“The Texas Gulf Coast is not affected. This perception is killing us.”
— Roberto San Miguel
San Miguel’s Tips for Quality Seafood
Roberto San Miguel has been involved in the fishing industry for 25 years, from working on fishing boats to distributing some of the freshest seafood money can buy to Austin’s top restaurants and foodies. Here are his tips for finding the best seafood in Texas.
Know your provider.
Don’t base your purchase solely on labels. Even fish labeled as “local” can travel to a packing facility across the nation before coming back to you.
Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask when and where your provider got his or her product.
Buy local. Many smaller grocers buy products from distributors who deliver straight from the Gulf. That reduces time spent traveling and the need to freeze.
It’s early on Saturday morning, and the July sun is arcing off glass condominiums in downtown Austin.
Below them, Roberto San Miguel is helping the usual crowd of customers who surround his booth at Austin’s downtown farmers’ market.
They’re buying bags of fresh red snapper, Gulf shrimp and grouper that San Miguel drove up from Freeport the night before. He makes the 200-mile run twice each week to accommodate nearly 40 Austin restaurants that rely on him for fresh seafood, as well as his farmer’s market customers. Each run nets him about 1,400 pounds of fish.
“This product sells itself,” San Miguel says. “It’s about as fresh as anyone can get it, and far fresher than even high-end grocery stores who have to freeze their product. Mine is never frozen; it’s always fresh. People can tell the difference.”
But San Miguel’s operation requires far more than a dedication to freshness. It calls for a complicated orchestration of monitoring prices, volume, fuel costs, customer needs and industry trends. If he overbuys product at the pier, he’s stuck with seafood he can’t sell. Too little, and he disrupts the menus of the hotels and restaurants that depend on him.
A week later, San Miguel is standing on a pier in Freeport. The Delfin II, a vessel whose belly holds more than 5,000 pounds of red snapper, has just docked, and its crew is busily moving fish from the boat to nearby bins that each hold about 700 pounds of product.
San Miguel is here to collect fish for his latest run. His cell phone is ringing almost constantly from Austin chefs who want to place orders.
Roberto reaches into an ice bin and holds up a snapper, bright red and glimmering. It’s as long as his forearm.
“They really are so beautiful. They’re the emeralds of the sea.”
But since April, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Louisiana coast has dominated the headlines — and cast a shadow over Texas seafood operations.
The Oil Spill and Texas Seafood
This time last year, San Miguel had a course plotted for the future. He sees a huge opportunity for a fish market in Central Texas, essentially allowing him to do what he does now, but on a larger scale.
He had every reason to believe that it could happen, too. Business was better than ever.
“I was taking more and more orders. Everything was going fantastically. I just ordered a refrigerated truck. I was about to move into a wholesale place, and then this happened,” he says, referring to the Gulf oil spill. “I’m burning through my cash reserves, and things are getting tighter.”
San Miguel is working feverishly to set the record straight about Texas seafood.
“I was selling 1,200 pounds of shrimp wholesale a month. Now, it’s down to a third of that,” he says. “People took shrimp off the menu. We just have this negative perception. It’s a drumbeat of negativity from CNN and Fox. They should be saying ‘the Mississippi Gulf Coast,’ or ‘the Alabama Gulf Coast.’ The Texas Gulf Coast is not affected. This perception is killing us.”
And the blow to the seafood industry isn’t limited to public fears about contaminated products. Following the spill, fish wholesalers and distributors overreacted, based on the false premise that all Gulf seafood was contaminated. Their panic buying and stockpiling further disrupted the market.
“Many northern states went into a panic and bought all the inventory they could,” says San Miguel. “Then greed set in with the wholesalers, and they bumped up the prices despite the fact there was less demand. I was paying $5.75 per pound, and then it went up to $9. No one was going to pay that much.”
In early August, a federal task force concluded that the oil spill leaked 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. An Oxford economic study found that the economic impact of the spill could reach as much as $22.7 billion over three years.
Since the spill, however, both the Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have maintained that fish and shellfish harvested from areas unaffected by the fishing ground closures are safe to eat. Both agencies are monitoring fishing grounds for signs of contamination.
Tourism Up, Seafood Sales Down
More than 60 communities along the Texas coast have ties to the fishing industry, and all of them are closely watching economic and environmental trends resulting from the oil spill.
Mark Friudenberg was raised in the Texas Gulf seafood industry. He started working on fishing boats at a young age. When he was 18, he began selling fresh fish from the back of a truck, proving to area restaurants that freshness and cleanliness result in a superior product.
For seven years he’s operated Captain Mark’s Seafood in Freeport, an immaculate shop that is well-stocked with fresh snapper and shrimp.
He also operates the Delfin II and serves as president of the Freeport Longshoremen’s Association.
“We’ve seen a big increase in the amount of tourism traffic through Freeport and Surfside Beach,” Friudenberg says. The boost in tourism is the result of “offset” tourists now unwilling to travel to the beaches of Louisiana and Mississippi, who turn to the clean Texas shore for their summer vacations.
“Right now, Texas is offering clean, pristine seafood, but we’re waging a war of perception with people who constantly see images of the Gulf oil spill on TV.”
— Mark Friudenberg
“The downside is, we’re seeing about a 30 percent drop in sales at the shop,” he says. “Right now, Texas is offering clean, pristine seafood, but we’re waging a war of perception with people who constantly see images of the Gulf oil spill on TV.”
Informing the Consumer
Friudenberg relies on a trusted method for informing consumers aboutTexas’ situation. When he began selling seafood as a teenager, it was hard to convince chefs to buy his product. But he quickly learned that if he could convince them to come out to his truck to actually see the catch, nine times out of 10 he’d make a sale.
“These fish are so beautiful and so fresh that once people see them, they understand what a quality product it is,” he says. “It works that way for highly trained chefs, and it works that way for tourists who come into the shop. When they see the product, and I tell them that I feed this to my family, they understand the situation better.
“You can’t just lump the Gulf all together,” he says. “Texas just doesn’t have a problem. These folks are suffering from a negative perception about Gulf seafood, especially where Texas is concerned.”
Friudenberg and San Miguel sympathize with the fishermen of Louisiana and Alabama. They’re also disappointed that the grounds they’ve fished for so long have been threatened by an industrial accident. But for now, they seem to have accepted the tragedy, and are coping.
“I don’t begrudge [BP] at all,” San Miguel says. “They screwed up, but they’re going to fix it. I like to remind people that the petrochemical industry, when it came in 1941, provided the habitat that was needed for snapper. Snapper like [underwater] structure” — the rigs act as artificial reefs.
“We need the petrochemical industry,” San Miguel says. “When we’re out there, when we go fishing, the oil rigs let us hook up to their rig and fish. It’s a symbiotic relationship. My problems pale in comparison to what’s happening up in Louisiana and Alabama. We need BP to be healthy and pay for the mess up there.”
In the meantime, “I’m going to hang in there,” he says. FN