It’s 5:30 am and I’m rumbling down Route 195 to New Bedford in a fish truck with Rich Pasquill, who started in the fish business in ’83 with his dad. Six years later he opened a sushi restaurant and fish market in southeastern Massachusetts that arguably has some of the freshest, best seafood I’ve ever tasted. I wanted to learn how he does it.
Both Rich’s grandfathers were fishermen lost at sea – one in a bad storm off George’s Banks, and the other when a tanker hit his boat in the wrong lane. Their names are on the wall at the Seamen’s Bethel, along with other local fishermen lost at sea, including New Bedford whalers. “In this same New Bedford there stands a Whaleman’s Chapel, and few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot,” wrote Melville about the chapel in Moby Dick.
“There’s no way my father was letting me go to sea,” Rich said as he backed up his truck to a large butler-like building on the waterfront. We left our lattes in the cab and headed into the morning fish auction. As we passed the loading dock Rich explained: for decades his father was in charge of unloading the fish down at the docks, and he learned the trade from him, starting out in high school working on the water boat – a tug that waters the fishing boats.
“So many guys my age ended up on the waterfront because it was flourishing here in the 70s,” he explained. “Guys down here were making more than a pro hockey player. It was too tempting to not go to college.”
The fish auction doesn’t begin until 8, but he’s down here early 6-7 days a week, inspecting and sourcing 5,000 pounds of fish a week. “Even on vacation in Puerto Rico in February,” he smiles, “I’m down in the hotel lobby at 6 am, talking to my guys about what looks good.”
We consider an enormous skate sprawled across shaved ice. Looks good to me. “It’s been out in the sun,” he says dismissively, flipping it over. “Some of these day-boat guys don’t care about fish,” he says, pointing out the burn spots, and shrugs. “Some do.” He’s lifting up fish, shaking scallop bags, inspecting each box of seafood that was unloaded from 11 pm last night until 4 am this morning in this cavernous temperature-controlled warehouse that is spotless and doesn’t smell fishy, despite the fact that we’re up to our gills in it. A guy is hosing down the floor, which looks cleaner than my kitchen on a good day.
“Deep water fish is healthier,” he explains, letting me in on a secret: the guys who steam out to Georges Bank or Nantucket Sound to trawl for scallops or catch fish are gone for a week, maybe more. They catch fish every day they’re out. Wouldn’t you want the fish that they caught yesterday afternoon, as they headed back to the harbor, as opposed to what’s been on ice for a week? He knows these guys, went to high school with many of them. He talks to the skippers about which load was caught at the end of the trip. He buys that load.
“Hey Fingers,” he nods to a guy sorting fish, then gives me a sheepish look. The guy was missing most of the fingers on his left hand. It’s dangerous work all around – from the sorting and processing, to fishing itself, where accidents happen – like the time a hatch was left open mistakenly on a boat in a 40 mph gale.
We’re about to go upstairs to the fish auction, and he’s concerned; there’s no tuna that looks good. “If I don’t have tuna, I don’t have a sushi bar,” he says matter-of-factly. He introduced sushi at the restaurant in 2004 (“Ya think your dad woulda approved of a sooshee bar?” the old timers crowed at him), and he knows a thing or three about the freshest fish.
“Oh, good,” he interrupts himself, admiring a gorgeous fluke. “That’ll be in the bar tonight.”
He talks about the Portuguese fishermen he knew in the ‘70s, who worked hard seven days a week, often at more than one job, first cutting fish, then working their way up to owning a few boats. They educated their children, did well, and now are retiring. In recent years, there is a growing number of K’iche-speaking Guatemalan immigrants who have found work on the docks and in the commercial fishing industry– doing everything from cutting fish to sewing scallop bags.
He tells me to feel some scallops. The channel scallops, found among the rocks, are firm. The mid Atlantic scallops are softer. I ask him about New Bedford scallops – having grown up in a time when New Bedford harbor was polluted with PCBs, I was startled the first time I saw “New Bedford scallops” on a menu as though it was some prize. He explains: unlike Cuttyhunk oysters, say, which were probably caught or farmed just offshore this outermost Elizabeth island, New Bedford scallops mean that a New Bedford fishing trawler brought them in – they could have been dredged southeast of Nantucket, or off Georges Bank.
