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The future of fish is frozen: How the seafood industry is adapting to COVID-19 in 2020

 

As restaurants closed, local seafood distributors needed to find a way to sell their products. So they turned to their freezer.

Jared Auerbach first saw the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in early January, when seafood orders from Boston’s Chinatown — and Chinatowns across the country — slowly stopped coming in.

At first, the founder of Red’s Best, a Boston-based seafood distributor, wasn’t too worried.

“The second week of March, we were down about 20 percent,” he said. “Things were starting to get a little weird. We got through the weekend and I lost some sleep over the weekend, but I felt good.”

On March 17, restaurants in Mass. were ordered to shut down, and Auerbach, who founded Red’s Best in 2008, saw his business fall out from under him as he made the difficult decision to furlough the vast majority of his staff. For someone who spent years intently focused on balancing the supply of the sea with the demand of the public — many of the restaurant chefs — he now wondered: “What’s our contingency plan?”

Across the country, seafood purveyors are all asking the same question. From fish tacos and raw oysters to seared salmon, U.S. consumers spend roughly two-thirds of their seafood budget on restaurants or other food businesses; as restaurants closed, the seafood supply chain was drastically altered. The CARES Act recently allocated $300 million to fisheries assistance funding, with roughly $28 million allocated for Massachusetts, but it has yet to be determined what effect that will have on local fisheries and distributors.

Foley Fish is a fourth-generation, family-run seafood processor based in New Bedford (another location in Boston is temporarily closed), supplying restaurants and hotels like Celeste, Puritan & Co., Stockyard, and Four Seasons Hotel One Dalton with fresh seafood. After restaurants were ordered to close their dining rooms, co-owner Laura Foley Ramsden said her company lost 85 percent of its business overnight.

“Normally if there’s [an issue] in Boston, the restaurants and resorts are booming in Grand Cayman or Florida or Arizona, but sadly this pandemic crushed everyone,” she said.

Like the restaurants they once sold fish to, seafood distributors are starting to pivot in an effort to keep their business afloat. And the future, many have decided, is frozen.

“There’s a million sustainability reasons why we should have it”

Opened by Sam Wulf in 1926, Wulf’s Fish gained a devoted following through its neighborhood fish market in Brookline before eventually moving to Boston Fish Pier in 2016. It has never sold frozen fish to customers online — until now. On Wulf’s website, customers can purchase scallops, lobster, halibut, Acadian redfish, sole, and rainbow trout, all superfrozen before becoming available for pickup or delivery.

“There are a million sustainability reasons why we should have it,” said Alisha Lumea, director of marketing and communications at Wulf’s Fish. “There’s a lower carbon footprint. You have less food waste because you don’t have fresh produce that’s instantly on a clock and has to be discarded if it doesn’t sell.”

At Red’s Best, Auerbach is so passionate about the future of frozen fish that, at a time when many companies are cutting costs, he said he’s investing in more equipment to help build this new side of his business. The distributor previously sold directly to the consumer at the Boston Public Market, but it has recently introduced 10-pound frozen seafood packs, available for shipping, to its online shop.

 

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