New Bedford shows off for world's seafood buyers
By Steve Urbon
NEW BEDFORD — This city ships everything from sea scallops to skate fillets around the world, and Tuesday the world — or at least its seafood buyer representatives — came to bear witness to the origins of their imports.
As impressed as the two dozen or so buyers were with New Bedford's seafood industry, particularly the scallop processing on a huge scale, it was the 14-pound lobster that Paul Rego of Northern Wind. Inc. hoisted for the cameras that briefly stole the show.
That diversion aside, the buyers, who hailed from China, Colombia, Egypt, Thailand, Turkey, France, Aruba and Bermuda, got an inside look at how 21st-century computer technology and advanced processing equipment is producing a higher quality product than ever and shipping it fast almost anywhere on the planet.
The buyers asked a few questions and spoke little, perhaps because for most of them English was something of a struggle.
But they watched intently as Paul Lane gave them the tour of the 105-foot scalloper Alaska at Fishermen's Wharf. The morning started with that introduction to scallop nets and techniques, and ended with lunch at the Waterfront Grille, where Dr. Kevin Stokesbury, chairman of Fisheries Oceanography at the UMass School for Marine Science and Technology, led them through the complexities of estimating fish populations and trying to reconcile sometimes counterproductive restrictions with what the fishermen know is happening at sea.
The centerpiece of his presentation was the historic change brought about by SMAST's video survey of the floor of the areas restricted from scallopers, which proved that government estimates grossly understated the population of scallops available. Since then, the scallop haul has exploded in volume, although a conflict with yellowtail flounder bycatch regulations unnecessarily cost the scallop fishery $80 million in missed scallops last year, he argued.
The whirlwind tour, guided by Harbor Development Commission Executive Director Kristen Decas, might have been more than its participants could take in. Many appeared mystified by the computerized, Web-based display auction as owner Richard Canastra gave a running commentary. But there was total fascination with the process of lumpers off-loading a scalloper at Northern Wind, or watching the cleaning and processing going on at the vast new Mar-Lees scallop processing facility on the North Terminal.
Not all of the buyers came for scallops. The French contingent was especially interested in the skate fillets being produced at the Seatrade International Co. Those from the Middle East were more interested in the source of the mackerel and herring arriving from the Northern Pelagic Group on Fish Island. And Norbert Meyer, a German ex-patriate who is now a buyer for restaurants in Bermuda, was looking for the lobsters and other shellfish.
Mayor Scott W. Lang, at lunch, referred to his city as a "conveyor belt," shipping seafood everywhere almost overnight. He put a special emphasis on the burgeoning practice of flying or trucking seafood into the waterfront for value-added processing and reshipping, a trade he said that makes the city "the No. 1 seafood processing plant in the entire world," one where existing businesses can trace their lineage back to the earliest whaling days.
The tour was arranged by the Massachusetts Export Center, and the international visitors were hosted by Food Export USA, a nonprofit export promotion organization participating in this week's International Boston Seafood Show. Local sponsors included the Bank of America, Sovereign Bank, the Harbor Development Commission, the city Office of Economic Development, the New Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce and the SouthCoast Development Partnership.
Steve Urbon is senior correspondent of The Standard-Times.