We watch the Alaska unload scallops, which have helped make New Bedford famous again. With the largest fishing fleet in New England, for the last decade New Bedford has been the most profitable fishing port in the United States due to scalloping. Just a day’s steam to Nantucket Shoals, Georges Bank and the Great South Channel, trawlers bring in nearly 50 million pounds of sea scallops each year – a $411 million business. Those who work here are cautious, though – they remember what it was like when the commercial fishing industry collapsed in the ‘80s. They also recognize that two centuries ago, in 1857, New Bedford was the richest city per capita in the United States thanks also to the sea – from whale oil. The jaw-dropping architecture – block after block of Victorian mansions with widow’s walks and gardens and iron fences – is a faded testament to whaling wealth, and later textile manufacturing.
Despite the booming scalloping business, there’s much talk of the collapsed ground fishing industry and the Magnuson-Stevens Act (originally the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act of 1976), which governs fisheries management in the U.S., a direct response to overfishing and the desire to protect ecosystems. Congress “needs to hit the reset button,” the mayor of New Bedford boomed at the press recently, attempting to rebuild a fishing industry that has lost 50 shore side businesses since 2004 and 300 jobs since 2010. Despite the fact that it’s been more than 20 years since 200 Chinese immigrants were smuggled into the Whaling City aboard Lady Diane and loaded into a U-Haul in the middle of the night, New Bedford remains a gritty place, plagued with drugs, poverty, and unemployment – and a public education system that many believe is failing its youth. Despite a thriving Whaling Museum, and a small lively arts scene, tourism may not be enough; New Bedford remains “a tale of two cities,” according to one Boston radio station. ABC News reported 24 assaults on teachers by students in 2014 at New Bedford High School. It’s an ongoing battle.
Rich brings me into the auction room, where an electronic wall display, not unlike what you might expect to see in a commodity broker’s office, is listing the prices of fish by species and size. Copies of National Fisherman are on the counter along with a pot of coffee that’s not too inviting. A few guys look up from their newspapers warily, waiting for the day’s auction to begin. “She’s with me,” Rich answers the silence. On the wall is a sign: “National Marine Fisheries Service – Destroying Fishermen and their Communities since 1976.”
When the auction ends, I ask about “Carmine Fish” Romano, the mafia crime boss who ruled Fulton Fish Market in New York until convicted of racketeering in 1982. With a 12-year federal prison sentence, Romano was banned for life from working at Fulton, which had been run by mobsters since the 1920s. Before his conviction, Romano had also run a bar (called Carmine’s) off the South pier at Fulton, where he’d take care of the New Bedford guys who came down to deliver fish; upstairs he rented office space upstairs to Local 359 (United Seafood Commercial Workers Union). A member of the Genovese crime family (a codfather!), Romano got early parole and married a gal from New Bedford, moved up to Massachusetts and got back into the fish business until his death in 2011. For years the docks flowed with “shack,” a waterfront tradition of cash paid for fish and scallops, its name derived from the wooden shacks that fish buyers set up on the docks decades ago. Shacks and nightriders –boats that came in at night and were met by a guy with a truck and cash– are a thing of the past, says Rich, although he allowed that’s how a lot of these guys got started. The old time fish buyers with names like Breezy and Doggy are gone. But, as Rich points out, urban renewal hasn’t been kind to the city – a busy highway bisects the historic district and most of the city from the waterfront, which pumps money into the local economy but is walled off from it. Crystal Ice – an ice vending machine under the bridge – runs 24 hours a day because of the scalloping. The National Club, a seedy old fisherman’s bar where I wrote my first newspaper story in 1978 (about a snake charmer named Tina who performed with a live boa for the guys on Friday nights), still exists, though you won’t find it on Facebook or even in the phone book. He looked slightly appalled that I knew of the bar.
“The waterfront today is a tangle of contradictions,” wrote the New Bedford Standard Times. “It has been maligned and celebrated, it has brought the city both riches and addictions, huge triumphs and massive problems. It still offers out the great promise of fishing anyone brave enough and smart enough to go and catch fish can will himself to a brighter future. The rewards from life on the harbor can be great– and the risks enormous.” Though the days are gone when the safety equipment on a New Bedford trawler consisted of life jackets, flares, and eight strings of rosary beads, commercial fishing remains the most dangerous occupation in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Rich doesn’t fish. He doesn’t go out on boats. To relax, he likes to sit in a beach chair on his lawn in Mattapoisett, a good distance from the bay. “I have my waterline,” he says, smiling.