It’s not easy finding fresh fish in New York. Or anywhere in the United States for that matter. Just about all fish is marketed as ‘fresh,’ but in reality, the vast majority of seafood consumed here winds its way through the labrynthine maze of the commodity markets – from sea to net to a boat’s frozen hold, and back to dock where it’s sold, first to a wholesaler who brings it hundreds of miles to the Fulton Fish Market, where it’s sold again to distributors who truck it back to their local markets to in turn sell it, once again, to retailers or chefs…all before the fillet finds its way to your plate.
But as evidenced by the long lines at the Blue Moon Fish stand at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket every weekend, the people want fresh fish. The city’s Greenmarkets offer one of the city’s maddeningly few opportunities to buy fish directly from the people who actually catch it.
Alex Villani of Blue Moon Fish has been fishing the inshore and offshore waters around Long Island for over forty years, and selling his catch directly to urban pescaphiles for two decades at several city Greenmarkets. We sat down with Alex at Grand Army Plaza to learn more about life on the open seas.
So Alex, how did you end up as a commercial fisherman?
I grew up in Chelsea, on the west side of Manhattan, which is kind of weird. I’m probably the only commercial fisherman from Chelsea. When I was eighteen, in 1970, my parents moved out on me. They moved to Long Island and I stayed behind in the apartment in the city. I had a pretty good time. It was 1970 and I was eighteen years old, living alone in the city.
But then my mom passed away and my dad was having a hard time, so I moved out to the island. I kept the apartment in the city for a while, but I wasn’t doing anything there other than screwing up and having fun. So out on Long Island, I started clamming.
When I was about twelve or thirteen, I had a friend who had a clam boat on Great South Bay, the bay between Fire Island and the main part of Long Island. I worked on the boat with him for a few weeks and I always remembered it being a pretty nice job. I liked being outside. So when I moved out to Long Island to be with my father I bought a three hundred dollar boat and a four hundred dollar engine and started clamming. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just went out by myself and said, “This is pretty cool.” I just went out and did it. And it was fine.
What was the three hundred dollar boat like?
It was twenty six feet – a really old boat. Now, I wouldn’t even go out in it, now that I know something. I didn’t know anything then. I was a dumb nineteen year old. Nothing bothered me then. I think I made twenty bucks the first day and I was like, “This is great!”
Eventually I started meeting people and learning more and more and that’s how it evolved. I did that for five years, and then eventually I wanted more of the open water, so I moved out to the ocean and went offshore fishing and lobstering. I’d go out for days and days and did the whole thing.
Why did you want to move to offshore fishing? What was the appeal?
The bay started to feel confining, the clam stocks were going down a little bit, and I had always wanted to go out on the ocean. I had dreams about going to Alaska, which I’m glad I didn’t do because things worked out fine for me here. I just wanted the open water. I wanted to work on the open water.
I met some people. Probably in a bar. There was a big bar scene with fishermen then. There was this real old character, Jim Catterson. His son, who was also named Jim, and I were friends and became fishing partners. Jim senior built clam boats, so I wound up hanging out with him a lot, drinking gin out of the bottle, and building some boats. That boat building knowledge has helped me along the way too.
I met more people through that and after a while I just said I wanted to get off the bay to go to the ocean. I went to Hampton Bays, to the fishing fleet near Shinnecock Inlet to interview for an offshore lobstering job. They didn’t even ask me any questions. They just looked at me to see if I was big enough. That was it. There weren’t any requirements other than strength.
I got the job, on a boat called The Patriot. It was really hard work. Just the preparation alone – we had about twelve hundred pots, which isn’t really a lot, but at the beginning of the season we had to dip each pot in these big vats of this horrible hot tar. Then you’d have to load up the boat. We’d take four or five hundred pots out at a time. We’d drop them all at the beginning of the season and leave them out until the end. You’d soak them for four or five days, then go back out, pull them, take out the lobster, clean the pots, fix them, bait them, drop them again and do it all over a few days later.
What was a typical trip like during the season?
