Go Fish

How seafood gets from one side of the world to Boulder County

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On a night when a man eats 72 oysters in 90 seconds, and that’s not even the most that night, one immediately hopes those oysters are fresh.

At the recent High West Oyster Fest, Chef Dave Query, owner of Big Red F restaurants, and Paul Packer, president of Northeast Seafood, one of the biggest seafood suppliers in the state, are standing around backstage and talking about seafood. Query sits at the end of a couch and Packer stands against the wall and strains his voice to talk about seafood, about which he is endlessly knowledgeable and passionate.

The immediate question, perhaps a little incendiary judging by how quick Query picked his head up, was “Can seafood be good in Colorado?” 

“When you look at airports as harbors and airplanes as boats, we’ve got the ninth largest harbor in the world in DIA,” Query says. “We have some of the most celebrated seafood restaurants in the world in New York City. They’re serving product from California and the Northwest Coast. They’re serving product from Hawaii. So, you know, somebody sitting next to the water in New York, they’re eating Hawaiian swordfish and saying, ‘This is the best seafood I’ve ever had.’ It flew five times longer to get to there than it did to get to here.

“I think the slam that you can’t get great seafood in Colorado is starting to fade,” Query says. “Twenty years ago, it’s all we ever heard, and we were serving as great a seafood then as we are now.”

As the market for seafood increases in Colorado (Query says 10 to 15 oyster bars have opened in the last year, and restaurateur Bradford Heap is soon opening a seafood restaurant across from Jax in Boulder), distributors like Northeast Seafood can bring in more product, which will reduce cost, increase demand and improve quality.

This all means that Packer becomes an important man in Boulder. He’s the man to meet all this seafood demand. Northeast Seafood supplies 100 percent of all Jax locations’ shellfish and about 90 percent of their seafood. Packer says during peak resort seasons in Colorado, his company delivers fish to about 500 seafood joints and sushi bars throughout the state.

Query says a better way to describe Packer’s ubiquity is, “Who don’t they service? Seriously.”

A Boston native, Packer started out in the seafood importing business by bringing in product exclusively from the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts — thus the name Northeast Seafood. Now he imports from as far as Chile, Norway and New Zealand.

Packer says the business of importing to Colorado (he also delivers to Montana, Wyoming and Kansas) has changed in the last few years.

“It’s become a global market, and the globe is shrinking when it comes to sourcing,” Packer says. “It’s become a very logistical business. It didn’t use to be nearly so much back in the days of big, wide-bodied airlines flying everywhere. It was easy, and then the airlines all got in trouble, and if you’ve flown recently, you know you’re on smaller planes and they’re jampacked and so you don’t have these big containers that you used to be able to ship in.

“The other part is 9/11 made it very expensive. When we had that tragedy, they put in all the extra security in and screening and that just drove up rates.”

So what exactly then does a shipment from say, New Zealand to Jax in Boulder, look like?

“Let’s say the boats fish there, and they could be out three to five days,” Packer says. “So they come into Auckland in the port, and the fish are brought to a fish processing plant. They’re prepped. Most of the stuff we’ll buy from there are in their whole form. You got swordfish from there, we get a fish called John Dory, we get a fish called bluenose, different types of snappers. We also bring in green-lipped mussels and cockle clam. And all this stuff gets consolidated and is flown directly to the United States. The port of entry is Los Angeles. It gets to L.A., clears customs, our importer picks it up, and we get it the next day. Most of the time they’re flown in from LAX.”

Packer says fish that arrive from Los Angeles are typically flown because they have a good system set up with that airport, but that most fish are shipped in tractor-trailers. In fact, Packer says he can get to Denver from anywhere in the U.S. in 33 hours, which is sometimes quicker than dealing with airlines and is a climate-controlled method of transportation — better than the possibility of leaving it out on a tarmac, which can exceed temperatures that insulation can’t help.

When it gets to the Northeast Seafood Denver facility, it’s repacked on one of 24 trucks and delivered statewide. Sometimes those deliveries can be the same-day, but Packer says guaranteeing that is “flirting with disaster.”

Thus, from the waters of New Zealand to a plate in Jax, you can eat John Dory in less than a week. However, once it gets to Boulder, the logistics that made it possible to do that are reflected in the price.

“As with anything, when you’re bringing in a product, you have to factor in transportation costs and availability,” Query says. “Storms, certainly this last three weeks [in the Northeast], have made it really difficult to get product in. Product has been more expensive. You have to look long beyond next week or next month when you’re doing this. We buy sometimes from [Packer] in larger quantities so that he can lock in prices so that he knows what’s coming.”

Packer says he has connections with fisheries around the globe and has people at auctions in Massachusetts and Hawaii, which occur every day, in order to get fresh fish at a good price.

“In general, you’re typically trying to create relationships with the resource. [For instance], we try to buy from an Alaskan company who is based right in Cordova on the Copper River,” Packer says. “And most of the fisherman are independents. It’s truly the last bastion of entrepreneurship because if those guys don’t want to work, there’s nothing you can do to make them work. Our whole joke with Mexico is when these guys run out of drinking money they go back and fish because they need more money. Guys are motivated by different situations.”

Packer says, “once upon a time, all of ” the fish he sold was wild-caught. Now it’s about half of that. And though it’s impossible to get wild-caught species year-round (by nature and to prevent over-fishing), some seasons and populations are being impacting by both environmental and man-made causes. He says despite the challenges, importing fish to Colorado is a “healthy business.”

“I try to tell this to people,” Packer says. “I say for everyone who wants to complain about a man-made disaster like an oil spill impacting the environment, Mother Nature can do it all by herself because this winter season in the Northeast has been horrendous. And we don’t even know what the long-term effects are going to be on the health of the oyster bays. We’ve been having trouble getting a rope cultured mussel out of Prince Edward Island, which is a beautiful agricultural product, but it’s under 4 feet of ice and then 4 feet of snow on top of that. So just getting to their racks, they’re cutting through barges to be able to get to the mussels.”

The solution to help a growing demand for seafood in Colorado and nationwide may be to support aquaculture ventures like, for instance, one in southern California where one group is growing mussels that are not native to the area. Packer also says the idea of promoting “trash fish,” or abundant species that aren’t typical on American menus, might not catch on because of American palates.

“Someone’s trash fish is someone’s treasure,” Packer says, adding that mackerel, sardines and monk fish all used to fall into that category simply because they have a strong flavor.

What’s clear from both Packer and Query is that the more thriving a market for seafood, the better the quality and the lower the price of the food. So, eat up.