Here's Why Florida Seafood Restaurants Fill Menus With Foreign Fish

An early-morning breeze rustles palm fronds like paper sheets at Harbour Towne Marina in Dania Beach. Fishing boats in slips lumber in a wake, antennas bobbing in unison. Boats knock the pilings.

I've risen this early to meet fisherman Al Rodriguez at his boat, the Sea Owl. "Don't be late," he implored the night before. His burly stature contrasts with his grandfatherly voice.

The winds had been gusty for all of January, hazardous conditions for a day boater like Rodriguez. He was antsy to get on the water.

Al Rodriguez remains hopeful about the season.
Al Rodriguez remains hopeful about the season.

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The Truth Behind Florida Seafood

This is the first of two parts on the dwindling stock of local fish in South Florida restaurants. Next week: Why Florida law makes it tough for local restaurants to serve local fish.

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His excitement reminded me of going fishing with my father. My dad was raised on sportfishing, which has become his passion. I recall many trips as a kid at the Jersey shore, joining my dad for early-morning excursions, when he would make me hold a fish from the gills until I squealed. I remember his coming back from long trips, seasickness hitting him once he was back on land. Though I didn't inherit his zeal for the sport, I respect it.

Dressed in a buttoned-down shirt, bib overalls, and a weathered baseball cap, Rodriguez stood in the boat, arm outstretched to grab my hand as I hopped onto the gunwale. "If we're doing well, we're staying out through the streak," he said. "That OK with you?"

Despite that fishing as a profession is on the wane, Rodriguez, who just broached retirement age, moved from Long Island to South Florida in 1994 to fish full-time. "I can't take the cold weather the same," he said. "I'm not getting any younger." Florida's waters are home to shallow-water fish such as black and red groupers, yellowtail snapper, dolphin, and wahoo. There are also deep-water migratory fish like ahi and bigeye tuna. Still, fishing doesn't seem to be as good as it was even just a few years ago, says Rodriguez, who says he's not catching as many big fish anymore.

Rodriguez's observation highlights a parallel. South Florida restaurants are serving less Florida fish. Most likely, the fillet you've been served came from some foreign port, flew to New York in a frozen crate, and landed here maybe days later. It's a puzzling fact in the fish trade: A seafood capital like Florida has somehow developed a system in which local seafood is a rarity.

Nestled among houses and neighborhood convenience stores, Riverside Market restaurant is manned by Julian Siegel, who moved from Coney Island to Fort Lauderdale as a kid and has been fishing ever since. "It's less expensive for me to take my fishing buddies to a four-star hotel in Costa Rica than it is to go fishing for a weekend 50 miles away to Bahia Mar" in the Bahamas, said Siegel. The price of filling up his boat's tank — at $4.50 to $5.15 a gallon — is expensive even for Siegel, who can afford it. And the cost of fueling up in the Bahamas for a return trip is double the cost it is in Florida.

Siegel sells some of his bounty at the restaurant as smoked fish dip. Smoked behind the restaurant for 12 hours, big chunks of kingfish are dressed with homemade mayo, celery, capers, and seasonings and served with pickled pepperoncini peppers. Because of the freshness, the seasoning, and the texture — big chunks of kingfish as opposed to picked-over pieces — Riverside Market's fish dip is among the best I've had in Florida.

Siegel's market is wallpapered with black-and-white photos of old fishermen beaming as they hold their bounty. Minus strip malls and cement landscapes, a panorama near the kitchen depicts the sleepy town of Fort Lauderdale in the 1950s.

Things have changed for those hoping to emulate the fishermen in the photo. The rising cost of gas taxes everyone from Siegel to a day boater like Rodriguez. Depleting fish populations prompt government to ban fishing at certain times of the year. Restaurants in New York, Philly, and other major cities help inflate the price of fish.

At 3030 Ocean in Fort Lauderdale, the restaurant's raw bar showcases lobsters from Maine and Kusshi oysters from the waters off Vancouver. It's these selections that sell better than Florida-harvested stone crabs, says 3030 Ocean's chef, Dean James Max. In a restaurant that sells 60 percent seafood, little of it is from South Florida. Local dolphin moves because it's often the least expensive fish on the menu. "Mahi used to be $6 a pound, wholesale," says Max. "Now it's $11."

Local grouper is his bestseller, yet inflating prices are making it a delicacy. Black grouper, in particular, sells out because of its buttery texture. "The days of the $8 grouper sandwich are done," says Max, who says the average price for all types of grouper averages $16 a pound wholesale. "If you're getting it cheaper, it's something else masquerading as grouper."

Behind swinging doors in the dining room, 3030 Ocean displays a spacious kitchen any chef would covet, with plenty of elbow room in eight stations for line cooks, three walk-ins, and a fish file with several drawers that's so tall it dwarfs me.

