Two weeks ago, Mark and Kerry Marhefka of Abundant Seafood hosted a rather unusual gathering at the Shem Creek dock they share with Geechie Seafood.
The guests came from a cross-section of fields — cooks, biologists, writers, and more — but they were united by a common interest: local fish. They sipped some wine and a few Palmetto Pale Ales and sampled smoked fish and golden beets prepared by Butcher & Bee. They checked out Mark Marhefka's boat, the Amy Marie, and murmured in amazement that anyone would go out to sea for days at a time in such a small, age-worn vessel. And then they heard a rather unlikely trio talk about the work they were doing together.
Mark Marhefka is the commercial fisherman who supplies downtown restaurants with much of the exceptionally fresh fish for which Charleston is now famous. He was joined by Will Heyman, a marine scientist who studies fish populations, and Mike Lata, the chef/owner of FIG and the Ordinary and one of Marhefka's loyal customers.
Traditionally, there hasn't been a lot of talking going on among these parties. Fishermen and marine scientists usually find themselves on opposite sides of the debate over using the sea as an economic resource versus preserving it as a natural one. For many years, a long supply chain of wholesalers and distributors kept chefs separated from those who catch their raw materials. They placed orders for whatever "protein" they decided to serve that week, knowing little about the origins of that fish except that it arrived in a cardboard box on a truck.
The message from the scientist was stark but hopeful. "We've really beaten down our resources," Will Heyman told the gathering. "But the good news is that for the last 40 years, SCDNR [the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources] has been collecting data. They have a really tight protocol and can really see what's happening over the whole South Atlantic.
"We're starting to get a handle on this," he continued. "But there's still a whole lot we don't know."
Heyman got his Ph.D. in Marine Sciences from the University of South Carolina and has spent three decades researching fish populations and spawning behavior. Through his research, he helped uncover a remarkable and previously unknown phenomenon. "What we found," he said, "is that the place where one species of fish spawns is where other types aggregate to spawn." Those places have something in common: they are all underwater reefs shaped like crooked elbows.
Heyman discovered this while working with Mexican fisherman along the Yucatan peninsula, heading out at night to fish under the full moon. He is now testing whether the same behaviors can be found at elbow-shaped formations in other places, which is what brought him to Charleston and to Mark Marhefka.
Together, Marhefka and Heyman have been going out to the areas where Marhefka has caught a lot of a particular type of fish in the past, then mapping and charting the ocean bottom, looking for underwater elbows. Then, they're going fishing in those spots to see what they catch, and bringing it back to the docks for DNR biologists to inspect and determine whether the fish are about to spawn.
When they spend days at a time together out on the water, the fisherman gets to pick the scientist's brain, and vice versa. "Mark has spent 260 days out there [at sea] for 25 years," Heyman noted. "The combined set of information is not taken advantage of often enough, and when you do it's really remarkable."
"Some of the conversations we have at night should be taped," Marhefka added.
Now, they've got a chef — Mike Lata — joining them on the excursions to add yet another voice to the conversation, that of the fishermen's primary customers.
That leaves only one important member of the equation conspicuously absent, a fact Heyman alluded when he said, on multiple occasions, "I'm not a manager." He was referring to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC), which is responsible for managing the fish stocks within the 200-mile federal limit off the coasts from Key West up to North Carolina. That includes putting in place annual catch limits on species and even closing off entire areas of water to fishing.
Marhefka, who has spent 17 years as an advisor to the council, is just one of many commercial and recreational fishermen who have to locked horns with the Management Council over the years. By teaming up with scientists like Heyman, though, he's starting to tackle the issue of fish preservation from a different angle, ensuring the managers are making their decisions based on the best data.
"There's a lag between research and what commercial fishermen are seeing in real time," Marhefka noted.
When it comes to the political aspect of things, Lata sees chefs in a particularly strong position to facilitate the discussion. "The restaurant community in Charleston carries a lot of weight," he said, referring to its importance to the local tourism economy. In the audience were many fellow members of that community, early and loyal Marhefka customers like Ben Berryhill from Red Drum, Kevin Johnson from the Grocery, and Nico Romo from Fish.
As a couple of guests checked out the tiny cabin on the Amy Marie, Marhefka told how boats like his were called "snapper boats" when he first started out in the business. They headed into the deep sea to catch one thing and one thing only: red snapper. It's hard to imagine now, but at that time grouper — which sells for around $15 a pound retail today — was considered a trash fish that no one would eat.
In the 1990s, though, consumers suddenly discovered grouper, and before long it was so popular that the stocks were being depleted. The SAFMC imposed harvest limits, vessel permits, protected areas, and even outright fishery closures during spawning seasons. Marhefka had to tell his customers, "I can't go out. There's nothing to catch."
One day, though, Mike Lata told his fisherman, "Take everything you catch and bring it to us." Before long, trigger and porgy and all sorts of previously unheard-of fish were showing up on the menus of one of the most respected restaurants in town.
"How can we serve rudderfish for $28 a plate?" Lata asked the crowd. Part of it has to do with the care and attention with which Marhefka treats his fish from the moment he catches them — gutting them out at sea and placing them carefully on ice for the journey to shore. "If he catches it and handles it," Lata said. "It's going to be a remarkable fish."
But the way the restaurants treat the fish matters, too. For chefs like Lata, marketing is less about hokum than it is about enthusiasm. At sushi bars and upscale Asian fusion joints these days, hamachi is all the rage, and it's caught in the Pacific or raised on farms and shipped around the world.
"Here [in Charleston] we have a wild version that's much better," Lata said, "but it's considered trash fish." It's called rudderfish, but it's part of the same amberjack family as hamachi. At FIG, Lata confessed, they batted around the idea of putting it on the menu as "Carolina hamachi," but in the end he decided, "No. Let's call it rudderfish. And let's make sure the servers can talk about it."
Being able to explain the fish to customers, to tell its story, to convey the excitement over it — that's the key to getting diners to try something unfamiliar. And once they do, it creates a network effect. "Mark can go to Ben and Kevin and Nico," Lata explained, "and say, 'Mike just bought 100 pounds of this rudderfish,' and they say, 'wait, he just bought 100 pounds? How come I'm not buying it?' The next thing you know, Charleston is covered with rudderfish."
When other fishermen hear about all the rudderfish Marhefka is selling down in Charleston, Lata continued, "Suddenly the guys in Murrell's Inlet are pulling it in. Then it goes to Atlanta and Charlotte."
This collaboration is changing the way that restaurant patrons eat in Charleston. "I've seen more whole fish in this community in the past five years than ever," Marhefka observed. Even when they aren't serving fish whole, Mike Lata added, chefs are still using every bit of what comes in the door, offering diners previously unheard of cuts like cheeks and collars, and not in sneaky hidden ways. "We're putting it in the center of the plate," he said.
No one at the gathering denied the stiff challenges that lie ahead. Just in the past few months, one of the old established shrimp dealers along Shem Creek closed its doors, and another is rumored to be up for sale. But the dominant tone for the evening was one of hope, provided that everyone involved could break out of the old ways of doing things and embrace a new, more collaborative future.
Ultimately, Will Heyman sees his research providing practical guidance to resource managers and offering them what he calls "ecosystem-based management options." By better understanding the spawning behavior of fish, they'll be able to better define spawning reserves to replenish fish populations. And that means Mark Marhefka will have plenty of fish to catch today and plenty of fish to catch in the future, too. And Mike Lata will have lots of delicious things to serve in his restaurants.
"The sea has value," Will Heyman concluded, but you have approach it the right way. "Get what you can from the sea, not what you want."