All about freshness: Local seafood rushed to markets near and far
Stonington — As the crew of the Jenna Lynn II offloaded its catch earlier this month at the Town Dock, Eddie Gambardella watched as six of his employees quickly filled about 30 boxes with ice and 60 pounds each of fluke, scup, ling, sea bass, squid and other species that slid down a sorting table.
The owner of Gambardella Wholesale Fish Dealers already had orders for the catch from his customers, mostly wholesalers in New York City. Now it was a race to get the fish onto a truck and drive it to New York.
"It's all about getting it out as fresh as we can, so we can get the best price for it," Gambardella said.
High prices from his customers are not just good for him, but the fishermen.
Gambardella recorded the amount and type of fish, such as jumbo fluke, on a notepad. Workers used red marker to identify what was inside each box, using abbreviations such as MS for medium scup. They placed the shrink-wrapped boxes on the appropriate pallets, which they loaded onto the waiting truck.
Just 45 minutes after the Jenna Lynn II reached the dock, the fish were on their way to New York City.
Back in his office a few minutes later, Gambardella filled out invoices that he emailed to his customers so they'd know exactly what fish were on the way. Gambardella would find out the next day how much his customers would pay for the fish.
Then he raced off to his East Haven home to catch his son's Little League game.
Gambardella, along with Alene and Ted Whipple of Town Dock-based Sea Well Seafood, are among the region's wholesalers and retailers who sell the catches of local fishermen to customers ranging from local residents and clam shack operators to upscale restaurants and fish markets.
In addition to employing hundreds of local people, these businesses play a crucial role in connecting fishermen with consumers by accessing markets and helping fishermen get the best prices for their catch.
Gambardella: A family business
Married with two children, the 40-year-old Gambardella is the fourth generation to run his family's wholesale seafood business that began in West Haven and expanded to the Town Dock in 1998. He began working in the business at age 10, when he helped wash its fleet of delivery trucks. Later, he drove the trucks as he learned the business from the ground up.
"I fell in love with it," he said. "It's really the only thing I know."
The company trucks the fish it buys from local boats to restaurants and the Fulton Street and Hunts Point markets in New York City as well as to customers in Baltimore and Philadelphia.
The deliveries include fluke, flounder, sea bass, scup, squid and scallops. More than 80% of its goes to his New York City customers.
"We want to get it out as fresh as we can, so we can pay the boats top dollar," he said.
Last summer, with restaurant demand down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gambardella said he could only pay boats 85 cents a pound for fluke compared to the usual $4 to $5. Town Dock captains say Gambardella and Whipple are more than fair in paying them the most for their catch.
While demand has rebounded this year with the lifting of COVID restrictions, Gambardella said the fishing industry is still recovering.
'He showed me everything'
Gambardella said there is a lot he likes about his job.
"I like the unloading, looking at all the different fish. And I love coming in here and figuring out the numbers, " he said, while sitting in his office just a few feet from the bay where his employees sort the fish.
He enjoys calling his customers to tell them what he expects will be coming in on the boats.
"And I just like working with the guys. I played sports all my life and enjoyed being in the locker room. It's kind of like that here with the camaraderie and the teamwork," he said.
He credits his late uncle Mike Gambardella, a fierce supporter of the Town Dock fishing community who died in March 2020, as his inspiration. On an unused desk in the office sits a nameplate that reads "M. Gambardella" and the last large pad the uncle used to scribble down phone numbers and catches. A color photo of him hangs on the wall, along with black-and-white images of Gambardella's grandfather and great-grandfather.
"Everything I learned was through my uncle. He was my teacher. I never went to college. He showed me everything," Gambardella said. "I owe everything I have to him. It sucks that he's not here. I miss him every day."
Like his uncle, he still does some of his record-keeping old school. While information is later entered into a computer program, he still writes out invoices by hand. Stacks of handwritten yellow legal pads, detailing landings of each boat over more than two decades, sit in his desk drawer.
"It's just the way I was taught and what I'm accustomed to," he said.
The pads provide a record of the fleet's landings for government regulators, and Gambardella uses the data to convince those same regulators each year how to distribute fish quotas in order to preserve the resource and ensure fishermen get the best prices they can.
As for the future of the industry, Gambardella said he takes it year by year because of the fluctuating quotas of fish that boats are allowed to land, as well as the future impact of offshore wind farms.
"I want to stay here another 20 to 30 years, but I don't know," he said. "Another year like last year and I'm not sure we'd last."
It's all about the freshness
While Gambardella buys fish and scallops from the Town Dock boats, Sea Well Seafood buys the catches of the fleet's lobster boats. They also offer a wide variety of fresh seafood in their markets, including popular consumer staples such as salmon and shrimp not caught locally, as well as clams and oyster harvested by local shellfishermen.
Run by Ted Whipple, a local lobsterman, and his wife, Alene, a native of Albany, N.Y., who has a background in restaurants, sales and business management, they initially purchased a fish market in Pawcatuck in 2007 that had one restaurant customer. A year later, they began wholesaling lobsters.
They then leased space at the Town Dock for a lobster pound that they have since expanded, opened a fish market on Mason's Island in Mystic, began running the former Seafood Haven restaurant and fish market in Misquamicut and most recently took over a small self-serve market at the Town Dock that had been run for years by the Bomster family. They sell lobsters to 200 area restaurants and markets and employ up to 70 people, depending on the season.
"We want to buy as much fish locally as we can and sell it locally. We want to serve the freshest product and support local fishermen by paying them more," Alene Whipple said. "It's the right thing to do. We didn't go into this business to be millionaires. It's about contributing to the community."
She said Sea Well strives to be an "old-school market" that puts customer service first. For example, she keeps a book of what individual customers like to buy and calls them when their favorite seafood is coming in. In addition to lobsters, Sea Well buys fresh seafood from boats in New London, Point Judith, R.I., New Bedford, Mass., and Boston for its markets.
"If I can buy something off a boat that's fresh, I'll go get it," she said while sitting in her office in the former Bomster building.
She said she also enjoys marketing "bycatch," the less popular fish species that boats catch while targeting other species, to innovative chefs at restaurants such as the Oyster Club and the Shipwright's Daughter in Mystic. She said this spices up menus with new offerings, such as sea robin, and helps develop new markets for fishermen.
Alene Whipple said the demand for seafood this year is insane but the supply chain is still impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This ranges from processed seafood, such as clam strips, to the bottles used for cocktail sauce.
Despite the uncertainties of the industry, she and her husband are committed to "rolling with the punches."
"I don't think commercial fishing will disappear," she said.
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