We’d always leave the dock at eight o’clock at night. Before that you’d load up all the bait and all this stuff. You had tons of bait you had to bring out with you. It was an eight hour ride out to the edge of the shelf where the lobster were – about a hundred miles. There would be three guys on deck. One person would be on watch at all times and after your watch you’d try to sleep a couple hours. You’d get there at four in the morning and start working.
You’d pull the pots up, empty them, clean them, bait them and drop them again. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t complicated. We’d work from four in the morning until eleven or twelve at night, sleep for a few hours, get up, do it again, and then we’d be finished and we’d come back in.
You’d be pretty exhausted. There’s no time for anything. You’d still be working with a sandwich in your hand – that kind of deal.
No stringing up a hammock on a lazy summer afternoon?
Ha ha. No. It was pretty incredible though. We caught a lot of lobster back then. Big lobster trips. It was pretty nice out there too. In the summer you’d be surrounded by whales and dolphins. We’d go swimming occasionally. That was pretty nice. In six hundred feet of water. That was pretty cool except for the sharks. Ha ha.
So are you in the Gulf Stream out there?
We’d be past the Gulf Stream in the summer. In the summer the Gulf Stream would swing closer to shore. The water in the Gulf Stream would be eighty five or eighty six degrees. We had problems keeping the lobsters alive at times. We had big tanks on the boat to hold them, but if the water was too warm, sometimes you’d lose hundreds of them.
What’s up with Long Island lobster? It seems like in the Northeast all you ever hear about is Maine lobster. Are they still fishing for lobster on Long Island?
They’re still fishing for lobster offshore. Inshore lobstering in Long Island Sound used to be great, but the stocks got pretty depleted about ten years ago.
There were major amounts of lobster coming in. Really big, big trips. Then they started spraying for the West Nile virus. They started spraying a lot of insecticide to kill the mosquitos. There was a lot of rain after the spraying, so there was a lot of runoff and we think it killed off the lobster population in the Sound. The stocks just disappeared. Just like that. They were spraying a ton of this insecticide. There was a lot of runoff into the Sound. Lobsters are considered a sort of insect, and it killed them. It just killed them.
Most of the lobstermen filed suit over it, against the company that manufactured the stuff. They ended up settling and giving the fishermen money but denied responsibility – that kind of deal.
At that point I was fishing already. I had a couple hundred pots but I was mostly fishing with nets – dragging.
So when did you move from lobstering to fishing and strike out on your own?
The same guy that I started out with lobstering – we used to lobster from Easter to Thanksgiving, and then in the winter we used to go fishing offshore, with nets, dragging. That was how the year went. I worked with him for about five years. I learned a lot from the guy. He was a really great teacher. He was crazy, but a great teacher. He always got me home, so that was a good thing.
After that I became a captain. I got licensed and went to work on various other offshore boats as a captain. You’d have a crew and run the boat. You’d work on percentages – you’d get a share of the catch.
Eventually I bought a small forty two foot boat of my own. There was a boom in skimmer clams in Long Island Sound in the mid-eighties, so I did that for about two years. I ran big boats and I had my own boat and eventually I said, “Enough of running other people’s boats.” I bought the boat I have now in the early nineties. It’s a thirty six foot fiberglass trawler and that’s the way I fish now.
So how do you actually catch fish? And where? Peconic Bay? The Sound?
Well now I’m docked in Mattituck, on the North Fork. I live right by the dock.
You’re not allowed to work Peconic Bay. It’s closed. I work in Long Island Sound – Eastern Long Island Sound for the most part. I do move around, but now, in summer it’s good in Long Island Sound. So that’s where I fish.
I’m all set up for net fishing. I have a hauler, for fish pots also. I use those to catch blackfish and some sea bass. They’re like lobster pots, only modified a little bit to catch fish instead of lobsters. Same size, just a different funnel design. That’s all.
I did not know you caught sea bass in pots. Is that always how it’s done?
Mostly. I catch some in the nets too. Probably about a third in the nets, two thirds in the pots. With the nets, it’s a bycatch. I’m not really targeting them with the nets but you do catch some, which is pretty nice.
What’s a typical fishing day like for you now?
A normal day is starting at two, three in the morning. Go down to the boat, start a run out to where I’m fishing that day. It could be anywhere from a half mile to fifteen miles out. Sometimes I’ll have someone with me but most of the time I’m by myself.
