Note: This article was written by Jason Huffman and published on Undercurrent News. View the article on their website here.
If you want to know how Blue Harvest Fisheries hopes to distinguish itself
in the commercial seafood industry, just check out the vision statement on
the posters the company has hanging on the walls of its new 220,000 square facility in New Bedford, Massachusetts, CEO Keith Decker recommended to Undercurrent News in a recent interview.
They read: "To be the most trusted seafood company in New England.” And to that end, on May 1, New England’s largest groundfish harvester launched its new voluntary dockside monitoring program, using Fathom Resources, a third-party company headquartered in Middletown, Rhode Island, to routinely verify and also share with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) the species, volume and weight of each vessel’s landings.
Fathom monitors also check vessel tracking reports to show where boats have been during their time at sea, making sure they've never traveled into protected areas.
Blue Harvest is the only harvester in New England using dockside monitors, and the program has continued even as NMFS has allowed New England groundfish vessels to avoid carrying at-sea monitors or fishery observers since late March due to coronavirus concerns.
All of Blue Harvest’s groundfish vessels offload at their dockside facility, where Decker said the company has 600-feet of bulkhead. Monitors receive no less than 24 hours of notice before each vessel arrives, these days carrying lots of haddock, ocean perch and Atlantic pollock. One or two observers may be required, depending on the size of the offload. Is it making a difference?
Mark Zieff, Blue Harvest’s director of marketing, said he has heard from buyers who are taking notice.
“We've received some positive feedback from our distributors and also foodservice institutions,” he told Undercurrent. “I think it's generating a positive image for Blue Harvest, a positive image for New Bedford, and a positive image for the New England groundfish fishery.”
Decker said he trusts Zieff's impressions, as his colleague is closer to the company's sales efforts, but he added. “At the end of the day, we're doing it for the consumer. And as long as they feel good about it, we've accomplished what we set out to do, which is to improve the perception of the fishery.”
Better than expected
Improving the image of the New England groundfish fishery was not an easy task for Blue Harvest when it announced in late February that it had succeeded in its effort to acquire 12 groundfish vessels and 27 related permits from Carlos Rafael, the so-called "Codfather" of New Bedford, for an undisclosed price.
Rafael built a $100 million seafood company while infamously mislabeling more than 782,000 pounds of fish over a four-year period (2012-2015) before he was caught in a federal sting that resulted in him receiving a 46-month federal prison sentence. As part of his settlement with federal authorities, Rafael was forced to sell off all of his commercial seafood holdings, including the vessels and their permits.
Still, it was an expansion opportunity that was hard to resist for the likes of Blue Harvest, a company that was already growing by acquisition in the New England groundfish and scallop fisheries with the help of private equity money. But the company needed to take some steps to shed itself of the Rafael reputation. It's one of the reasons Blue Harvest has changed the names of the vessels as it refurbishes and relaunches them.
The Allagash, a recently relaunched 83-foot trawler, was previously called the Southern Crusader II by Rafael. The Carrabassett, a recently relaunched 78-foot trawler, previously was known as the Cowboy. A third vessel, the 37-year-old, 85-foot Schelvis, previously known as the Glaucus, is being refitted now and soon will be ready to launch, Decker said.
Decker said Blue Harvest’s short-term goal is to have as many as 15 groundfish vessels on the water at any one time.
One of the weaknesses of the system that allowed Rafael to get away with his illegal practices for so long is that his company was vertically integrated, owning both the harvesting vessels and the dealers that purchased the landings. It allowed him to elude regulatory officials by filing matching falsified records.
Blue Harvest is one of the few groundfish harvesters in New England that is similarly vertically integrated, which is one of the reasons the company thought it so important to start using dockside monitors, Decker said.
Winning approval from NMFS to acquire Rafael’s fleet of groundfish vessels was a driving factor in launching the dockside monitoring service, he said. But the idea was proposed before the company began pursuing the Rafael vessels and was driven also by a desire to “restore credibility in the fishery”, he said.
“There's been a lot of negative press generated over the last five years about the East Coast fishery,” Decker said. “And we felt that [dockside monitoring] was a way that we could add credibility to the fishery and what we're doing.”
