Survival of the Freshest

| July 02, 2002

On the boat docks and the loading docks of the fish houses along the New England waterfront, trucks and boats meet in an uneasy dance. Here the dangerous and grueling work of fishermen from old Massachusetts fishing towns like Gloucester, Boston and New Bedford, and storied harbors like Newport, R.I., ends, and the equally demanding work of the professional drivers, who haul fish for a living, begins.

It is a highly efficient process that can put tuna steak, scrod or lobster, on the plates of diners hundreds of miles from the ocean overnight, or at the most, second day. A tuna caught off the George’s Bank on Monday could be sizzling under a broiler in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Wednesday. Lobster, called “live”, since it is iced and shipped only to be dipped head first in boiling water just before it’s eaten, can hit the table less than 24 hours after it’s hauled from the water, says Lorraine DeCosta, president of NWD, Inc., of New Bedford, Mass.

Such extremely tight scheduling is necessary in an industry that depends on the freshness of the fish it hauls for its survival. Many drivers love the challenge of the haul. NWD driver Bob Strauch, who drives a red 2001 Classic XL with a 500 Detroit, typically runs 2,500-2,800 miles a week. He says he considers his job “easy money” compared to peddling 20 stops of groceries a day, a job he left to work for NWD. “I feel like I’m retired,” he says.

NWD has been hauling fish to the Midwest for a long time. Richard DeCosta, the company founder, began hauling to Nordic Fisheries of Pittsburgh, in 1979. NWD has expanded its reach in the Midwest and now delivers to fish wholesalers in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, but Nordic remains one of their biggest customers.

On average Nordic gets 100,000 pounds of fish a week all year round from New England. According to Joey Benkowitz, owner of Nordic, fish comes into his processing plant from nearly all of the coastal states. “The Mid-Atlantic states give us about 50 percent less than New England, and they only supply us during their season, which is winter,” Benkowitz says. The Mid-Atlantic states supply entirely different types of fish, he says, in addition to some of the same ground fish that come from New England waters. Ground fish, so called because they live near the ocean bottom, include cod, flounder, haddock and perch. The Mid-Atlantic waters give us butterfish, squid, striped bass and shellfish. But trucks also bring indigenous varieties from Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, the West Coast, and Alaska to Nordic. Benkowitz says three days transit time is typical. From Anchorage there’s no choice, it’s definitely a team situation. “We deal in a highly perishable product,” says Benkowitz, “timeliness is a very important aspect of our business.”

Fish are gutted and beheaded on the boat to ensure freshness, says Benkowitz. When a catch hits the dock, much of it is filleted and packed in wooden boxes or plastic containers for shipment. Any fish not filleted on the boats are put through a complete filleting operation. When ready, the fish are repacked in appropriately sized containers for local distribution. From Pittsburgh, Nordic supplies restaurants and grocery stores in a 500-mile radius.

While a great deal of NWD’s freight come from fish houses on the wharves on New England’s coast, some product comes from northern Europe by air and is picked up at Boston’s Logan or an airport in New York City. This product is mostly frozen, as is some of the product picked up on the docks.

Drivers Bob Strauch (left) and Herb Peets (right) say the are proud to work for NWD CEO Eric DeCosta (center) and his family-run business.

Fresh fish must be kept at 28 degrees constantly. Eric DeCosta, Richard’s son, and since his father’s death in 1999, CEO and chief operations manager, says, “My customers are very temperature sensitive. They will not pay for warm fish.”

A great deal of the weight in a typical load of fresh fish will be ice. Packed in ice and temperature controlled by a reefer unit, fresh fish and live shellfish reach the heartland in excellent shape. Compartmentalized reefers can maintain frozen product at zero degrees while allowing fresh and live seafood to stay that way without being frozen solid.

Rates for product do not often reflect the liability attached. “Shrimp is high liability. A 50-pound box of shrimp can cost $700. They are easily lost,” Eric DeCosta says. “And fresh pays much more than frozen, which makes no sense since the liability for frozen is the same as for fresh.”

Delivering seafood is one of the most time sensitive types of trucking, along with jobs like hauling just-in-time for the auto industry and produce runs. Richard DeCosta knew this when he started in the business and built his operation around the dependability of his drivers and innovative thinking. Many people told him that using rented Ryder trucks would never work, according to Lorraine DeCosta. They said it was too expensive. But Richard DeCosta had a plan and a very sharp pencil. He believed in Ryder because they had a policy of providing replacement equipment within two hours of a breakdown. He decided at the beginning to use rental equipment and tightly scheduled turns to keep the trucks moving, making money, while they were being rented.

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