I’ll set the net and it’s always dark. My best towing is at night or in the early morning. Depending on the time of year, I could tow for an hour, I could tow for fifteen minutes, or I could tow for two hours. It just depends on how good the fish are. You can’t tow too long or you’ll end up with too much and you won’t be able to get it all in the boat.
How do you tell what sort of load you’ve got on the net?
I’ll slow down. The boat will slow down and I’ll know something’s wrong. And you have a good sense of what’s going on after a while anyway. I should by now! I’d better! Ha ha.
How big is the net? And how is it set up?
The net stretched out is fifty five feet wide by twelve or fourteen feet high.
I have split winches. Two winches, one on either side of the boat, for each end of the net. There’s a lot of wire – wire supporting the top of the net, and wire connecting each end of the net to the winches on each side of the boat. There’s a chain that runs along the bottom of the net to weigh it down and keep it on the bottom while you tow. After that there’s something called cookie gear, made of old recycled tires about three inches high that roll along the bottom. After that we’ve got something called doors. They’re these things shaped like a door, with vents in them to let some water through, and those keep the net open – they spread the net.
Then after that I have the wire which keeps the net attached to the boat. Usually there’s about two hundred to five hundred feet of wire out to the net. It’s a four to one ratio of wire to the distance to the bottom. In a hundred feet of water I’ll have at least four to five hundred feet of wire out. I’ve worked from twenty feet of water to a hundred and thirty feet of water with this boat.
Dragging really doesn’t disturb the bottom that much. Everyone things we do such damage, but the new nets don’t do much damage at all.
How targeted is the catch? How seasonal?
It’s seasonal, but I’ll also know what’s in deeper water, what’s in shallower water at that time of year. If the bluefish are closer to shore in late summer I’ll go in there to get some bluefish. In deeper water I’ll fish for fluke or monkfish or something like that.
So it’s moving around, having some knowledge about what’s running, and talking to other fishermen about what they’re catching. Although I only talk to two or three guys. Everyone else is lying. Ha ha ha. Fishermen don’t talk too much. Most guys have two or three people they’re straight with. Other than that there’s not much talking. Friends give each other tips. There’s enough fish. It’s not like one person can catch them all.
In terms of what you catch, and how much you catch, are there ups and downs? How much luck is involved?
There are ups and downs. This has been a really good month so far. The last three or four weeks have been really great. Some of it had to do with the warmer water temperature this year. The fish came in a couple of weeks earlier than normal. Fish migrate because of the water temperature. There’s not much luck involved.
Once in a while I’ll catch something that surprises me. This spring we had sea trout – weakfish – for about two or three weeks. I probably caught more in a couple of days this year than I caught all last year. I said, “Where did they come from!?” So that was a surprise. That’s probably luck.
Is there a big variety of fish in the net when you haul it?
Yeah, as a rule. But if I’m going for fluke it’s mostly going to be fluke. You’ll get some ling in there sometimes, some skate. We sell a lot of skate here. You’ll catch shark occasionally. We had a shark this week.
Sometimes you’ll catch something weird. We catch sturgeon still. That’s a weird looking fish. I like looking at them. They’re real prehistoric. They come out of the rivers to migrate. Sturgeon fishing has been closed for about ten years, so you can’t keep ‘em. But I don’t think the government has any idea how many sturgeon there are because we still catch them all the time. They’re hardy. They all go back alive, that’s for sure. I feel more for myself than I do for them when they end up in the net. They’re all muscle, and they’re big. Sometimes they’re like four, five hundred pounds, and you have to wrestle them off the boat.
And sometimes we’ll get big skates or rays that weigh like three hundred pounds. They’re harder to get off the boat then they are to get on!
So what happens when you haul the net?
I drop the net on deck. I go down on my knees, separate everything. I have to measure most things. There are size limits for everything. The fish I keep go into a box with ice, right away. Within a half hour everything’s iced, in the boxes, and then they all go into an insulated hold.
I’ve been caught in lots of storms. In the small boat now the winds are less of a problem than on the big boats, but it’s still a little scary sometimes when the waves are coming over the bow.
I’ve been struck by lightning out there. That was interesting.
