Steve Bailey

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Risky Business Seafood

Hatteras Village, NC- In the early 1980s, commercial fisherman Steve Bailey said he saw the writing on the wall. 

Not only did he think regulations would make it harder and harder to make a living solely off the water, but he was also watching North Carolina’s small Hatteras Village transform from a small fishing town to “a tourist destination with oceanfront million dollar condos.”

So in 1984 he went into a risky business – literally. 

Dressed in rubber fishing overalls, boots and a wet cigar hanging out of his mouth, Bailey pointed to a pile of flounder he caught that morning. 

“Fish. Selling fish. It’s a risky business,” Bailey said of his retail fish market, which set up on Oden’s Dock in the heart of Hatteras Village and named Risky Business. 

Unless you vacuum pack and freeze your fish – which Bailey will do for the charter fishing boat customers when they come in from their day trips – you have to sell fish within 24 hours. 

In reality, Bailey’s Risky Business has been what helped him survive. He still gets to work the water, which he still enjoys, and is able to diversify his business model.

“We do a good business here,” Bailey said. “But there were some hard days. I remember when I bought a pig and a keg of beer the first time we grossed $1,000 in one day.”

On average, Bailey sells between 500 and 700 pounds of fresh seafood per week. 

While most of Bailey’s customers are summer visitors, a few are local, year-round customers. 

As Kerry Barnett, the store’s manager said, “most of the people who live here locally year round are fishermen themselves.”

Bailey’s seafood offerings range from tuna and mahi caught off of the North Carolina coast in the Gulf Stream, to North Carolina shrimp and crabs, to the flounder he and Barnett catch in their small Carolina Skiffs and scale, brine, fillet and sell. 

“It really is a cool feeling to tell the customers that we really did catch this fish for you this morning,” Barnett said. “People appreciate knowing how fresh it is and that it went from the sea to their dinner plate so quickly.”

Russ Gibbons

Russ Gibbons

Russ Gibbons

MJM Seafood Trading Company 

Williamsburg, VA--Russ Gibbons’ customers might be surprised to know he doesn’t fish.

In fact, he says proudly when anyone asks, “I just don’t like it. It’s too much like work. If you see me with friends out on the boat and I’m holding a fishing rod, chances are I just dropped the sinker in the water without any bait to make it look like I was fishing.”

What Gibbons does love is life on the water and the sweet, savory taste of just about every species that comes out of it. 

“I love a good seafood boil. Throw it all in a pot like a pack of Skittles and taste the rainbow.”

It’s why, in May 2011, following nearly three decades in the restaurant business, Gibbons opened MJM Seafood Trading Company in Williamsburg, Virginia. 

Gibbons grew up in Virginia’s York County. His family hails from Maryland and Virginia’s shared Eastern Shore, both states in the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s region. 

“I had the family that has oysters on the table for Thanksgiving. Seafood was a big part of my life. Clearly it still is.”

MJM Seafood Trading Company is a proud family business with one mission in mind, Gibbons said. 

“Bring people the best, freshest seafood possible.”

For MJM, that’s being involved in the seafood distribution process from the start.

It means sometimes being on site when the fishermen arrive at the dock and unload fish onto a grading belt. 

“Fresh, seasonal, products area always a higher quality. If I could walk out into a field and pick my own cow out for my steak instead of one already wrapped up at the grocery store, I’d do it.”

It’s trusting the dock masters he works with, and the regulatory enforcement system, to buy legal, fresh fish for pickup from the dock’s cold, storeroom. Gibbons pick ups, mostly whole fish, and delivers directly from the docks to kitchens in a large, white utility van. 

Occasionally, Gibbons will process the whole fish he buys. 

“I’m a business man. If I can make an extra $1 processing, I’ll do it.”

In general, he gets it to his customers as quickly as he can drive there. He has to. 

“My marketing to my customers is your fish are less than 36 hours out of water.”

Plus, he doesn’t want to let his children down. His three children are very much a part of the business. MJM stands for the first letter of their names. Gibbons’ son designed the price sheet, one daughter’s voice is on the answering service and another daughter is “cute to ride around in the truck with.”

They are also his motivation. 

Gibbons may not like to fish, but he does like to teach his children the importance of working hard for what you want in life.

“I may not have taught them to fish, but I have taught them the value of fishing and the relationship we have to nature.”

Eventually, he’ll teach them how to put together a seafood boil. 

Ginger Nappi

Ginger Nappi, Martin Fish Company

Ginger Nappi, Martin Fish Company

Ocean City, Maryland- Ginger Nappi may have tried her hand at careers away from the water, but something always drew her back home. 

