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Disruption in the seafood supply chain ripples from empty Philly restaurants to idle N.J. docks

“This is hard to say, but I think the entire food chain is vulnerable...”

Tony Fontanez works with a salmon in the cutting room at Samuels and Son Seafood in Philadelphia, PA on March 30, 2020.
Tony Fontanez works with a salmon in the cutting room at Samuels and Son Seafood in Philadelphia, PA on March 30, 2020.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

The Monica should be steaming across the open Atlantic right now, cruising 80 miles southeast off the coast of New Jersey over the deep Hudson Canyon on a 10-day hunt for lucrative golden tilefish.

But the Monica’s owner, Dan Mears, had to call his boat back to the Barnegat Light docks after just two days. The COVID-19 pandemic had shuttered virtually every restaurant dining room in the nation. And by the time Mayor Jim Kenney ordered the closure of nonessential businesses for Philadelphia on March 16, the market value for tilefish had dropped by more than 50% overnight. Ernie Panacek, Mears’ seafood wholesaler at Viking Village, told him his catch wasn’t worth the price of diesel, bait, and tackle.

“Never had to do that in 42 years of fishing,” said Mears, 60, the son of a Barnegat Light fisherman, whose own son, Dan Jr., is now the Monica’s captain. “It’s Lent and people should be eating fish right now — but they aren’t. The (crew’s) food is still on the boat. We’re ready to go. But we just have to wait and wait for the word.”

That word — a return to normalcy of some sort — can’t come soon enough for Rodney Dickson, 55, a fish hauler who normally packs the Monica’s catch on ice but who’s spent his days of unemployment walking up and down Long Beach Island like a zombie: “Yesterday I took 22,945 steps and walked 10.9 miles.”

The word can’t come soon enough for the entire network of independent harvesters, processors, distributors, retailers, and restaurants that comprise the nation’s vast $100 billion seafood industry, one suddenly suffering a 90% decline in sales for consumption outside the home, where two-thirds of Americans eat their seafood, according to the National Fisheries Institute.

And the local impact has been profound, from the idle docks of New Jersey, which employ nearly 40,000 workers and ranks fifth nationally in commercial seafood sales (more than $6 billion), to the usually bustling cutting room of South Philadelphia’s seafood distribution giant, Samuels and Son, to restaurant kitchens like Little Fish BYOB in Bella Vista. Chef-owner Alex Yoon has traded high-end seafood tastings there for $15 takeout bento boxes and an updated version of the fried flounder hoagie (“the floagie!”) his immigrant parents once sold at their North Philadelphia deli: “We’re trying to keep it going as long as we can. A lot of neighbors told me they were tired of cooking at home.”

“We’re all in this together and it’s getting uglier, too, by the day,” said Sam D’Angelo, who founded Samuels and Son in 1989 as a branch of his family’s retail store Ippolito’s and grew it into one of the top five seafood distributors in the country, with over 5,000 restaurant and retail accounts across the nation and 400 employees — until the shutdowns hit hard.

The company has laid off about half its workforce as demand slammed to a halt. The usual flow of pricey sushi-grade 80-pound tunas that typically pass through its grading room has slowed from 100 a day to four. Samuels has pivoted fast to promoting Giuseppe’s, the retail seafood market attached to its South Lawrence Street plant, and has begun using its fleet of trucks for direct delivery to homes and retail partners like Primal Supply Meats.

» READ MORE: Food distributors now sell restaurant quality meat and produce directly to consumers

But for wholesale distributors of all sizes, the implosion of the restaurant market is just “the tip of the spear” with far-reaching ripple effects, says Michael Kenlay, cofounder of Local 130 Seafood, a sustainable fish purveyor based in Asbury Park which delivers to restaurants across New Jersey, and recently added retail online sales.

“When the music stopped, the money owed to us (by restaurants) also became seriously at risk,” he said. “This entire industry is tied together by credit and we’ve got [a lot of money] out there on the street. This is hard to say, but I think the entire food chain is vulnerable, frankly.”

For big players like Samuels, the unpaid bills are rising into “the millions,” says D’Angelo. “Most places are unable to pay us at this point, and our income is down 75% over the past two weeks.” Last week, Samuels was informed they could no longer deliver to New York where it does significant business.

D’Angelo says about 20% of Samuel’s customers are grocers such as Acme, Giant, and Weiss, which, as essential businesses, have remained as vital as ever. But while many aisles of other staples can’t be stocked fast enough, sparse pickings among the fish case — aside from salmon and tilapia — reveal the seafood sector’s vulnerability as a perishable product that many consumers don’t know how to cook at home.

