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Local chefs try to support North Carolina fishermen

Blue Ocean Market provides seasonal seafood, including fish like pink and vermillion red snapper (above), to restaurants and consumers near its location in Morehead City and to the Triangle area.

Blue Ocean Market provides seasonal seafood, including fish like pink and vermillion red snapper (above), to restaurants and consumers near its location in Morehead City and to the Triangle area.

CLARIFICATION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story did not clarify Anna Child's statement about the percentage of seafood imported to the United States. About 90 percent of seafood in the U.S. is imported from places that include Honduras and Ecuador. The story has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.

Yet many Chapel Hill restaurants claim to serve fresh, local seafood — shellfish, shrimp and even mahi mahi.

Squid’s Restaurant and and Oyster Bar’s executive chef Andy Wilson, whose restaurant doesn’t promise that its seafood is local, said it is difficult to only serve seafood from North Carolina.

“We have things like snow crab and calamari and lobsters (and) oysters — a lot of things on the menu that we can’t get locally,” Wilson said. “We have a pretty big menu here at Squid’s. It’s a bigger restaurant and all of the things that are local that we can get aren’t available year round.”

Wilson said he uses local shrimp when he can, but since it’s not available year- round, he sometimes uses “Latin farm-raised shrimp.”

“We try to offer a little bit of everything, so if this was a small restaurant that just specialized in local seafood, we would do that. But some of our stuff does come from other parts of the world,” Wilson said. “We try to keep everything domestic.”

Barry Nash, seafood technology and marketing specialist for Sea Grant North Carolina, a collaborative program among UNC system schools headed by North Carolina State, said the demand for local seafood has grown in the state throughout the past two decades.

“Over the last 15 to 18 years, there have been some well-publicized food scares involving seafood and other products from overseas that have gotten people looking more at where their food is coming from,” Nash said.

Eric Forsberg is chef and manager of the Morehead City-based Blue Ocean Market, which sources its seafood from local fisherman in Carteret County, NC. He saidsays his company supplies seafood to restaurants in the Triangle, including locations such as Tom Robinson’s Seafood Market in Carrboro.

“If you want to know that what you’re eating is fresh and is good, it’s important to know where it comes from,” Forsberg said.

Working with local fisherman allows Forsberg to know exactly who is handling the fish and the practices they are using when they store and transport the fish.

Nash said that Sea Grant helps fishermen in Carteret County get certified in these safe handling practices.

Leaving the industry behind

“Many fishermen in North Carolina, and Carteret County specifically, are leaving the industry because they can’t compete with large, industrial suppliers,” said Anna Child, cofounder of Core Sound Seafood.

Providing fresh seafood means quality taste for the consumer, and Child said the commitment to freshness helps fishermen, too.

Child said about 90 percent of seafood in the United States is imported from places including Honduras and Ecuador. The number of hands that seafood passes through in the industry has driven down prices for the fishermen.

Core Sound, which supplies seafood to Acme Food & Beverage Co.Rrestaurant in Carrboro and delivers to all Weaver Street Markets locations, increases the amount of money from each catch fishermen receive.

“Our fishermen get an added value of 30 to 50 percent more per catch,” Child said.

Core Sound allows consumers to buy a stake in the catch of two, 10-week seasons in the spring and fall. The fish is then delivered once per week to pick up points in five North Carolina towns, including Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

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Child said all of the fishermen still have to sell to wholesale fish houses. Demand in the Core Sound model is not enough to sustain them year-round.

Maintaining the catch

Once fishermen have the fish on board, maintaining the freshness of the seafood is a tricky and laborious process, which starts with how fisherman treat the fish when they hit the deck.

“We don’t allow our fishermen to leave the catch sitting on the deck, warming up and sitting in the sun,” Forsberg said. “The fish are immediately put in a cooler which maintains the internal temperature between 35 and 37 degrees, which makes sure there is no spoiling happening.”

The market’s seafood is kept around those temperatures for transport back to the market where they are either cleaned and prepared for restaurant consumption in the side room of the market or left whole and displayed for sale.

Blue Ocean supplies many of the restaurants in its immediate area with its own trucks. When it wanted to expand its market, it required more resources than it had.

