PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (CBS) – On a typical warm afternoon, the Portsmouth Commercial Fish Pier would be bustling with activity. Normally you’d see dozens of boats transporting hundreds of pounds of lobsters to open truck beds, ready for wholesale distribution to restaurants and grocery stores.
But during the Coronavirus pandemic, many restaurants are closed or doing limited takeout. Wholesale retailers are staying home, and fishermen are without their customer base. New Hampshire Community Seafood estimates that about 90% of local catch goes to restaurants or is exported.
“None of that commerce is happening right now, so the seafood industry has really come to a screeching halt,” said New Hampshire Community Seafood General Manager Andrea Tomlinson.
Fishermen are considered essential workers since they gather a food source. But without customers, some have decided to get creative. Their new idea? Boat to table.
The boat Mary Baker comes into the pier around 5 p.m. Lining the parking lot is not commercial food trucks, but customers ready for dinner with their coolers wide open.
A group of fishermen created a Facebook page where local people place orders before showing up to the pier and getting fish fresh off the boat.
“This is a really safe product,” Tomlinson said. “It travels through a limited set of hands before it gets to you. In this case, it travels through one set of hands, the stearnman!”
And customers are happy to support them. “The local fisherman were saying how it’s difficult to sell their product because all the restaurants were closed, so I just thought, why not support the community?” said Peggy Kimball of Newbridge, New Hampshire. “It’s wonderful, getting fresh lobster off the boat. It’s great.”
These are uncharted waters for local fishermen. “We’re harvesters, not salesman,” explained boat Captain John Borden. “We just catch, basically, and that’s the way I like it. But under these circumstances, we’re just doing what we have to do right now…We’re fortunate that we can work. There’s a lot of people that can’t right now, and I don’t take that for granted.”
“We can keep our gear moving, keep our product moving, pay our bills, pay our crew,” said Jillian Robillard, who owns Southern Maine Crabs.
Robillard took the time away from busy work a step further, helping provide hundreds of lobsters to York Hospital to support the healthcare workers on the front lines.
While the boat to table method is helping pay the bills for now, fishermen on the Mary Baker don’t know how long they can make it last. Regardless, they’re hopeful it’ll not only get them by, but give local people an appreciation for local fish.