Mark Marhefka is a commercial fisherman who docks his boat, the Amy Marie, in Shem Creek. In addition to everything he shared with The Post and Courier regarding what people should know about his livelihood, he last year recorded an oral history interview with the Southern Foodways Alliance.
The video and transcript are available at southernfoodways.org/interview/mark-marhefka.
Fishermen have to abide by strict limits governing the amount of fish they can take in any one place or time. To comply with those rules, Marhefka and his crew record rough estimates of their catch on a whiteboard while out at sea; other fishermen use paper-based systems. But it’s very unusual for a fisherman to keep measuring scales on board, since they take up space, or to electronically track the total weight of fish harvested.
“That’s just one more thing we’d have to manage,” Marhefka says. “Computers break down.”
Marhefka’s fishing outfit, Abundant Seafood, is widely regarded as one of the most respected suppliers in the area, so chefs compete vigorously for his product. “Distribution is based on customer loyalty, OK?,” Marhefka says. “The ones that purchase from me every week, and don’t waver” get first crack at Marhefka’s catch.
He’s not sympathetic to chefs who say they want his fish, but refuse to buy from him when what’s available doesn’t fit their preset menus.
“I don’t want to throw names around, but Mike (Lata, The Ordinary’s executive chef) and Jason (Stanhope, FIG’s executive chef), they’re my top people,” says Marhefka, who calls the chefs from offshore to report what they can plan on serving when he returns.
Not every law controlling fishing boats is cheered by the men and women who operate them: For example, Marhefka is galled by having to spend $1,500 on a turtle excluder device when he can’t recall encountering more than two sea turtles over the course of his fishing career, or being forced to waste boat space on a filing cabinet because the feds require him to keep so much paperwork on board.
But he supports measures to protect seafood populations. In fact, he’s so confident in the government’s management strategy that he maintains any legally caught fish should be considered sustainable in the area where it was caught.
“The stigma of commercial fisherman has always been they’re the rapists of the sea, the dregs of society,” he says. “It’s really, really not that way ... so many people are going off the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s (recommendations) but you can’t put everything on one card.”
Fish depreciate quickly, so Marhefka doesn’t want to lose a sales opportunity. “If I’m sitting on a lot of fish, I have the phone under my pillow,” he says. Chefs are apt to call in orders after service, sometimes as late as 3 a.m.
“When you’re surrounded by water, you can’t jump off the boat and take a hot shower, but we try to get creature comforts,” says Marhefka, whose typical fishing trip runs two or three days.
“A good meal at the end of day is always a plus.” The boat’s equipped with a two-burner stovetop and a crockpot; chili dogs are popular in colder weather. When it gets warmer and the sun sets later, salad and sauteed fish are more standard: “We reap benefits from the roe,” he says.