It used to be that most of the larger towns along the Maine coast and even some of those far inland had a fish market.
The owner knew a handful of reliable fishermen, often from his childhood, who could be counted on to deliver his catch on some sort of reasonable schedule, depending on the weather. You could generally expect to find a fillet of cod or haddock. Flounder or sole was widely available and favored for its mild flavor.
Every once in a while, a fisherman would haul in a large halibut that the owner would cut into fat, delicious portions. Scallops and shrimp were plentiful in winter. And unless the flats had been frozen for a long time, you could almost always buy a mess of clams, for which every Maine fish market would give you its own recipe for chowder.
But slowly and surely, local fish markets have gone the way of family farms.
Fish and shellfish are, of course, highly perishable. Ice was often a problem to acquire, and you needed a big cooler to store it. The labor required was intense — shoveling all that ice into the bins at the counter and then cleaning them out every night required strength and patience.
Government regulations to insure against health hazards from contaminated seafood increased. And in spite of all one’s efforts, if an owner was not extremely assiduous, some of his inventory could spoil before he could sell it.
Supermarkets, which used to have a meager supply of mostly previously frozen fish, have now opened up extensive new fish counters with all sorts of native and exotic fish laid out on sparkling beds of ice. Now you find cod and flounder fillets from Canada with FAS designations — meaning frozen at sea.
The mildest fish at the counter is tilapia, a relative of a goldfish, which is to say a carp, grown in large aquacultural ponds in Central and South America.
Atlantic salmon are available year round but come primarily from Norway, now that Chilean salmon production has been significantly reduced from disease outbreaks in its Pacific fjords where currents can be sluggish.
Gulf of Maine cod have been decimated from over fishing; warmer temperatures may have compromised their recovery in spite of strenuous reductions in allowable catches. Prince Edward Island has nearly cornered the blue mussel market. The Maine shrimp season has been canceled.
What is one to do?
Well, you can still support your local fish market, if you are still lucky enough to have one nearby. The fish markets that have survived are the ones most likely to know a good-looking fish when they see one. Or, more importantly, know the really good fishermen.
The difference between a really good fisherman and a fisherman is like the difference between an aria and an advertising jingle. One is art, the other commerce. Really good fishermen treat their harvest carefully, keeping the catch as cool as possible to preserve freshness, and the fish or shellfish are handled gently so they don’t bruise or lose body parts.
A good local fish market is only as good as its buyer — often, but not always, the owner. Very often they are family businesses. I am thinking of the Wiggin family at Jess’ Market in Rockland and the Graffam family in Rockport and the Alfiero family on Custom House Wharf in Portland. These are families that have been selling fish and shellfish to local customers for several generations.
I recall Jess telling me quite a while ago — when I had been delegated to buy 200 pounds of lobster for a big event — that he only bought lobsters from fishermen who set their traps among the outermost islands because they have the thickest shells and stay freshest the longest. The buyers usually personally know the fishermen who sell to them. And they of course have their favorites. Jess’ Market, for instance, usually features North Haven oysters from the Campbell family from their farm in the Mill River.
Supporting local fish markets is like supporting local farmers; they are our best links to fresh foods that have been carefully harvested and brought as fresh as possible to us at the other end of the food chain.
As food businesses across the world become increasingly large and corporate, you never know what you are eating unless you know where the products came from and who produced them.