The mystery and method of ‘market price’ seafood

If you ordered a “market price” lobster at an East End restaurant this summer, there’s more than a decent chance that your crustacean took a somewhat circuitous route from the waters off Eastern Long Island to your plate.

A veteran dockworker who spoke to Times Review earlier this summer described a little-known peculiarity of the East End’s fresh seafood market: More than one third of what fishing boats catch travels to New York City — and often back again.

“If you don’t buy directly from local fishermen, it comes across my dock and we pack it in a truck, it gets driven to the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx and they sell it to other wholesalers,” said the dockworker, who requested to remain anonymous. “Those wholesalers turn around and sell the fish back — they pack it in a truck and it comes back out here and it gets redistributed. I kid you not.”

He added that roughly “65% of the stuff we sell never makes it to the city” and ends up in local retail markets and restaurants instead. 

To better understand how the market price of a lobster roll or other local delicacy is set by the time it reaches the consumer, Times Review reached out to fishermen, retail and wholesale seafood purveyors, restaurants, chefs and major regional distributors. Only a half-dozen experts were willing to speak on the record, and most insisted on anonymity. 

The seeming absurdity of sending so much fresh fish on an 80-plus mile round trip to and from New York City makes more sense considering that the price fluctuations that govern the fresh seafood market are driven by a variety of factors — from the uncertainty of boat fuel and trucking costs to overheads including refrigeration, labor, food preparation and the vacillating scarcity or availability of any popular fish.

There’s also a good reason so much East End seafood ends up in the Bronx: Local fishermen and seafood purveyors say there’s no way the area’s fishing industry could possibly offload and sell all their daily catches to local restaurants and seafood shops before it goes bad. 

Fulton Fish Market is the only outlet in the region that can handle enough volume to meet demand. Fulton operates as a sort of fresh fish stock exchange, determining prices based on supply and demand. A lobster that’s caught on the East End and gets shipped to Fulton rises in price from the moment it hits the dock in Montauk or Greenport to its arrival at the fish market. East End restaurants often source their seafood from the city. 

The Fulton Fish Market raises the price by a given percentage depending on the variety and other factors, such as seasonality, “but it’s after Fulton, when it goes to the retail end, that’s where the big markup is made,” the dockworker said. 

One of the most unpredictable aspects of the process is the fishing itself. As with fresh local produce, the price that the most sought-after fish can fetch rises and falls throughout the calendar year.  

Local commercial fishing boats are out on the water for most of the year. “You can’t stop for wintertime,” one longtime North Fork fisherman said. “We have $50,000 to $60,000 insurance payments, and most of these guys have mortgages on the boats. You have a crew that you’ve got to pay, and if you decide to tie up, you’re going to lose them to another boat.” 

As prices for high-end fresh seafood like lobsters and scallops fluctuate throughout the year — and especially during the summer high season — a fishing boat captain can earn only a third or even a quarter of the price per pound that they could command a month, a week or even a few hours earlier.

“It’s volume,” the fisherman said. Prices are “constantly changing. It’s like going to the [expletive] casino every time. Some of these restaurants, I’ll deliver to two or three times a day and if I’m getting lobsters from four different boats, the price is changing from boat to boat.” 

For their part, local seafood wholesalers and retailers are covering the costs of labor, refrigeration, trucking, gas, staffing and other overhead to keep fresh seafood moving smoothly through their operations. 

An employee at an East End retail seafood market, who also requested anonymity in order to speak freely, said that the cost of a market price lobster “depends on when you’re getting something out to eat, where you’re out to eat and whether it’s local or not. If it’s local, it goes through less hands — money is being traded less times, so it’s going to be less of a markup.

“But it works both ways,” the employee added. “We go into Fulton Fish Market to get everything we can’t source locally, but we’re also not driving empty trucks. We’ll cart stuff up for the local guys to get. So we may be getting a scallop that we could get locally, but it’s coming from New Jersey, through Fulton, to us — just because that’s where there are bigger numbers available.”

Once it reaches a restaurant, the seafood gets prepared and priced to account for line items such as staffing, storage, preparation and the very limited amount of time that fresh seafood can truly be called “fresh.” 

Tim Trill, a longtime East End executive chef, said in a recent interview that although pricing varies widely from restaurant to restaurant, “the general rule of thumb is three times your cost.” 

During the peak summer season, the price of lobster remains high, a fact reflected in an informal Labor Day weekend survey of top East End purveyors of lobster rolls. At a dozen different outlets advertising fresh seafood, the price of a traditional roll ranged from lows of $31 at Southold Fish Market and $32 at Barrow Food House in Aquebogue to $44 at Little Fish in Southold. On the South Fork, prices were even higher. At Docker’s in Hampton Bays, for example, market price rolls were going for $52 with chips or $58 with a side of fries.