Ocean to Plate: The Journey of Quality Seafood

Getting pristine quality seafood from the world’s oceans to the dinner plate is no simple task. When chefs rely on fresh – never frozen – wild caught fish to arrive, the proverbial clock starts the minute the fish is on the hook (or in the net) and brought on board the fishing vessel. There is more to the journey than refrigerated transportation: freshness – and superior quality – starts with the catch method, continues with the fishermen, and finishes with the fishmonger. A break anywhere in this chain can result in less than quality seafood. Since our inception in 1991, Browne Trading has been recognized for its top quality, pristine seafood. Our success has been based not just upon sourcing from best practice fisheries with consistency, but also upon our ability to select and handle our fish with the highest level of expertise prior to sale.

Catch Methods Can Impact Quality

Fishing Vessel at Sea with Trawl NetsCommercial fishing utilizes a multitude of different catch methods for wild fisheries. The type of gear used is chosen based upon a multitude of factors – type of fish desired (and where it lives in the water column), the capacity of catch desired (ie. small dayboats can hold only so many fish, versus industrial “factory” vessels), and the fishing area (deep ocean versus inshore fishery) – are some of the major considerations. While there are literally hundreds of catch methods known to man, the principle modern methods utilize either nets (trawls, seines, and gillnets are the most common) or hooks (hand lines, trolls, jigs and longlines). Other methods such as dredging and pots/traps are methods primarily used for live shellfish capture. To learn more about catch methods, visit Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch which has some very useful graphic explanations.

All catch methods can have advantages and disadvantages alike. Some result in unwanted bycatches or cannot target fish of specific size, such as juveniles. Others can have an unwanted impact on ocean ecology. But from a strict quality standpoint, the methods that inflict the least amount of catch trauma and/or aid in the timeliness of fish-to-vessel-to-dock are the ones we generally consider superior – and hook-caught fish are always preferential. Longlining for example often lands the fish while still alive; whereas gillnets usually kill upon capture, resulting in fish that may begin deterioration even before they are brought on board. Trawls can also land live fish, but sometimes the large tonnage of the catch itself can inflict some damage to the fish when the nets are hauled onboard. While catch methods often have a bearing upon the condition of the fish, they are all ultimately designed for the purpose of landing them, and seafood buyers know not to be prejudicial to the method type if the quality remains consistently sound.

Quality is Contingent Upon the Boats

While the gear employed to bring in the fish can play a significant role in their kitchen quality, how the fish is handled immediately upon catch on the boat is of even greater importance. Once caught, fish need to be transferred out of the gear, sorted and graded in a manner that does not damage or bruise the fish – and done so with sensitivity towards time out of water. Proper bleeding, gutting and washing on deck are critical as this initial processing will go a long way to preserving the fish. Finally, and most essentially, how well and how quickly the fish is placed on ice and chilled prior to landing can ensure the difference between premium or ruined seafood. Proper chilling ensures preservation of texture and flavor and deters bacteria and deterioration. Fish left sitting in water for prolonged periods of time, or that are handled roughly and carelessly, are easy candidates for low market quality once they reach port. Finding the boats that consistently treat their catches with the highest level of care (and paying them top dollar for the quality if necessary) is the job of the fishmonger and supplier, and these relationships are the cornerstone of the better distributors in the industry.

Timing is Everything

Sorting Fish DocksideTiming from catch to dock is also a major factor. Dayboats (or Trip Boats) are vessels that fish and return in the shortest amount of time, generally a day or overnight trip. Because they catch and return so quickly, we give preference to fish brought in on dayboats. However, some deep water catches require longer voyages to travel to the fishing grounds and set gear. In these instances, purchasers such as Browne Trading seek out the “last day” catches from these boats – the last caught and freshest fish on the vessel, sometimes called the “top” of the catch, as fish will be on the top of the hold and the first unloaded.

When buying fresh fish from overseas or out of state fisheries, how quickly they are expedited to the fishmonger is imperative to their quality. As an example, a majority of our wild caught European fish is bought dockside in Portugal and France by our committed agents who have been doing business with Browne for years and selects fish to our high quality criteria. These wild fish are fresh, never frozen, and shipped overnight to us in Maine well within 24 hours of being caught. They are local to the European North Atlantic and the Mediterranean and are line caught by dayboat fishermen. Rapid transport – and expert packing to preserve temperature – assures that the quality is not compromised in transit. When done properly it is not uncommon for us to receive fish still in a state of rigor mortis, a welcomed condition indicative of the freshest possible catch!

Superior Fishmongers Sell Only the Best – and Make Sure it Arrives That Way

There is a lot of seafood landed to market, and not all of it is pristine. Much of it doesn’t have to be as it is destined to be processed and frozen (or refrozen). But for customers’ seeking the best in fresh, sushi-grade fish, reliance upon the fishmonger to select and deliver the best is the final stage of the fish’s journey from boat to plate. If the fishmonger cannot discern the quality – or handle and deliver it to sustain its freshness – then all the steps taken to procure quality fish are lost to the customer. Handling whole fish (which is the majority of what we purchase) is the ideal way to grade the quality, since indicators of freshness – eyes, gills, scales, belly, odor, etc. – are intact upon receipt.

At Browne Trading, we grade our fish as “Pristine Quality” based on the following parameters:

  • Fish is received at or below required temperature
  • Eyes on the fish are still pigmented and clear
  • Fish is in “rigor mortis” state with tight, firm flesh and red gills indicative of fresh catch
  • The skin of the fish has zero scale loss, has vibrant and visible coloring, no skin blemishes such as gashes or tumors
  • No odor – except of the sea
  • In the case of live shellfish, we make sure product is lively and kept at a proper temperature

Selecting Fish Prior To PurchaseAll the fish that is accepted for sale is stored in our coolers and kept chilled with salt-water ice for ‘ocean cold’ products. Typically, Browne Trading fish only stay on our premise for a maximum of 48 hours, although most items arrive in the morning, and are gone by nightfall. We continually inspect all of our seafood, and never ship any fish that does not meet Browne Trading Quality Standards. With all sources, we place a high premium of the traceability of the catch – from fishing ground, catch method, vessel, where it is landed, and how and when it is transported to our facility. Knowing exactly what the species is – and not just market names, which can vary from country to country and even state to state – is also important so that the customer knows exactly what species they are eating.

Finally, all our seafood is hand packed by our trained packing crew with cold packs and air balloons to make sure that our products arrive in pristine condition. Whether it ships by a Browne Trading truck, one of our partner carriers, or via Overnight Shipment, our customers are assured that their fish and seafood is well cared for at every step.

Regardless if you are buying from Browne Trading or your local fishmonger, fish stall or grocery store, you should know exactly what fish species you are buying, where and how it was caught, and where it came from. Quality speaks for itself, and learning how to evaluate your seafood will go a long way in getting the most value on your purchase.

~Nick Branchina, Director of Marketing