what they used to be,
"But I've got people back on land who count on me."