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Cultivating local markets

The saga of America’s oldest commercial fishing port, of slicker-clad, fishermen wrestling fresh marine life out of the cold waters of the Atlantic, still strikes a chord.

BY SEAN HORGAN

Staff Writer

Frank Ragusa is making a point, leaning forward in his chair and punctuating each sentence by banging his hand on the conference table, producing thumps so loud they later sound like explosions on the recording of the conversation.

In between bursts of percussion, the chiefexecutive officer and partner in Gloucester’s Finest Seafood makes the same impassioned point he has been making since he returned to Cape Ann two years ago from Seattle as thedirector of fresh seafood at Gloucester Seafood Processing.

The point is this: The Gloucester story still plays in the farthest reaches of the nation. The saga of America’soldest commercial fishing port, of slicker-clad, fishermen wrestling fresh marine life out of the cold waters of the Atlantic, still strikes a chord.

Out there.

“Most of our biggest customers right now are outside New England,” Ragusa said while sitting in the conference room of the seafood processing company he founded last year as a tenant within

SeeFISH,Page 2

Workers unload fresh pollock from the Gloucester-based boat Miss Trish at Gloucester’s Finest Seafood.

MIKE SPRINGER/Staff photo


FISH

. Continued from Page 1the confines of the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange on Harbor Loop.

Rising from the ashes of GSP’s surreal closure last year by the Mazzetta Company, Gloucester’s Finest Seafood is at the heart of Ragusa’s crusade to help breathe new life into America’s oldest fishing community by promoting its bounty of freshly harvested seafood.

Buying primarily haddock, redfish and pollock off local boats, such as Joe Jurek’s Mystique Lady, Paul Vitale’s Angela + Rose, Enzo Russo’s Miss Trish II and Gussy Sanfilippo’s Captain Dominic, Gloucester’s Finest Seafood now cuts and ships fresh fish as far away as California and Chicago.

Ragusa, 52, is a Gloucester native. So, while the continental sweep is nice, he’d prefer to play a few more home games by convincing local fishmongers, retailers, restaurants, institutional buyers and the consuming public to make the same commitment to Gloucester fish that his company has.

“I tell them this is a New England company and the fishermen here in Gloucester need their help,” he said.

He figures he has two distinct cards to play: some of the freshest seafood on the planet and the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certification for haddock, redfish and pollock that now is the gold standard for dealing in sustainably caught and processed seafood.

“I’ve made inroads locallywith a lot of the restaurants,” Ragusa said, naming the Azorean and Latitudes as two of the restaurants that have bought Gloucester fish from Gloucester’s Finest Seafood. “But it hasn’tbeen easy.”

Many of the restaurants have told him they prefer to stick with their traditional suppliers, even if it means bringing in less expensive frozen fish from Iceland, Norway or other foreign points on the compass. They say it’s a matter of economics.

“Hopefully, he can create a few jobs and get this local movement moving a little bit more,” said Kristen Kristensen, the owner of the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange auction and Gloucester’s Finest Seafood’s landlord.

Ragusa said the company is making progress regionally.

He said he is the midst of discussions with the Mainebased Hannaford Brothers supermarket chain about supplying it with fresh Gloucester seafood. He also is in talks with the Whole Foods chain about supplyingit with redfish.

Gloucester’s Finest Seafood also has developed a solid relationship with North Atlantic Inc., the Portland, Maine-based seafood supplier and its chief executive officer, Bill Stride.

“Bill Stride is by far one of ours and Gloucester’s biggest proponents,” Ragusa said.

Last year, Ragusa was one of the linchpins of GSP’s deal to supply the Ninety Nine Restaurant & Pub chain with Gloucesterlanded haddock for its wildly successful campaign promoting fresh, locallycaught haddock on the menus of all its 105 stores.

That deal fell apart when Mazzetta shuttered GSP last fall, effectively cutting off the dependable supply line of Gloucester-landed haddock. But Ragusa is working to revive it with Gloucester’s Finest Seafood as thesupplier.

“The Ninety Nine folks are definitely on board with expanding their relationship with the Gloucester fishing fleet,” Ragusa said. “They’re sending down an executive team to spend the whole day in Gloucester, touring this facility and getting a feel for what we’re doing.”

Gloucester’s Finest Seafood currently employs about 30, including 20 fish cutters. On this day, the larger redfish processing room is quiet and all of the activity is in the fresh fish cutting room.

About a dozen cutters stand at the line, working on haddock that just came off the Explorer IV, the Miss Trish II and the Theresa Marie IV It is a room where cleanliness is all and the cutters — mostly women in hairnets, boots, gloves and gowns — constantly spray down their stations with ozonated water to eradicate any bacteriabefore they again takeup the sharp knives.

Ragusa figures he may have to almost double his workforce if he’s successful in rekindling the Ninety Nine deal.

“That’s really what this is about, promoting the city’s seafood while contributing to the community’s economyby creating and sustaining jobs,” he said. “This is still such a special place, with the best seafood in the world. And our cutting room is 50 yards from where the boats unload.”

Ragusa ambles through the cutting room and opens a door and there is Gloucester Harbor, sparkling in the warm sunshine of June’s first week, the air tangy with the smell of the sea and, perhaps, even hope.

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @

SeanGDT.

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From left, Lilian Maldonado, Carolina Ramirez and Ingrid Donis filet fresh haddock, just off the fishing boat Miss Trish, at Gloucester’s Finest Seafood.

MIKE SPRINGER/Staff photo

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