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What's in Store: Local fish, local support

Giving back to fishing community important to one N.C. seafood retailer

By Christine Blank
November 01, 2009

Bill Rice grew up around the seafood industry in the Beaufort, N.C., area where he now owns the Fishtowne Seafood Center retail market. Rice's family owned a commercial fishing boat when he was younger, and the seafood business was always something he wanted to be involved in. After moving away and graduating from college, Rice had wanted to start a farmed fish operation; instead, he worked as a contract chicken producer for a large supplier for a few years.

"Large-scale agribusiness was a little overwhelming, and I have always been intrigued by wild fish, so I decided to come back to this area. We have always had an abundance of shellfish and fish here," says Rice. Soon after moving back to Beaufort with his family, Rice purchased a small wholesale seafood company. That was six years ago, and the business has since been expanded by 750 square feet to 2,000 square feet. Its customer base has also grown to include retail and wholesale customers, including around 10 regular restaurants and select retailers.

"Cutting fish is our specialty, so we needed a facility to cut the volume of fish," says Rice.

The overriding philosophy of Fishtowne is to buy local seafood, thereby supporting the fishing industry in the small towns along the North Carolina coast.

"I live in this community, and raise my family here. We have a very unique fishing community, comprised of six different communities that are built on commercial fishing. While the large-scale type of fishing is a dying industry, there are smaller operators that are making a living at it," says Rice.

Over the past 10 years, the volume of imported seafood has put pressure on the local seafood industry and driven some operators out of business, according to Rice. "I think we have seen the effect of imported seafood on our industry: It has crippled it," says Rice.

Still, during the recession Fishtowne's customers are buying more local seafood, according 
to Rice.

"We are in a town that has 
always had fishing, and people like to support it. If it weren't for local people, we would have to close our doors," says Rice. "With local, there is transparency: People know where their fish comes from, and we clean it well."

In addition, food safety concerns and health is top-of-mind at Fishtowne.

"There is a lot of collaboration from a food-safety standpoint here: the North Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Resources, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries [work with us]," says Rice.

To that end, Rice sources a wide variety of local seafood and recently got involved in the Walking Fish community supported fishery (CSF). The CSF, formed by Duke University and Carteret County fishermen, started in mid-September and runs through Dec. 10.

As part of the CSF, in which members buy shares for between $70 and $420 each, Fishtowne makes weekly deliveries of approximately 1,000 pounds of seafood from Beaufort to Durham, N.C. Other local retailers working with the CSF include Blue Ocean Market in Morehead City, Capt. Jim's Seafood also in Morehead City and Tripps Seafood in Beaufort.

Fishtowne cleans and fillets a different fish every week, then packs it in individual bags for around 400 members of the Walking Fish CSF. "I buy something different every week from various fishermen. I would like to offer shrimp or clams to go along with the fish," says Rice. Fishtowne is piloting the program with Duke University, so the market is buying the fish and making deliveries.

While the processing and bagging of fillets is time-consuming, Rice believes the CSF will be good for his business and North Carolina residents.

"It is a lot of labor, but I think it will help me sustain my business in tough economic times," says Rice.

Also, residents of Durham, who are not as close to the coast, will likely be more supportive of local fisheries and sustainable fisheries, he believes.

Fishtowne is also a member of Carteret Catch, a nonprofit organization that supports local fisheries through public marketing and education, which is raising the awareness of local fish.

While customers understand that local seafood is subject to availability, Rice's goal is to supply as wide a variety of seafood for as long as possible.

"Anything that can be caught in our area, including shrimp, oysters, crabs, shallow-water flounder and trout, we carry. In season, I also try to carry grouper, ahi, triggerfish and snapper," says Rice.

Triggerfish, which has a firm white flesh and sweet flavor, is very popular with local restaurants and residents, Rice adds.

Although Fishtowne does not make a practice of selling imported seafood, it will supply Canadian farmed salmon and king crab or snow crab upon request.

The difficulty with supplying North Carolina seafood is maintaining a variety of seafood year-round, says Rice. Still, he is able to source flounder, jumping mullets, oysters, clams and other seafood in the winter months. Shrimp is also in supply for most of the year, because three different varieties of shrimp are caught in the area.

While local and sustainable have been important buzzwords nationwide in recent years, Fishtowne is putting those concepts to work by buying from North Carolina fishermen and supplying local seafood to its community. As Rice says, the hope is that more North Carolinians will recognize the variety and quality of seafood that the state's coastline provides.

 

Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.

 

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