Tuna buyer Seth Richards on Holbrook’s Wharf, May 4. (John Gormley photo)
Seth Richards, tuna buyer, is back where he got his start, at Holbrook’s Wharf in Cundy’s Harbor.
More than three decades ago, as a teenager, he got a job buying sea urchins for Maguro America. The urchins he acquired were processed at Holbrook’s Wharf.
“There was a big urchin boom” at the time, Richards said. His work involved meeting boats in harbors such as Mackerel Cove and Cundy’s Harbor. He would help unload the urchin boats and then transport the catch to Holbrook’s.
“Right here at Holbrook’s,” he recalled, while standing on the wharf that is now home to his new business. “We would bring them here for processing. This was the main place.”
Throughout his career as a fish buyer, he was an employee of large seafood companies. But now, at the age of 49, he is stepping out on his own. He has filed papers to create his own business, S&S Fisheries, and has signed a lease with the Holbrook Community Foundation for use of two bays on the wharf. The foundation owns the wharf, as well as the nearby general store and apartment building.
The two bays will provide space for Richards to store his equipment, which includes a forklift, and to prepare fish for market. Processing involves cooling the fish down, removing the viscera, and cutting off the head and tail. The fish is then weighed to ascertain the “dressed weight,” the basis on which the fisherman is paid.
When Richards started out as a seafood buyer, “I was a 17-year-old kid full of piss and vinegar,” he recalled. “Working with urchins was a good gig for a lot of kids.”
But it was not a year-round job. The urchin season was in the winter. Bluefin tuna arrive in Maine in June and remain through early fall. Richards quickly discovered he could spend the colder months working with urchins and the warmer months buying tuna.
The urchin boom went bust after a couple of years, but Richards was able to keep working as a tuna buyer and has been doing it ever since.
“Eventually I relied entirely on the tuna fishing season,” he said.
For the past six years, Richards has been working out of Portland for Chubby Fish. Chubby, according to Richards, is “big in Canada” and has been operating in the U.S. for about six years. In his new business, Richards will continue to work closely with Chubby and with other companies in the bluefin trade.
Crucial to the success of his new business, Richards said, will be the reputation he has earned over his long history of working with fishermen in Maine.
“Your reputation is the only thing you have to work with, ultimately,” he observed. “I’ve tried to keep that intact while working under other companies.”
While Richards was never a fisherman himself, his father was. He was working as a sternman out of Nahant, Massachusetts, when he met Richards’ mother, who was from Harpswell. His father moved to Maine and the couple ended up settling on Orr’s Island. That’s where Richards grew up. Once in Maine, his father gave up fishing to take a job as a carpenter with Bath Iron Works.
When Richards married, he did not have to go far to find a bride, Kathleen Coffin, who is from Bailey Island. They have two children: a 15-year-old boy, Dylan, and a daughter, Kelsea, who is 12. They live in Cundy’s Harbor.
In the course of his career, Richards’ work often required him to leave Harpswell. In the early days, it was Down East for urchins. Later, he headed to Cape Cod in the cold months for monkfish, skate, cod and haddock.
“I would spend my winters down there (Cape Cod) buying groundfish,” he said. “I did what I needed to do to make a paycheck.” But he would return to Harpswell and Holbrook’s for summer and tuna.
Richards’ competitive advantage in his work arises from his relationship with the fishermen. They see him regularly on the docks where they land their catch and are familiar with him as a guy with deep roots in Harpswell.
“I’m the boots on the ground. I’m in the trenches,” he said. “It’s a business that’s built on trust.”
Fishermen have to believe a buyer will treat them fairly.
“I’d like to be able to provide a better service to these fishermen,” he said. “That’s what I care about: Try to get your neighbor the best price I can get.”
The typical fish Richards handled last summer had a dressed weight of about 300 pounds. Prices for such a fish ranged from $5 to $10 per pound, meaning a fisherman would receive $1,500 to $3,000 for the fish, Richards said.
The primary markets for bluefin tuna are Japan and the U.S., with the majority going to the U.S. market, according to Richards.
The other great challenge facing Richards — the size and health of the bluefin population in the Gulf of Maine — is outside his control.
The fishery is highly regulated and those regulations have become stricter with time. The federal government sets quotas limiting the number of fish that can be harvested each season, as well as the number of days a boat can fish per week (four) and the number of fish a boat can catch each day (one).
In Maine, the number of bluefin being caught is not what it was 20-30 years ago. “Handling 1,000 fish a season back in the day was kind of normal,” Richards said, estimating local landings are now about half that.
And the quality of the fish, as indicated by fat content and color, is not as good. Richards attributes that to the decline in populations of forage fish on which the tuna feed.
Tuna cruising the Gulf of Maine used to be able to gorge themselves on “insane balls of herring,” he said. Now the tuna have to work much harder to find enough food, Richards believes.
Yet Richards is reasonably confident bluefin in Maine won’t go the way of the urchin.
While stricter regulations have contributed to sharply reduced landings, “It’s still pretty good,” he said of the fishing.
That said, he acknowledges he is in a risky business: “It’s fishing. There’s nothing guaranteed. We all know that it’s a gamble.”
But based on his long experience, it’s a gamble he is more than willing to take. “The fishing grounds out here have been productive over the years,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to change.”
John Gormley is a retired journalist who lives in Cundy’s Harbor. His interests include fishing, tennis and gardening.