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.
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.
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.
"Florida and Hawaii have similar fish," says Max, who prefers the sweetness of Pacific wahoo over local fish. The other difference: Even with shipping, it's cheaper. Why? Florida law requires all restaurants to purchase fish through vendors unless a restaurant is adjacent to a marina.
"I can call up my guys in Hawaii while they're on a boat," says Max. "And they're sending me photos on their iPhone of fish they've just caught." Max says he gets photos at work and can earmark a whole fish that ends up in the kitchen the next day, thanks to FedEx.
Few people would rather pay the money for locally caught fish, and that's a shame. I realize I'm in the minority thinking that I'd rather eat fish less often but pay more for local than to buy cheaper fish from around the world. I imagine a server telling my table about a beautiful plate of wahoo, a prized local fish. When was it caught? I'd ask. Yesterday, in Hawaii, he'd reply. The fact that a fish so prevalent in Florida waters had been flown in from afar would drain my enthusiasm for ordering the dish.
Max isn't alone in culling relationships with fishermen and skipping the vendor. In New York and elsewhere, dozens of chefs have embraced the practice. Red Hook Lobster Pound in Brooklyn has built a business around the practice, having hired a crew of Maine lobstermen, employing off-duty firefighters to drive to Maine to pick up the haul twice a week.
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Barton Seaver, National Geographic fellow and author of For Cod and Country, wrote a cookbook based on sustainable fishing. Seaver sold fish that was line-caught by fishermen he had hired. "The catch is more broad and diverse when I employ fishermen instead of going through a vendor," he said. "The diversity of fish keeps chefs engaged and interested. And the stories of unusual fish and the fishermen cull loyalty with guests. Ultimately, sustainable fish becomes a more valuable product."
On the boat with Rodriguez, the fisherman handles snapper and tilefish caught that morning. Tilefish is among his favorite for its texture and buttery flavor.
Rodriguez remains hopeful about the season. "Things are just warming up," he says.
The catch barely pays for the trip. But Rodriguez is good-natured about it. I ask what's next. He says he's going to call the fish vendor he works with. "He's gonna love today's catch. I'd love to be the one who's eating this tomorrow."