THE GULF FISHING INDUSTRY: A PHOTO ESSAY

 

The red snapper fishing industry is a powerful and complex economic engine for the entire Gulf region. For a red snapper to get from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico to your plate, it takes an entire supply chain of fishermen, fish house employees, restaurant suppliers, transportation workers, chefs, food industry professionals and much, much more. See some of their stories as they get fresh and delicious Gulf seafood from the sea to your plate in this photo essay.

Each of these hard working community members has a unique story, like Herbert Hicks pictured above. Hicks has been a snapper fisherman since 2007. He also has 30 dogs! His job as a full-time fisherman provides for himself and his family.

Herbert Hicks and other Gulf fishermen, processors, chefs, and others like him, are the lifeblood of the Gulf fishing community.

The red snapper’s journey to your plate starts in the Gulf of Mexico. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), red snapper are usually found 30 to 620 feet deep in the Gulf and along the eastern coasts of North America, Central America, and northern South America. [1]

In the Gulf, reef fish fishermen travel anywhere between 30-80 miles or more offshore to ensure they are catching the right size and species of fish. Captains generally have their own spots that they frequent, based on years or even decades of experience, in some cases passed on for generations.

Once they get in place, the captain lines up the boat. The caption checks tools like a bottom machine to make sure there are fish around to catch and prepare their gear to fish.

This boat, the Avenger, docked in Galveston, Texas. Although it is not currently in use, the Avenger was captained by Captain Lee Roy Gandy and has employed dozens of fishermen and provided approximately 4 million fish meals since it started with Katie’s Seafood Market in 2005.

 

In this photo, a deckhand is baiting a series of Bandit Gear hooks with squid, a popular bait choice for catching red snapper.

According to Collier Sea Grant, Bandit Gear is fairly selective and has “little to no impact on sensitive bottom habitats”. The gear is constantly tended to, which means there is not a lot of bycatch associated with this type of fishing. [2]

According to NOAA, regulations on red snapper commercial fishing require modified fishing gear to reduce bycatch. Release techniques also improve the chance of survival of unintentionally caught fish.[3]

 

A fisherman pulls in a good catch.

Red snapper spawn between June and October and reach maturity by age 2. However, red snapper adults can live more than 20 years, possibly even up to 60 according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.[4] According to NOAA, red snapper caught in deeper waters can appear redder than those caught in shallower waters closer to shore.[5]

Red snapper are known for their bold nature, which is part of the reason they are so popular to catch. They often can’t resist a baited hook, making them easier to catch than other species of this size.

 

Fishermen Frank Bianchi joins Herbert Hicks tagging fish with tags from the Gulf Wild program. Gulf Wild uses tags to provide traceability, giving customers assurance that their fish is fresh, wild, and caught under sustainable, U.S. management. Each fish is tagged with a unique number or barcode that you can use to look up your fish with an app or on the Gulf Wild website. There you can learn the location the fish was caught, and the captain and vessel that brought it in from the Gulf and more.

Like Hicks, Bianchi also fishes full time. Both have been at their current fish house since the early 2000s. Fishing is the sole source of income for both fishermen. When asked what makes them choose this work as opposed to other jobs both say it’s because they “love being on the water”.

Once the trip is complete, fish are offloaded at processing facilities called fish houses.

In this photo, a deckhand is unloading a basket of freshly caught red snapper into a larger container. Captain Lee Roy Gandy gives the first inspection as they are unloaded for quality. Gandy grew up on the docks of the Gulf of Mexico, and fishing has been a part of his and his family’s whole life.

When asked about why he does this work, and why red snapper is important to him he replied that it is all he knows.

  This Galveston, Texas fish house, is Katie’s Seafood Market, named after Captain Buddy Guindon’s wife. Katie’s provides seafood for dozens of people each year as deckhands, drivers, packers and more in both full time and seasonal capacities. In a typical year, the fish house processes over 1.7 million pounds of fish, and 1 million of this is red snapper. These fish are brought into the fish house from numerous independent vessels and their crews from all over Galveston.

Fresh seafood is packed in ice to keep the products fresh before they reach their final destination at seafood counters and restaurants around the country. Pictured here is Joe Kolk hauling iced fish at Katie’s Seafood Market. Kolk is originally from Minnesota, but has been a part of the Gulf fishing community since he started working at Katie’s almost 20 years ago. Kolk is the head driver for Katie’s seafood distribution.

After the red snapper is packed, it is boxed and put in trucks for transportation and distribution. Kolk does up to 6 trips a week to the Houston area.

Red snapper is a popular seafood dish in restaurants and supermarkets all across the United States. Katie’s shipments reach as far as San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Boston, and more!

