Jul. 25—In the main cooler of Sea Well Seafood's facility at Stonington Town Dock, Led Zeppelin played as two workers packed fish orders and filled tickets. Bins sat down the center of the narrow, wet-floored room, each bearing the name of a local restaurant: Oyster Club, The Mariner, Sea Swirl, S&P Oyster, Lillian's, Latitude 41, Summer Shack, The Andrea, Guytanno's.
Elsewhere in the 7 o'clock hour on this foggy Thursday morning, Peter Wakeman pulled 1.25-lb lobsters for Abbott's Lobster in the Rough, as water gushed into tanks around him.
The lobster crates sat in refrigerated water before being put in a refrigerated truck, and the fish was added. Sea Well co-owners Alene and Ted Whipple said five to six trucks make deliveries a day, averaging more than 20 stops each at restaurants and small markets.
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One truck departed shortly after 8 a.m. and was off to the first stop: Abbott's. Co-owner Deirdre Mears said the restaurant got lobster right off the boat many years ago, but there's not enough fishermen anymore and "we weren't able to get the proper sizes. You can't say to the lobstermen, 'This is what I want you to catch.'"
Abbott's previously bought from Garbo Lobster but switched to Sea Well when Garbo closed, and now gets deliveries from Sea Well, its main distributor, seven days a week. Mears said she is fortunate to have a place where she can order the night before.
Her daughter, co-owner Chelsea Mears Leonard, said Abbott's also gets mussels from American Mussel Harvesters in Rhode Island and oysters "all over the place," whether from Noank Aquaculture or the Damariscotta River in Maine. Abbott's sister restaurant, Costello's Clam Shack, gets clam strips and whole belly clams from Ipswich.
Mears said crab "is impossible to find now" and the cost is up 50%. She puts a hot crab roll on the menu when crab is available and takes it off when it isn't.
Chef seeks whole fish, weird fish
Another Sea Well customer is The Shipwright's Daughter in Mystic, which on that Thursday morning was getting lobsters, Ninigret Nectars oysters from Behan Family Farm in Rhode Island and whole bigeye tuna, Alene Whipple said.
The day before, executive chef David Standridge was preparing fluke, black bass, sea robin and scup he bought Tuesday right off the boat of Westerly fisherman Josiah Dodge. Since The Shipwright's Daughter opened last June, Standridge had been getting his seafood solely from Sea Well until the past few weeks, when he also started getting seafood from Dodge.
Seeking whole fish and "weird fish," Standridge has his disappointments with the fishing industry. He wants whole monkfish, but catch limits are by weight, and fishermen chop the heads off because the tails are more valuable. He wants skate, but fishing boats sell it to lobstermen for bait rather than selling it for consumption.
"Chef David, he's very creative, very innovative," Alene Whipple said. When they first started working together, she said, "Give me a little bit of time, give me some information and criticism," and "what he's looking for is not traditionally the way things are fished for." But she enjoys the challenge.
Keen on sustainability, Standridge gets his fish from rod-and-reel fishermen, like Dodge, instead of trawlers.
"You can't really target a fish; you're targeting an area," he said of trawling. He said by the time the fish are up, some are injured or dead. In addition, larger boats may go out for five days at a time, and Standridge wants the last fish they've caught, not the first-day fish.
What fish is local?
Fluke, black bass and scallops are local fish that are always available, Standridge said. Swordfish is harder to catch locally but can be found off Block Island at the right time of year. Stonington shad also can be found for a limited time.
Fish found elsewhere in New England in the North Atlantic include cod, haddock and hake. Outside of New England, Alene Whipple said Sea Well gets all-natural, farm-raised salmon from the Faroe Islands, and shrimp comes from the Gulf of Mexico and is flash-frozen at sea.
Jon Kodama said a lot of the fresh seafood and shellfish sold at his restaurants — Go Fish, Breakwater and Steak Loft — comes from Sea Well, which delivers six days a week. But things like calamari and shrimp come from big distributors like US Foods and Cisco.
He also gets things like razor clams, different types of oysters, swordfish and sushi-grade tuna from Dole & Bailey in Massachusetts.
Kodama and Standridge said they get striped bass from suppliers in Rhode Island, as the sale of that fish from Connecticut waters is prohibited.
Flanders Fish Market owner Paul Formica said he has refrigerated trucks go to Boston two or three times a week, something smaller restaurants don't have the ability to do.
"Fish is unloaded at auction every morning at Boston Fish Pier," he said, and "we send a truck up mid-morning to pick up that fish, so when we get our fish, it's just a few hours off the boat where it's unloaded."
He gets a lot of his lobsters from Boston because he prefers hard-shelled Canadian lobsters. He said he does buy some fluke, flounder and scallops from Sea Well, but other seafood he gets the same way they do — by going to the source.