“I wanted to be on the water. I wanted to be with the fish, with my family.”

Now she is. Nappi helps run her family’s Martin Fish Company in Ocean City, Maryland. 

Martin Fish Company was founded by Nappi’s grandfather, then worked by Nappi’s father, and now by Nappi and other family members. 

“I’ve been around fishing since I was born. In elementary school, (my brother and I) would take turns going out with dad on his day trips.”

Nappi’s father is Sam Martin, who now serves as the Vice President of Operations for Atlantic Capes in New Jersey. 

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“We’d get up at five in the morning…watch the sunrise on the deck while steaming out into the ocean. When the crew was hauling fish onto the deck, he’d hook me on to a cable and a life jacket so I could be on the deck and watch. We’d be up to our knees in fish.” 

Once Nappi turned 18, she started helping out with the operations back at the harbor. 

“Anywhere they need me, I jump in and help. Unloading the fish, packing them in boxes. I’ve been inside vats before, icing them up and packing them up. I’ve been slimy from head to toe.”

Martin Fish Company practically does it all at the harbor. The boats come in. We unload the fish. We pack it and either ship it out or sell it in our retail store.”

In the retail store, where Nappi spends most of her time, “we do whatever the customer wants. We sell whole fish, or process it. We fillet for restaurants, and steam crabs and shrimp.”

And, of course, there’s the secret family recipes. 

“My grandmother came up with a bunch of soup recipes and clams casino. My aunt and I still make her recipes and sell them here.”

The selling feature for Martin Fish Company? 

“It really is the freshest seafood possible. We get the fish right off the boats. There’s no middleman. It’s boat to market to customer.” 

Will Nappi’s son head into the family business?

“It will be up to him. But I like knowing he’ll learn the value of working hard, that if you see something that has to get done, you jump in and do it. He’ll learn that here, even if he doesn’t become a fisherman.”

John Nolan

John Nolan

Montauk, NY - Shortly after 3 a.m., John Nolan walked down the pier of the Town Dock in Montauk, New York and toward the bright red hull of the fishing vessel he captains – the Sea Capture. 

Despite his youthful face, and being one of the youngest captains in the small hamlet on Long Island, Nolan’s sweatshirt, ripped from years of fishing and dingy from days at sea, and five-o-clock morning shadow give him the look of a veteran fisherman. 

Climbing on board in the dark, Nolan moved around, pulling ropes, flipping on switches and readying the vessel as if he’d been doing it since he was born. 

In a way, he had. Nolan is the second-generation fisherman to captain his family’s tilefish boat. He watched his mother break the bottle of champagne over its bow when its construction was complete. He kicked fish on the deck and into the hole as a child. And when he was 8-years-old, he went offshore fishing with his dad for 10 days. 

On this morning, Nolan headed out on another 10-day trip, 100 miles offshore. 

“I did go off to college,” Nolan said. “That first year, I came home and did a fishing trip with Dad. I puked the whole time. I was miserable. But when I got home I got paid.”

Nolan came home from school, “never looked back,” and started working on the decks of the boat. He did that for more than two years. When fishing got tough, and the Sea Capture needed another captain, then 20-year-old Nolan got his shot.

“John paid his dues,” said big John Nolan, Nolan’s father. “It’s a requirement. We didn’t give him an inch. He really earned it.”

Nolan’s parents – John and Laurie Nolan – started the family tilefish business in the late 1970s and brought it to Montauk in 1980.

The Sea Capture may be one of three tilefish boats in Montauk, but they are responsible for roughly 25 percent of the tilefish caught in the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s region, which stretches from New York to North Carolina. 

Fishing for the Nolans isn’t just what they do for a living, it’s a huge part of their family history. 

Big John Nolan’s fishing started out before he met Laurie when he worked as a clam digger. When clamming got tough, he moved offshore to lobster.

“He sold lobster to my father,” Laurie said. “That’s how we met.”

Laurie worked the boats with John for years. When lobster fishing got tough, they tried their hand at tilefish. Eventually, they moved to Florida to bottom fish, which ended up being what set them up for successful tilefishing back in Montauk. 

During their bottom fishing days in Florida, they used circle hooks on a long line. At one point, the gear for tilefish tactics transitioned from J hooks (pre-baited on the docks) to circle hooks (baited and snapped on the line while out at sea). 

Since John and Laurie were already using that method, they were ahead of the game back in Montauk. 

“They were really pioneers when they got here,” said another Montauk fisherman who’s known the Nolan family for decades. 