Although red snapper is widely distributed across the country, it is also one of the most commonly mislabeled fish in the seafood supply chain. In 2015 the Congressional Research Service found that up to 77% of fish sold as red snapper was not actually red snapper at all. Other, cheaper fish such as Pacific rockfish and tilapia is commonly switched out according to Forbes.[6]

The best way to avoid purchasing a mislabeled red snapper is by purchasing fish from programs like Gulf Wild, which tracks fish from hook to plate and guarantees their authenticity.

Chef Chris Lopez prepares a red snapper at the restaurant BLVD Seafood in Galveston, Texas. Chef Lopez has been working in the food industry since he was a teenager. He went to culinary school in Atlanta and has worked as a chef in Seattle and Portland before returning to the Gulf.

When asked why sustainable seafood is important to him, Chef Lopez replied “For us at BLVD, sustainable, local seafood is all about reputation. You can find plenty of places that get seafood shipped in from overseas by the pallet load and they get cheap prices, but when we opened this restaurant we were thinking farm-to-table concept and what products are available from the Gulf that we can use.”

Elia Angeles is a line cook and the kitchen manager at BLVD Seafood. This full-time job provides for her and her family financially. When asked why local seafood is important to her, she said “The frozen seafood that I’ve prepared from other countries like China seems fake. The local seafood is so much easier to work with. Even when it comes to nice seafood like tuna, if it is local and not-frozen it is much easier to prepare and cook.”

Chef Chris Lopez prepares and plates the cooked red snapper for customers.

“Living in Galveston I came to find out that this business is very tourist dependent. For three months in the summer, you need to get as much revenue as you can to last the rest of the year. As a tourist, when you go to Boston you get clam chowder, when you go to Maryland you want crab cakes, so when tourists come to Galveston they want product from here. Our location is also right on the beach so when our guests ask where we got this I can point out the window at the Gulf and say, “About 50 miles out there.” From the start of BLVD, we wanted our reputation to be based on products from these waters and whether you’re a tourist or a local, you can enjoy fresh, local seafood. We also like to use the Gulf Wild tags here and I like the reaction that the guests have. I get a lot of reviews online too where the guest is excited to know who the captain was, where the fish was caught. On the business side, it is also a great selling point for that experience.”

Server Chris Hayes prepares to serve the snapper dish to BLVD’s customers. Hayes has worked as a server and bartender for 5 years. He says that seafood is about 75% of all the orders he takes, and 80% of that is for local seafood specifically.

When asked why sustainable and local seafood is important to him, Hayes said “Our industry is so propped up by our seafood economy, having more renewable stocks like oysters, shrimp, and Gulf fish is important on a number of levels… From a server’s perspective, it is important to have sustainable but also high-quality product because it makes our job easier. [Providing local seafood] makes it very easy to do my job and sell our product.”

Server Chris Hayes serves food to Aubree Martorell, general manager for BLVD Seafood, and seafood enthusiast! Martorell has been the general manager of BLVD since its opening in 2015. When asked why she decided to make a restaurant focused on seafood she said she wanted to create a place where everyone could enjoy great seafood, locals and tourists alike. “We don’t require slacks and a blazer to get a great local meal.”

Martorell explained how BLVD sources its local seafood by saying “We get our seafood from Katie’s Seafood here in town and the Gulf Wild tags are a great addition. We wanted guests to enjoy fresh seafood but also have a true, coastal experience. Part of that experience isn’t just the fresh seafood but also the information that they get from the Gulf Wild tags showing where the fish was caught, who the captain was, what the bait was. It also helps the guest feel like they are part of that experience, even though they didn’t go out and catch the fish.”

Finally, when asked about seafood fraud and traceability, Martorell explained, “Seafood fraud is much more widespread than people realize. Restaurant owners, chefs, and managers should know the difference but guests should also know to ask where the seafood came from. If it is truly local it is much easier for owners and guests alike to tell the difference. And if the fish is really cheap and they say its red snapper, it probably isn’t local, it probably isn’t fresh, and it probably isn’t red snapper.”

Whether you are enjoying red snapper at a restaurant or at your own home, there are a lot of people who work hard every day to get fresh delicious seafood from the Gulf to your plate, and who rely on this industry as a source of income and livelihood.

At Share the Gulf, we are a coalition of chefs, restaurateurs, seafood businesses, fishermen, conservationists, and consumers that want to keep the local Gulf fishing industry fair and strong. Learn more about our work here.

 

[1] Red Snapper- NOAA Species Directory https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/red-snapper

[2] http://collierseagrant.blogspot.com/2011/10/commercial-fishing-gear-profile-bandit.html

[3] https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/red-snapper

[4] http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/saltwater/snapper/red-snapper/

[5] https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/red-snapper

[6] https://www.forbes.com/sites/larryolmsted/2016/10/22/5-fish-your-taste-buds-your-wallet-and-mother-nature-will-thank-you-for-eating/#617ca3c44d42

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