Maria Finn  

GASTRONOMICA - A Journal of Food and Culture - Fall issue 2005


Fulton Street Fish Market

This essay captures the final days of the Fulton Street Fish Market, which closed earlier this year when operations were moved to Hunt's Point in the Bronx.

At four a.m., Fulton Street fish market is already in full swing. Forklifts honk. Men with gaffs slung over their shoulders and fillet knives tucked into their belts haggle and joke. Fussy buyers from restaurants and retail markets check fish gills for freshness. The shoreline in Brooklyn is nearly dark except for the red and green running lights of ships passing down the East River. Fish arriving at Fulton Street still carry tales of international roguery, intrigue, weather phenomena, and finance. Orders are routinely delayed when pirates rob Malaysian trawlers or tuna long-liners front for drug cartels in Colombia. A drought in Chesapeake Bay is slowing the oyster harvest, so prices for New Zealand shellfish rise. Salmon from Alaska compete with Norwegian stock.

I'm down here waiting on a fresh halibut from Alaska. I used to live in Alaska, and I miss the fresh fish terribly. My friend Bill Sullivan, owner of Kachemak Bay Seafoods in Homer, Alaska, bragged that in just twenty hours he could get a fish to me at the Fulton Street Fish Market from the long-line hooks. So we placed a friendly wager on it: if my halibut makes it in twenty hours, I pay for it; anything over, I get a fish for free.

A favor he'll flake on, but a bet he'll keep.

Bill is originally from New York. His father was an Irish fireman and his mother a Scandinavian beauty, crowned Miss Norway in Bay Ridge in 1954. That's about as romantic as the story gets. After the divorce Bill's dad moved into an apartment and decorated it in "Early New York Irish Style"– with junk he dragged in off the streets.

The Norwegians and the Irish make up a big part of the Seaport's history. In the early 1800s, ships flying the flag of Norway, the maritime heavyweight, were a common sight in the harbor. Meanwhile, the Irish, hordes of them, were arriving by boat, all desperate for work. Ships from every corner of the globe moored at the South Street Seaport. The Dutch imported bricks, calves, and sheep. Rum, sugar, and molasses arrived from the West Indies. Boats from China brought unloaded tea and silk, and then carted ginseng back to the Far East. The shipments of fruit had to be unloaded at night so they wouldn't rot in the sun. Fish came in from the rich waters of Jamaica Bay and Long Island Sound, to be sold to New Yorkers or shipped by rail to the inland towns. The neighborhood bustled with bars and brothels. Hustlers scammed newly arrived immigrants, muggers rolled drunken sailors, and fishmongers hawked their wares.

Now we have new vices, and the last industry remaining from those times is the fish market. As historian Richard McKay writes in South Street: A Maritime History of New York, the course of American commerce can be traced from this "street of ships." When fish and spices were currency, the Seaport was the world trade center. Then trade switched to stocks and bonds, and the center of world commerce was symbolized by two huge towers that used to cast shadows on Fulton Street. And now the towers are also gone.

This is a place that bespeaks our capacity for destruction, resilience, and innovation. Fishermen used to tow nets full of cod from nearby waters, and people could scoop them out, still live, for supper. But the bays around New York City were quickly fished out and the rivers polluted with industrial waste. Technology, at least until now, has compensated for the destruction. In Alaska, the boats that fish halibut search by radar for deep ravines in the ocean bottom, then lay out their lines and hooks, carefully marking the spots on their LORAN (long range navigation system). Then they wrap the lines around a hydraulic head that pulls them in while fishermen gaff the huge fish, pull them on board, gut them, and layer them with ice. From the Pacific Ocean, the halibut then travel five thousand miles — from ship, to shore, to a truck, to plane, to the Fulton Street Fish Market in less than a day.

According to scientists, the effects of technology used by fishing boats have been devastating to saltwater fish. Marine biologists Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University in Halifax and Boris Worm of the Institute for Marine Science in Kiel, Germany, created a comprehensive study to assess the fish stocks remaining in the ocean. The results were grim. They reported that over the past fifty years, 90 percent of each type of saltwater fish that they tracked has disappeared, due mainly to innovations in technology. Furthermore, the fish now being caught are drastically smaller. Evidence of environmental decline is also indicated by the locations where fish are being caught. Fewer and fewer fish are harvested from the western Atlantic and the eastern seaboard, including the once-bountiful Grand Banks, which has been over-fished for some time. Sea bass from the southern hemisphere that are fished in Latin America and South Africa are coming in smaller every year.

The smaller fish haven't gone unnoticed at the fish market. Joe, a third-generation worker at Crescent City Seafoods, points out a box of newly arrived fish. "What, look at the size of these snapper," he groans. "Am I supposed to be selling butterfly wings?" "The fish are getting smaller, and this place has changed. Let me tell you about this place," he says, icing down a box of flounder. "It used to be its own city, with its own rules. Nowadays, you can make a living here, but it used to be that you made a lot of money."

Joe doesn't like the term mafia, and just smiles when ex-mayor Giuliani is mentioned. Giuliani built much of his reputation for toughness by going after the Genovese family, one of the big mobs in New York City, and prosecuting businesses accused of extortion in the Fulton Street Fish Market. "Now you had your criminals around here," Joe says. "But I wouldn't say mafia." Several families were accused of laundering and skimming money from the fish dealers, and the bogus unloading and security companies that ran rackets at the fish market were closed down. Beginning in 1995, thirty companies were ejected from Fulton Street.