So what’s that like?
It was LOUD. I was working on a big steel boat. The lightning actually went right through the boat into the water. It grounded itself, so we were fine, but all the antennas blew off and it was unbelievably loud. That was something, but you know, we found our way back. Ha ha ha. So it was alright.
Why is it so hard to find fish caught locally? Or to buy fish caught directly from local fisherman. It seems like outside of the Greenmarkets, it’s almost impossible to find, but there’s a lot being caught here…
So that’s another thing. To legally sell at the Greenmarkets, to legally sell the fish I catch myself to anybody other than a wholesaler, I actually have to sell my fish to myself before I sell it to you. So I’m incorporated both as a fisherman and I’m separately licensed by the federal government as a fish dealer. You can’t sell it right off the boat to anybody anymore. You have to do all this paperwork.
Why? Sounds a little crazy.
It’s to keep track of the stocks. They don’t want somebody going out and catching a thousand pounds of something if they’re only allowed to catch a hundred.
So it’s a check to make sure everyone’s following the rules?
Yeah. I mean, I’m always getting checked out there when I’m fishing, by the DEC and people like that. They’ll come up and board you and check your catch and your paperwork all the time.
Every fisherman has to do a lot of paperwork now, to report exactly what they’re catching, where, when, how, how much…It’s part of the business now. One of the reasons I started fishing was because there was no paperwork. It was a free for all. I loved it, but things have changed.
I’m part of a research program now, so I have even more paperwork. I have to fax in reports to all these agencies every time I come in. I have to call New York State, Gloucester…It’s part of a program that they call ‘fisherman-based research.’ Government research vessels will fish alongside a fisherman and we’ll compare what we’re catching. We always catch a lot more than they do for some reason. Ha ha ha. Which is why we complain about the limits. They set the limits based on the number of fish they catch, but for some reason we always catch way more than they do. Ha ha ha. We want them to raise the limits a little bit based on what we catch, not what they catch.
What is the perception among Long Island fishermen of all the federal regulations? Does it work? Is it good?
It works. There are definitely a lot more fish now. When I first started there were a lot of fish, then the foreign fleets came in with huge boats and they were taking way more fish than we ever had before, and the stocks went way down. After they got the foreign fleets out the government kind of funded Americans to take over where they left off, with the huge boats but no real regulations. So we did even more damage to the stocks. They’ve been rebuilding from that. Now everything’s regulated and there’s a lot more fish. It’s helped a lot.
But I think they’re being overly cautious. The stocks are back but they’re not opening it up enough, quickly enough. Of course, they’ve been sued a lot by environmental groups, and I think that kind of complicated things. But it should be opened up more.
Another thing that’s tough for small boat operators like me is that a lot of the catch is going to the big offshore boats. It’s kind of complicated how it works. Say the whole coast is allowed to catch fifteen million pounds of fluke in a year. They divvy that up among the coastal states. I think New York is allowed seven percent of the total catch. I don’t know why it’s so low. And then it gets further divvied up between recreational and commercial fishermen. There’s usually a daily or weekly limit on the amount of each specific fish you can catch. The big boats have an advantage because they can go out in any kind of weather at any time of year. They have bigger crews, more storage capacity, so they can stay out longer and catch more of the total allocation. So it’s kind of unfair in that way.
But really? Things are good. There are a lot of fish out there.
How did you end up selling at the Greenmarkets? And why? What’s the benefit for you of doing it that way?
Obviously you’re going to make a little bit more money, but it’s a lot more work too. I like it because I get to interact with people. I like being by myself most of the time on the water, and one day a week dealing with a massive amount of people at the market. People are great in the city. They’re regular people and we joke around and have a good time all of us, it seems. It’s fun. On market days my mouth gets tired from talking so much and so I just go back to fishing by myself for a few days. Ha ha ha.
But it is more work. I could just wholesale the stuff and ship it from the dock. That would be easy. I guess I’m conditioned to do it this way though and I like it. That’s why I’ve been doing it for twenty four years.
You can find Blue Moon Fish at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket on Saturdays in Brooklyn, and in Manhattan at the Tribeca Greenmarket on Saturdays and Union Square Greenmarket on Wednesdays.