» READ MORE: A Pa. farmer says we’re destroying crops, laying off workers as restaurants, cafeterias shut for coronavirus

“People have to eat, but the American diet has at this point been relegated to chicken and beef,” which have a longer shelf life, says D’Angelo. “A lot of stores we sell to are reluctant to stock seafood because there’s also a shortage of labor now. The markets are so busy, and they can’t keep up with stocking the beef, so they’re redirecting resources.”

Leaders of New Jersey’s rising community of oyster farmers, like Matt Gregg of the Barnegat Oyster Collective, which represents 13 independent growers, are trying to raise public awareness that live oysters can stay fresh for weeks in the fridge with proper storage. They’ve launched Instagram live sessions with tips on shucking and recipes for mignonette, and an online store with free shipping, plus a complimentary paddle ideal for both holding the oysters and crushing ice.

“I see these pathetic pictures online of oysters put on cubed ice,” said Gregg, " and they just don’t sit right."

For those fishermen who depend on the oceans for their catch, however, the stand-down order has been excruciating to watch while the rest of the world seemingly clamors for sources of protein.

“This is crazy,” says Mike Johnson, 53, a lifelong commercial fisherman who captains the Sea Farmer out of Barnegat Light. “[Stores] can’t put food on a shelf fast enough, so why can’t we move these fish? You got a fleet of boats sitting here, and you know, guys can’t move. You have a lot of battles as it is as a fisherman — the weather, not to mention catching the fish, overregulation, and the insurance bills that don’t stop coming. And now you have a potentially three-month interruption of ‘don’t go fishing, period!'?”

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There is a glimmer of movement among New Jersey’s famous fleet of scallopers, whose new season officially launches April 1. Viking Village can still sell its catch at the massive seafood auction in New Bedford, Mass., where scallops can be deep-frozen for longer storage. But that demand is only enough to keep a third of its boats active.

“If this was last year, everyone would be all gangbusters to get their boats done and ready with brand new chain bags to catch the scallops, doing their oil changes and maintenance,” says Pete Dolan, a scallop boat captain of Ms. Manya. “It doesn’t feel like that here now.”

He came to Viking Village this past weekend to visit Panacek to see if he could get Ms. Manya on the “ice board,” where boats scheduled for departures are listed in the order their refrigerated fish holds get filled with 20 tons of ice. He optimistically chalked his boat’s name beneath the C.B. Keane and the Karen L.

“My biggest concern is that when I’m actually going to make my first trip, and when I send the guys food shopping, will they have to go to seven different stores to get enough bread and toilet paper to make the trip?”

» READ MORE: What you need to know about buying food (and booze) during the shutdown

Tile fisherman like Dan Mears of the Monica could only hope for such issues.

“We’re already missing the biggest markets of the year with Easter and Mother’s Day,” he said. “Usually by June and July we’re fishing for tuna and swordfish, and oh, my God, we’re in big trouble if the disruption runs into that season. Three months out? I pray we’re back in action by then.”

And yet, there also remains the looming specter of the disease itself, whose spread appears relentless, also putting the ocean’s workforce at risk. That’s another reason why Viking Village has been cautious in not sending too many boats out at once.

“You wouldn’t want to send seven guys out to sea with one guy sick. They’d all get it in those close quarters,” says Keith Larson, whose family cofounded Viking Village in 1974. “So we’re just going to try to keep sending them out two boats a week right now.”

Most sea captains under normal circumstances will check with their crews three days before a trip to assure that everyone’s healthy. But Dane Knutson, 48, captain of the scallop boat Captain John, took the extra measure of calling a meeting this week to make sure his guys were practicing social distancing at home — which isn’t an option on a boat.

“Our protocol is a little bit of the honor system, because we can’t afford to get sick or bring something home to one of our families,” he said. “If you feel sick, we’ll hold the boat a couple days until you get better or we know what it is. There’s no faster way to make six guys hate you then when you walk on the boat and you start coughing and sneezing — when you leave the inlet.”

» READ MORE: When people defy social distancing directives during pandemic, what are others to do?

For the time being, while the seafood markets freeze, and wholesalers scramble to become online retailers, and what few restaurants remain open struggle to survive, career fishermen like Rodney Dickson ponder possible alternative futures, perhaps in landscaping, as a means to survive.

“It’s only been two weeks and I feel like I’ve been on land forever,” said Dickson, who still comes to the boat early every morning to watch NFL reruns on the Monica’s satellite TV. “People don’t want you around in their face, which is understandable.”

And then?

“I start walking,” he says. “I’m going for a walk.”