The fish buyers say that after the mafia crackdown, everybody got fingerprinted and the Feds ran background checks on them. Only the cleanest of the clean are still there. Many of the workers have been there for twenty years. When asked why they stayed so long, most just shrug and say the money is good– good enough that they get used to working while the rest of the city sleeps. The men who work here now– and there are almost no women around– have fish slime crusted on their coveralls. Accents from Long Island, Jersey, and Brooklyn abound. Many of these men are second, third, even fourth generation fish suppliers. In the early morning, the smell is pervasive, and gurry covers the ground. Scales swing; white styrofoam boxes labeled "carp," "crab legs," or "Atlantic farmed salmon" are stacked outside the small storefronts. Inside, workers fillet sharks and tunas on stainless-steel tables.

"Annie" (not her real name, but the one she has gone by for the past fifty years at the Fulton Street Fish Market) sells black-market cigarettes from a huge garbage bag she wheels around in a shopping cart. She calls every guy who passes by her boyfriend and calls out to them "whoo-whoo "– which sounds somewhere between a honk and a catcall – as they drive forklifts by. She knows everybody's brand of cigarette, and some pay her on the spot, but the others she trusts. She won't tell her age, but the fish sellers swear she must be pushing eighty. A beauty in her youth, Annie raised three children by working in the fish market as a prostitute and, as rumor has it, in the meatpacking district as well. She had something of a monopoly and did very well for herself. Those gratifying days are long gone, but Annie is Fulton Street Fish Market's biggest fan. She's one of the guys, and practically the only woman regularly down here. When a customer reaches for a pack of cigarettes, she cackles, "You can put it in, then take it out," in a suggestive way. She can't stop talking about how wonderful the guys at the fish market are.

"Look," she points out. "You got Portuguese, Irish, Ecuadorian, Korean, black, and they all get along just great. It used to be all Italian here, with Jewish fish buyers. Now the buyers are Korean, and the sellers are from all over the world. And there's young men now— it used to be all old men."

Although mono-gender, it was very multicultural.

"Now him," she says, and points to a man gaffing red snapper from a box. "He's like me."

"What, you Jewish?" he asks.

She only laughs in response. Details of Annie's life can only be gleaned from what she tells about fish. She points to a carp, large and orange, overlapping the wax box. "See that fish, that's a carp," she says. "Poor Jewish families used to buy the whole fish for fifty cents, and it would last for the entire week."

Inside one fish seller's booth is a picture of Annie running down a dirt road in Alaska. Her hair is flowing behind her, she has sharp cheekbones, and her legs are tan and muscular. In the photo, she's beautiful, like a young Raquel Welch. The man who owns the booth said he met Annie when he first started working at the Fulton Fish Market. She flashed him one day, and when he told his mother about it, she became furious. He chuckles at the memory now.

"After the towers were attacked, they moved us temporarily to Hunt's Point," he says. "She still didn't miss a day. She rode the subway all the way up there and sold her cigarettes and newspapers."

The fish sellers grumble about no running water up at Hunt's Point, but they can't argue with the plans for the permanent move. The city has constructed a vast horizontal building with state-of-the-art refrigeration, the latest in European ice technology, lots of sinks, and floor drains to make it all more sanitary. At Fulton Street, open boxes of fish are stacked outside under FDR Drive. The vendors can't wait to go, but the move keeps getting held up by cost concerns as New York City struggles to revive financially after 9/11 and work out the logistics of moving a place that has been operating for so long. A man at a shellfish stand tells me that lawyers are working out which stand will go where. Alliances and rifts have deepened over the years, and businesses don't want to move away from allies and next to foes.

As the sun starts to rise, spirits are high in this place out of sync with the rest of the world. Young men with cigarettes tucked behind their ears, with accents from around the world but clothes tagged with New York City insigniasŪThe Mets sweatshirts, the New York Post apronsŪtoss snowballs packed from the fish ice. Older men tease them and one another. Bags of clams are also tossed. Cash trades hands. Here, fish are a currency, and the old laws of supply and demand still rule. With the recession and the war in Iraq, business has been slower. Restaurants have been buying fewer fish, which means the fish sellers can't move them, so fishermen also slow down.

But the fish are still coming in: tilefish from Florida, Jamaican butterfish from Brazil, massive stone bass from the deeps off North Carolina's shores. I see that the boxes of halibut have arrived at Crescent City Seafood. Despite heavy weather, the boats were out fishing in Alaska. These fish were unloaded in Homer, then trucked to Anchorage, then flown to New York City. My halibut arrived in twenty hours. I look over these decapitated fishŪthe flat, white bellies and greenish-brown backs. I run a finger along the smooth skin and pick out a forty-pounder to take home, fillet, and freeze for the next few months.

The market winds down as daylight spreads over the river. Traffic hustles over the Brooklyn Bridge. Manhattan is coming to life; shops open and cars roar by. The market will close in an hour, and the only hint of the nocturnal bustle will be the scent of fish that has soaked into this place over the last 130 years. The masts of the Pioneer and Lettie G. Howard tower over the docks like schooners of the past. In the distance, foghorns of incoming ships whistle through the early morning.

Further reading:
McKay, Richard. South Street: A Maritime History of New York. Riverside, CT: 7 C's Press, 1969.

web site :