It’s true, there are plenty of fish in the sea. Maine fishermen, though, haven’t had much choice but to leave them there. Over the past several decades, the state’s groundfishing fleet dwindled because of low market prices, suppressed by international competition, that didn’t keep up with the cost of gear, diesel, and labor. By 2020, groundfish — including New England staples cod, haddock, halibut, and flounder — accounted for just 1 percent of Maine’s commercial catch. Most of what’s landed nowadays is shellfish. For finfish, many restaurants have to source from elsewhere what’s abundant just offshore.
At the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Jen Levin started studying the financial viability of Maine’s fisheries some 15 years ago, in the middle of the decline. “I’ve seen a lot of my friends leave the industry,” says Levin, who ran the institute’s ocean-observing program before heading up its sustainable-seafood program. Fishermen face hard decisions: Hang up their nets for good? Switch to lobstering? Move to Alaska? But she came to believe in an almost-too-obvious alternative: charge more for local seafood. She used a federal grant to look into how some fishermen in other parts of the country and abroad beat commodity prices with a higher-quality catch. In particular, she homed in on the Japanese standard for sushi and sashimi fish: As soon as a fish is out of the water, drive a spike through its head. Then, bleed it and store it carefully on ice.
Usually, commercially caught fish are tossed in a heap and left to suffocate, often getting bruised in the process. In farming and hunting, though, it’s axiomatic that an animal subjected to less suffering before it’s dispatched will taste better. Science backs that up — stress hormones degrade the quality of meat. During her research, Levin found that chefs and specialty food distributors were eager for fish harvested and processed with care, but they “weren’t buying any of it from New England, because they couldn’t find the quality they were looking for.” She pitched her ideas to established fish dealers, but “nobody was into it.” So to put theory into practice, she left her job in 2019, started her own seafood company, and recruited 30 crews out of Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire to adopt her methods. The result, Levin says, is “chemically superior” and “less fishy” fillets.
Levin’s Portland-based company, True Fin Seafood (recently rebranded from Gulf of Maine Sashimi), sells traditional delicacies, like tuna and cod, as well as species chefs used to overlook, like dogfish and monkfish. Upscale establishments such as Portland’s Solo Italiano, Kennebunkport’s Chez Rosa, and Biddeford’s Elda became regular buyers, as did restaurants from New York to DC to San Francisco. Although the arrival of COVID tempered demand from professionals, True Fin also made inroads with home cooks, enough so to keep growing during the pandemic. These days, the company processes about 4,000 pounds of seafood weekly. “We’re always trying to do more,” Levin says. “I can’t wait until the day we can buy everything fishermen can bring us.”