To prevent the appearance of the company having any undue influence over the vendor providing the dockside monitoring service, Blue Harvest contracted with its fisheries sector, the Sustainable Harvest Sector (SHS), which oversees fishing rules for the company and other harvesters, to act as an independent gobetween. SHS did the hiring and is overseeing the relationship with Fathom.
Decker declined to estimate the exact cost of dockside monitoring, but said it was in the six-figure range.
Reached by phone on Monday, SHS manager Hank Soule said he picked Fathom, which maintains a satellite office in New Bedford and also provides at-sea monitors and on-board observers, because of his familiarity of working with the company in a similar capacity in 2010. He said the Blue Harvest program helps provide peace of mind to many of the different participants in the supply chain and across the fishery.
“Blue Harvest Fisheries, the corporation, is assured that their vessels and their dealer are reporting correctly,” he said. “The [National Marine] Fisheries Service and the office of law enforcement are somewhat assured by knowing this program is in place. And I, as the manager of the sector, am assured. … This will be something that I put in my annual report to the New England Fishery Management Council. And, of course, the public and other members of the industry as well will be assured.”
And Decker believes the dockside monitoring effort has thus far gone better than expected, adding more precision to an otherwise inexact science.
“When you think about a captain fishing at sea, looking at his deck and estimating what he thinks he has, how much space he has on board, and when you have a hundred thousand haddock on the boat, and you're off by a quarter of a pound on the fish, it's meaningful,” he said.
In addition to the use of dockside monitors, Blue Harvest also has recently equipped a second of its vessels, the Blue Canyon, with video cameras to record landings as part of a pilot project with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Earlier, the company decked out the Teresa Marie IV with cameras.
The outcome of Blue Harvest’s test of cameras to observe landings could come in handy later as other harvesters argue to keep observers off vessels
during the pandemic, replacing them with video equipment.
No new COVID-19 cases
Of course, overcoming the reputation given the New England fishery by Rafael isn’t the only challenge Blue Harvest has been taking on in 2020.
In mid-April, the company discovered that three of its employees were infected with the coronavirus. It forced the company to shut down its new processing plant in New Bedford for at least three days, while it cleaned the facility. The company responded by installing plexiglass barriers between employees on assembly lines and providing an extra $1 per hour in hazard pay, adding to a number of other procedures already in place as part of a 25-point protocol.
Decker told Undercurrent that he and others wear masks inside their offices at Blue Harvest and leave the facility with their masks on. Everyone in the building is diligent about maintaining six-foot distances, he said.
“We spend a lot of time focused on not only internal protection, whether it is, you know, dividers and social distancing and [personal protection equipment] but also trying to send as much information as we can home with our employees on how they should conduct themselves in their households. And at this point, you know, I feel good with what we have done".
Whatever the company is doing appears to be working. Massachusetts’ public health agency on Monday reported 182 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and seven additional deaths, bringing the state’s totals to 108,562 illnesses and 8,317 deaths.
However, Blue Harvest hasn’t had a positive coronavirus test in its facility in more than a month, according to Decker, though the CEO stressed that he knows the battle isn’t over.
“We're not going to stop coronavirus,” he said, suggesting that more cases are inevitable. “All we can do, as an organization, is just try to mitigate it as much as possible. Until there is a vaccine, we won't stop it, but we can do everything in our power to try and mitigate it.”
Just like other seafood companies, Blue Harvest has seen its sales move significantly from foodservice to retail recently, Decker said. But in spite of the pandemic, he said, the “business has come back a little” and the company is still looking to grow as it looks to “meeting the market as it starts to change”.
In fact, Decker said his greatest struggle has been hiring enough staff, as Blue Harvest, on a daily basis, has anywhere from 35 to 50 openings, including processing plant workers, mechanics, hydraulics experts, electricians, welders and painters.
One challenge has been that the federal and state governments have provided so many benefits that some people have been reluctant to resume working, he said. Also, some workers have childcare issues, while others have underlying health conditions or they have someone in their household who has been infected.
He said his goal at Blue Harvest remains to employ 500 total workers by the end of 2020.