"This is 48 hours old," he says of firm, pink fish cut in identical rounds. On a Friday-night service, he expects to sell 20 fillets for $34 each — a high price, except when he breaks it down to cost. "It's $16 to $18 a pound. The garnish is a buck. The sauce is $1.50, which brings it to $13 cost." Seafood has spiked to steak-house pricing. On this night, the wahoo isn't even local. When the price "gets crazy" — the result of depleted stock and middleman pricing — Max says he turns to Hawaii.

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14 comments
ted anthony inserra
ted anthony inserra

when i was working at the olg R.J.'S LANDING, near the hall of fame pool, local fisherman would pull up, and the Chef would go onto the boats and pick out the fish he wanted to buy, then we would carry them across the deck, full of people, into the kitchen to cut, it was a great scene, customers would say--I'LL HAVE WHAT HE IS CARRYING--it was technically illegal, but this is south florida and we have the greatest resourse in cooking ===THE OCEAN, i support all local fisherman, we need to do what we can to help them make a living!!

floridagadfly
floridagadfly

If "Florida law requires all restaurants to purchase fish through vendors unless a restaurant is adjacent to a marina" how can Max call the fisherman in Hawaii and buy the fish? I don't see a vendor in there between restaurant and fisherman.

Melissamccart
Melissamccart

Florida law requires all restaurants to purchase locally caught fish through vendors. There is nothing prohibiting chefs from buying fish direct from fisherman in other states if the laws in other states allow it.

floridagadfly
floridagadfly

Or, you could argue that the commercial fishing industry here has overfished the area. Put that in your paper.

Joyce Rau
Joyce Rau

This is a very nice human interest story BUT I think you missed the point of your headline.  The true reason there is no local fish in restaurants is because the sports fisherman lobby of Florida have made it impossible for commercial fisherman to exist here.  I know because I have been involved with the commercial fishing industry here in South Florida since 1976.  Put that in your paper.

Vicky
Vicky

Missing the point is pretty normal for her.

Harry
Harry

The first reefs were destroyed by beach restoration and the second and third reefs were polluted by sewage - I used to surf and dive along the coast, esp. Bal Harbor and Haulover years ago. Also commercial mullet netting - commercial fishing - interrupted the food chain in a big way. In the '60's there would be schools of thousands of mullet, then they were gone. I do not think your assertion of blaming the sport fishing industry for lack of fish in local restaurants is accurate.. Also demand long ago outstripped supply.  When I lived in the keys the restaurants were getting much of their fish, at least at certain times of the year, from South America flown into MIA.  I used to get fish cuttings to bait fish traps from a well-known fish house restaurant, and saw this myself. I do not think the author of this article would know these things either, but that remains to be seen.

Melissamccart
Melissamccart

Harry, I wrote that stocks are depleted. Where do I blame sportfishing? "I did not inherit his zeal for the sport, but I certainly respect it." I do not blame sportfishermen for faltering populations.

Joyce Rau
Joyce Rau

Can't wait for part two; I hope your research includea the sports fisherman lobby who had fish traps banned in the eighties.

Harry
Harry

Fish traps were banned for good reason - please tell the whole story. Unless there is wildlife management there will be nothing left, simply put.  I worked on a longliner (swordfish) and saw firsthand how rapidly fish stocks can be depleted. 

Joyce Rau
Joyce Rau

I won't agree with that Harry as there were approx. a total of 11 fish trappers in the state of Florida in the eighties, I doubt they themselves could have made much of a dent in the fish population though as people would have undoubtably joined that band wagon vast over-fishing could have resulted. 

What the Commercial fishermen at that time sought through a class action suit was management of their industry as oppossed to obliteration of.  They too were concerned with overfishing. This they were denied in part due to the Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976 which was created as a management tool to promote conservation and regulate the marine fishing industry.  The implementation of this act created eight regional fishery management councils while calling for the protection of habitat, management of resources to prevent overfishing as well as reducing by-catch.

What we don't see in this act is any management of the destruction of habitat due to population growth.  Our estuaries are disappearing at an alarming rate.  Our mangrove forests have been degraded by pesticide runoff and destroyed in favor of the creation of  more coastal communities. Our tidal creeks have become blankets of algae growth due to nitrate fertilization of urban lawns.  Look at the fish kills each year in Martin County due to run off from "Big Sugar", one of the most powerful lobbys in our state.  All these things need to be addressed at a Political level as well as on a conservation level but until we get our politicians, both state and local off the payroll of large corporations/industries and developers there is little hope.

Longlinergirl
Longlinergirl

As an ex longliner that worked in the Straits, I can attest to that. How can this area be commercially overfished when there are no commercial fishermen left? We got put out of business over 10 years ago...

Melissamccart
Melissamccart

Hi, Joyce. This is a two-part series. Next week addresses some of the why's.

Longlinergirl
Longlinergirl

Florida law isn't the problem...its the Feds that kill us...Florida is easy...a $50 permit here a $50 license there...its getting the Fed permits to fish and working with the Fed regulations and of course the ever present enviroMENTALists...

 
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