“We deliver to places that are at most 45 minutes away — maybe an hour in traffic,” said Forsberg.. We didn’t have the ability or staff to sell the seafood beyond this local, saturated market.”,” said Forsberg.

Forsberg’s market then found Sea to Table, a service that connects restaurants with fishermean to deliver fresh seafood.

“They make sure that we find places for our seafood. Instead of selling wholesale to markets up to the North, we can sell to in-state markets at prices that are closer to retail,” Forsberg said.

For Blue Ocean, Sea to Table sales make up 25 percent of its business.

Sean Dimin, one of the founders of Sea to Table, said the group makes sure restaurants know who is catching their fish and maintainss the highest quality in its deliveries.

“We want there to be a face and a level of accountability for each piece of seafood that a buyer receives,” Dimin said.

For the suppliers, it makes life easier. Orders come in the morning. Blue Ocean prepares the fish for delivery and places them in boxes that are picked up in the afternoon.

In order to maintain the freshness over the delivery, Forsberg said they sometimes have to vacuum seal the fish, which can carry some dangers of introducing foodborne pathogens, but they do it in a much different way than large food suppliers.

“While it’s not ideal, we do have to do it occasionally to pack the fish for transport,” Forsberg said. “The major difference is that the large food suppliers, like Sysco and US Foods, will pump their stuff with chemicals and gases like carbon dioxide in order to keep it from spoiling for long trips.”

Nash said vacuum sealing can actually be advantageous in maintaing the freshness of fish. He said it keeps out microorganisms that need oxygen to survive. And , and while there are dangers from those that can thrive without oxygen, the danger only comes if the seafood is not kept cold.

“If the temperature of the fish reaches 38 degrees or higher, it can cause some of those microbes to develop in the fish, which can make it possibly dangerous to consume.”

Putting it on the Plate

To Teddy Diggs, executive chef of IIil Palio, the thought of serving customers seafood that was once frozen is appalling. Diggs said there is a noticeable quality difference between fresh and frozen seafood.

“There is 100 percent of a quality difference,” he said. “When you freeze protein, it breaks down the fibers in the protein so it becomes soft really easy. It also retains moisture so the ice crystals develop. They not only rip the protein to make it a soft texture, but it also absorbs moisture through the thawing process so what you get is more of a mushy wet fish.”

Diggs used to work in Martha’s Vineyard, a popular summer vacation destination frequented by celebrities and politicians. He said he handled seafood there that was so fresh, the gills were still moving.

“The sea scallops, if they weren’t fresh, you wouldn’t get nice whole pieces of sea scallop,” Diggs said. “It just looks milky white and clean, that’s a super fresh scallop. If it were frozen, it might have a little freezer burn; it wouldn’t be all one color. It might have (a) lighter exterior and a darker center because it gets a little burnt from the ice.”

The price difference for purchasing fresh seafood instead of frozen seafood is significantly higher, he said.

“Four to five dollars per pound difference for fresh versus frozen,” Diggs said.

When buying local seafood, Diggs said it doesn’t necessarily mean looking at proximity, but instead looking at the fishermen themselves.

“Where is (the fish)it coming from? W, what permits do (the fishermen)they have?, Wwho’s owning these permits? ... , is it one of the 70 to 80 percent fishing done by three different people? That’s huge.”

Instead of buying from major seafood conglomerates, Diggs said he turns to family fishermen because they use practices that protect the environment.

Rachel Atkinson is the tTreasurer and sSenior aAdviseor of FLO (Fair Local Organic) Food, a student group at UNC dedicated to addressing food issues and working with Carolina Dining Services the dining hall to serve sustainable food. She said the term “local” is hard to define.

“So there are tons of different definitions of local,” Atkinson said. “One major definition is within the state. For the standards that FLO uses when looking at what (CDS)the dining hall is purchasing, we’re going based off standards enforced by Real Food Challenge, which is a national organization. And they count local as within 250 miles with higher priority for local food that is within 150 miles.”

Specific to seafood restaurants, Atkinson said it is difficult to get “local” fish since fish are not always in season and are always on the move.