The new style of fishing with the snap on circle hooks may have been more labor intensive, but it was better at catching fish. 

So good, in fact, that, Laurie said, fishermen did real damage to the tilefish fishery, which was at one point declared overfished. 

That’s when Laurie, now a veteran councilwoman with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, got involved with the regulatory side of the business. She helped all the tilefish boats from Montauk through the process of developing a plan to rebuild the fishery. 

Even as a regulated fishery, young John Nolan loves running the boat. 

The Sea Capture is a four-man operation – the captain and three mates. 

Their 10-days at sea are hard fishing days. Each starts 20 minutes before sunrise. Once there’s light, they start setting the line - miles and miles of baited hooks. They let the lines “sit” long enough to eat breakfast and then start pulling it in. Nolan steers the boat and takes hooks off the line at the same time. The other crewmembers gut the fish and get them packed into the ice-filled fish hole below deck. Each hook is re-baited as the fish come off. 

There’s a morning and an afternoon set, Nolan said. The entire day is done about 3 a.m. and restarted just before the sun comes up. 

“At sea,” he said, “you definitely sleep in shifts.”

Big John Nolan hasn’t been on the boat in a long time, and definitely not since Nolan started running it. 

“I talk like I miss it,” big John said, smiling. “But if someone really asked me to go out, I’m not sure that I would.”

Big John does stay very involved with the boat at the dock, though, helping with maintenance and long term planning. Laurie still stays involved, too. Both Johns will tell you she runs the whole show, talking to the markets, managing the books and keeping them all straight. 

As dangerous and hard as life at sea can be, Laurie said, she doesn’t worry about Nolan while he’s fishing.

“It’s when he’s on land in the middle of July and I hear sirens that I worry,” she said. “He knows what he’s doing out there on the water.”

Sam Martin

Vice President of Operations of Atlantic Capes Fisheries 

Sam Martin isn’t just a fourth generation fisherman. He’s a fourth generation fisherman who’s been involved in every aspect of the fishing industry, from watching his father work boats to becoming an executive with one of North America’s largest fleet operators. 

Martin, now the Vice President of Operations of the Cape May, New Jersey-based Atlantic Capes Fisheries, Inc., is from Ocean City, Maryland where his family started Martin Fish Company. 

“I fished my entire life, grew up through the ranks,” Martin said. “I have a high school education, but I never went to my high school graduation. I went fishing instead.”

Leading the operations for Atlantic Capes means managing the 20 boats in the fleet. 

“The experience I have on vessels helps me understand what the captains go through on the ocean. I’ve been there. I understand what the guys need in the oceans to fish safely and efficiently, and to evaluate the fleet to know what we need today and in the future.” 

Atlantic Capes is largely known as a leading harvester and marketer of scallops – they are responsible for about 25 percent of the East Coast scallops – but also sells flounder, scup, clams and squid. 

With all of Atlantic Capes’ divisions – including operations like clam processing and aquaculture farms – they employ more than 200 people. 

“We really work hard trying to grow jobs,” Martin said. “It’s about creating partnerships and seeing who we can keep in business rather than get out of business. Creating partnerships creates strength. That creates community, which is incredibly important in fishing.”

Last year alone, Atlantic Capes sold more than 14 million pounds of scallops, and that’s a combined figure from those harvested by Atlantic Capes-owned boats and boats they’ve created those partnerships with. 

“We have a very strong company,” Martin said. “It’s a very strong business model.” 

Its success is largely based on its vertically integrated system. 

“Basically that means we get it all the way to the plate,” Martin said. “We don’t sell directly to retail, but we do sell to companies – like Costco. We process and package it to our customers’ specs. A company gives us their label and we put it in their bags and cold store it.”

Martin proudly states that his family now has fifth generation fishermen working the fish from Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s regulated waters. His daughter, Ginger Nappi, helps run the still vibrant Martin Fish Company in Ocean City, Maryland. 

As for Martin, “occasionally I miss being out on the water, that is, until the wind blows real hard. At the same time, I get a lot of joy assisting captains and the crews out on the ocean. Makes me happy to coordinate a fleet like this.”

Robbie Scarborough

There are plenty of challenges out there for commercial fishermen today, said Robbie Scarborough, who’s spent his career on the waters off the coast of Hatteras Village, North Carolina.

There’s changing regulations, dangerous weather, keeping up on updated technology, and following schools of fish as they move along the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s coast. 

But at the end of the day, commercial fishermen are businessmen, Scarborough explained, as he packed out a “fair day’s catch,” or about 500 pounds, of bluefish and butterfish at Avon Seafood Company in Hatteras Village. 

