Survival of the Freshest

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.”

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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.

The edge that made the NWD operation extremely efficient was Richard DeCosta’s use of a local driver to pick up at the dozens of seafood suppliers around New England. None of his competitors used a local driver – the same driver who loaded all day in New England drove all night to the Midwest, making missed appointments and angry customers commonplace. Richard DeCosta’s plan allowed a fresh driver to leave New England and make some deliveries in western Pennsylvania overnight. As his reputation for dependability grew, his operation expanded.

Now that NWD has expanded into the farther reaches of the Midwest, a shuttle system first initiated by Richard DeCosta in the 1980s has expanded to keep pace. Drivers routinely swap loads at the end of their 10-hour shift, get their sack time and head back to New England, leaving their freight with drivers who deliver to customers another few hundred miles west while the New England driver heads home with a backhaul. Lorraine DeCosta says, “We still deliver some broker loads, but not very many. We have steady work coming back into New England and our outbound keeps our 10 trucks plus the rentals busy.”

NWD has expanded its company-owned fleet but still has rental and leased equipment from both Ryder and Penske to maintain operational flexibility and meet unexpected needs. NWD has also forged a relationship with Pier Fish, another family-owned outfit that has been hauling fish since 1910. Lorraine DeCosta says this relationship has added to their operation immensely. Indeed, Pier Fish has painted its logo on a number of NWD trailers, a sign of a lasting and profitable partnership.

All company drivers carry cell phones, paid for by NWD, so they can react to customer needs immediately. Because pickup orders can change quickly, instant communication is a necessity. Eric DeCosta will take on ‘any job that needs doing’, including driving to the Midwest at a moment’s notice when he turns up extra freight.

Strauch says the people who work for the DeCosta family are “willing to do what it takes to get the job done.” Eric DeCosta recently took a load to Hazelton, Pa., where he swapped trailers with a driver who was expecting to go home. Instead, the driver turned around and headed back out. Communication and cooperation are necessary in a business based on extremely tight scheduling that goes far beyond having cell phones.

Herb Peets, a local driver who runs a log book, works long days. He may typically leave for New Hampshire in the early morning, pick up north of Boston, then drive into Boston itself somewhere in the late afternoon, headed for the waterfront and the fresh fish houses. He will be back in New Bedford between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. He drives a lot of miles and makes a lot of pickups. The road drivers either shuttle a load to the Midwest or deliver to a closer customer. Road drivers are typically doing two and a half to three turns a week.

Farther south in Hampton, Va., Mead Amory’s trucks supply Nordic in Pittsburgh with two truckloads, about 70,000 pounds, of fish a week. Amory’s busy season is the winter when northern fish migrate. This busy time culminates at Easter.

Not all the fish Amory hauls comes from waters off the Mid-Atlantic states, however. “We get a lot of fresh and frozen fish out of Miami,” Amory says “Shackelford Trucking picks it up off the boat or plane and brings it to us. We deliver to Pittsburgh. Farm raised salmon from South America comes by plane and reaches Miami Monday morning. Shackelford picks it up and delivers to us Tuesday and we deliver to Nordic Wednesday. The quality of that salmon is unbelievable.”

At The Original Fish Market restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh, salmon from Alaska is on the menu right now, according to executive chef Daniel Mosedale. But all the seafood on the menu, from crab to mahi mahi, comes from Nordic Fisheries, less than a mile away. Its origin may have been South America, New England or Alaska, but it all came by truck and it all came through Nordic. The menu at the Original Fish Market is extensive and depends on the reliability of fishermen and truckers to offer its wide variety and outstanding quality.

All-American Shrimp
Trucking pals share seafood feast and original vino

Tom Mattfield is a trucker, but when he’s at home it’s not uncommon for friends to invite themselves over for dinner. That’s because he’s also a self-taught chef. It’s also because he’s very, very good.

Mattfield takes leftovers on the road and they often end up in the fridge, and then in the microwave, of his Pete 379. He will often meet up on the road with friend and fellow trucker Jon Hartley, who has also been known on occasion to backhaul some grapes from California to their home state, Minnesota, so that the two can follow another diversion – winemaking.

Mattfield tells Truckers News that one of his favorite recipes is from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a homegrown, all-American way to eat shrimp. Just looking at it can make you hungry.

And to go with it? These two truckers like to sip some Suburban Liebfrogmilch (a little Minnesota humor at the expense of the very proper German favorite white wine Liebfraumilch). They make it with Minnesota Seyval grapes and it’s won prizes at the Minnesota State Fair and in Winemaker magazine in 2000.

“It’s an excellent accompaniment to this, and other seafood dishes,” says Mattfield.

North Carolina Low Country Shrimp Boil
2 lbs. spicy pork sausage links
2 tablespoons Old Bay brand seasoning
1 bunch parsley tied with string
1 gallon water
4 ribs celery (washed and cut into thirds, but retain the leaves)
12 small red potatoes (scrubbed and cut in half)
2 heads garlic (peel all the cloves)
4 yellow onions (peeled and quartered)
2 banana peppers (sliced thin)
2 lemons (sliced)
3 bay leaves
1 cup apple cider vinegar
2 t. salt
1 T. black pepper
8 ears of sweet corn (husked and cut in half)
2 tablespoons hot pepper sauce
(I use the Tiger Sauce brand)
4 lbs. jumbo shrimp (leave in their shell)
1 bottle cocktail sauce (for dipping shrimp)

In a large Dutch oven or stock pot (at least 12 qt.) fry sausage links until browned on all sides. Remove with tongs and drain on paper towels. Stir the Old Bay seasoning into the sausage drippings. Add the water and parsley. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes (uncovered). Remove the parsley and discard. Add celery, potatoes, garlic, and onions. Return to boil, cover and reduce heat to simmer for 15 minutes. Add sausage links, banana peppers, lemons, bay leaves, apple cider vinegar, salt, pepper, corn and hot sauce. Bring to boil, cover and reduce heat to medium for 10 minutes. Stir in the shrimp and remove from the heat. Cover and allow the shrimp to poach off heat. Do not overcook shrimp – cook only until they turn pink and begin to curl. With a spoon, divide the shrimp and veggies among eight bowls and top each with a ladle of broth. Pass cocktail sauce for dipping shrimp after they are peeled.

Serves 8

Nothing ‘Fishy’ Here

Not long ago, before the fishing boat’s catch was put in wood or plastic, drivers and fishermen shared an occupational hazard not found in other industries. “Fish poisoning” was common among those who handled the catch. The oils and slime in a fish’s skin can cause rashes and internal infections.

Shark skin can lacerate, allowing for infections to spread. NWD Inc., CEO Eric DeCosta says the problem has abated since new regulations have required the boxing of nearly all fish.

Other ‘fishy’ problems have also been solved recently, says DeCosta. Herb Peets, one of three local drivers for NWD, says he used to use ground coffee, cinnamon, sometimes bleach, to get the smell of fish out of his trailer before picking up another load. Sprinkling coffee or cinnamon in a 48-foot reefer certainly seems like a low-tech solution. “Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t,” Peets says.

Nowadays Peets and other NWD drivers have gone high tech to solve the odor dilemma. DeCosta discovered a chemical made by ZEP called Formula 5764 that does the job. ” I have a whole load of groceries a customer wouldn’t accept because it smelled like fish,” DeCosta says. “That doesn’t happen if we use ZEP.”