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State regs require eateries to go through intermediary

Prices, consistency often keep restaurants from buying at docks

Posted: Friday, January 05, 2007

With Juneau's harbors just a pole cast away, you'd think restaurateurs would be at the docks every morning buying the daily catch for the nightly special.

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While that scene plays in some coastal states, it's not that simple in Alaska. State Department of Environmental Conservation rules can be restrictive about what appears on the menu and where it comes from.

"I am sure it is a really small portion of their business. It could be an important part of that business, however," said Laura Fleming, public relations director for the Juneau-based Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. "(Fresh fish) demands a premium in terms of price."

While Juneau eateries do get much of their fish from Southeast waters, most of them must buy through a processor or other intermediary.

"The majority of our food comes from Super Bear," said Richard Kwong, owner of the Canton House.

The reasons are simple - better prices and consistent product, he said.

"I have actually looked around a little bit," he said. "It is just that we haven't found anything that we like."

Fortunately for restaurants and their customers, the middlemen are close enough to keep an eye on incoming boats and ensure fresh-caught seafood.

Major resellers include Super Bear, Alaska Glacier Seafoods, Taku Smokeries and Fisheries, and the Shellfish Market.

"We get fresh, locally caught seafood from various fishermen, straight from the source," said Jonathan DeBolt, assistant meat department manager at Super Bear. "Restaurants pretty much get whatever they want."

But not wherever they want.

Shellfish fall under the National Shellfish Program Management requirements, and restaurant managers interviewed for this article get theirs from the Shellfish Market, an officially approved Juneau company.

Halibut is more complicated.

"Halibut and rockfish we tend to get from a processor because of the bureaucracy," DeBolt said.

Because halibut is a federal fishery, the regulations are even stricter and each fish must be accounted for in a landing report. Each fisherman is allocated a certain number of pounds of halibut per season.

Under this system, restaurant owners are able to purchase fresh halibut most of the year.

"It has really helped in a lot of ways because the fishermen are not going out all at the same time," said Jason Maroney, owner of Doc Waters Pub and Restaurant.

Maroney may buy directly from approved fishermen, but first he had to do the paperwork. He applied for a special written waiver from the Department of Environmental Conservation, which allows the restaurant to purchase up to 500 pounds of fish a week.

Department officials say the regulations protect both people and fish.

"If they weren't buying it from an approved dealer, it may have been illegally harvested or not undergone the proper testing," said Ron Klein, the departments' food safety and sanitation program manager.

The waiver application is free for restaurants. It allows them to freeze or cook fish for customers, but not to manufacture or resell it.

Other restaurants also take the trouble to go directly to the fishermen. It's cheaper that way.

"Usually, salmon is what we get from them. Depending on the time of year and what run is going, we just have a standing order," said Ron Burns, chef at the Hangar on the Wharf.

Barb Bowen, bookkeeper for the Icy Strait Lodge in Hoonah, said she also often buys in bulk from the fishermen. The restaurant does its own processing.

"For the most part, I think most people just purchase a lot when there is a boat that comes in and says it can sell you 200 pounds," she said. "You process it yourself. It is cheaper to buy a whole halibut than to buy fillets."

How is a customer to tell whether his choice is fresh? Easy, said Super Bear's DeBolt:

"You have to ask the waiter when you get to the restaurant."

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at brittany.retherford@juneauempire.com.



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