“Our biggest challenge is trying not to flood the market,” Scarborough said. 

It’s the proverbial catch-22. When the fish are running, “you catch them because if you don’t the guy in the boat next to you will. Besides, you don’t know if they will be back tomorrow. But then if you have too many fish at market, they lose their value.”

One fish species, Scarborough said, “could bring you $2 today and 90 cents tomorrow.”

After more than 30 years of fishing, though, you learn how to balance it.

Scarborough is a blue blood, born and raised, Hatteras Village fisherman. 

“Fishing isn’t just important to Hatteras, it’s the blood of Hatteras.”

It’s what Scarborough’s father did and what he figured he eventually would do. He didn’t know for sure until he was 15 and “was out on the boat and didn’t get sea sick anymore. Figured that meant I should be a fisherman.” 

Twenty years ago, he bought his first commercial fishing vessel and named her Shear Water. 

Fishing isn’t a job, Scarborough points out. 

“A job is something you do nine to five and hate going to it,” he said. “This isn’t a job, it’s a labor of passion. You’re not going to get rich doing it, but you’ll get to be on the water and will always have a good dinner.”

Scarborough will hook and line fish for some species, but largely, Shear Water is outfitted with gill nets. 

Keeping up on regulations, being a fisherman in a border area between two federal agencies, isn’t too hard, he said, “if you have a good wife at home,” Scarborough said. “I can read, write and sing, but my focus is fishing. She keeps me regulated.” 

Ask Scarborough if he fishes for fun, and you get a huge smile and hearty laugh.

“Fish for fun? Fishing for fun cost me my first two wives. My wife now likes me better when I fish for fun.”

Paul Farnham

Montauk, NY

Fishermen are today’s undervalued heroes.

Paul Farnham passionately believes that. 

As hunter-gatherers, fishermen are among the “last of the indigenous people in today’s world – a fast, paced technology driven world. Those guys on the back of the boat, they are my heroes. Real true heroes. They go out in brutal weather. They don’t get paid a lot. They still do it.”

And that’s why Farnham spends day in and day out welcoming commercial fishing boats back to the Town Dock in Montauk, New York, practically the northernmost port in the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s region. 

Farnham doesn’t own the dock. He’s not even a wholesale fish dealer. What Farnham offers fishermen in Montauk, through his company the Montauk Fish Dock, is unique, he said.

Simply put, “we unload and freight forward.”  

Commercial fishing boats pull up to Farnham, whose team helps unload the boat (called packing out), weigh, ice down and package. Then he ships it. 

Most docks have wholesale operations right there, he said. Fishermen unload and sell their catch in one place. 

“Our service provides the opportunity for fishermen to unload and sell and market themselves to whoever they want,” Farnham said. 

Most of the fish are sold on consignment to Fulton Fish Market in nearby New York City, but some of Farnham’s clients ship their fish overseas, as far away as the West Coast and to various wholesalers outside of the area. 

Farnham, originally from Canada, worked in and around commercial fishing all of his life. He bought his unpacking and freight forwarding business in Montauk in 1988 and has been a staple on the docks ever since. 

So much so that in 2006, while battling cancer, Farnham never missed a day of work. He would get his chemotherapy treatments and return to the dock. 

Ask Farnham to describe himself and he’ll tell you “I’m first a cancer survivor. Then I’m a fisherman. You really have to be a survivor to be a fisherman these days.”

Many fishermen, when asked about the challenges to their community today, talk up regulations. 

“Regulations are a given. Our challenges are our survival. We need docks to unload. Our threats are real estate, environmentalists and the government.”

Farnham leases his unloading property at the dock. Within throwing distance is a piece of property, he said, sold eight or nine years ago for just more than $1 million. Today it’s valued at more than $4 million. 

Then there’s the constant work to ensure the market isn’t oversaturated with fish, yet properly priced for the consumers to eat and fishermen to still make money. 

“By the time fish gets to someone’s plate, there’s a lot of hands that have touched it. A lot of middle men.”

From the fisherman to Farnham, Farnham to the delivery driver, from the wholesaler to the restaurant, and finally to a kitchen and a plate. 

Each time, a few more cents of operating and handling fees add on. On average, for example, Farnham charges 18 cents per pound of fish unloaded, iced and shipped. 

Looking toward the future, Farnham plans to get involved in reducing “the number of hands each fish goes through” and open something of an online fish market. 

“I’d like to be able to unload the fish from here and ship it directly to the consumer. This way, the consumer saves money and gets real deal, same day, fresh fish” from his fishermen heroes.