The Midcoast Fishermen’s Cooperative (MFC) began offering fresh-filleted fish to restaurants and their Port Clyde Fresh Catch Community Supported Fishery customers in June, and it is still available sporadically through the winter.

Last year, only whole fish were offered, accompanied by filleting demonstrations at pick up locations. Customers have responded enthusiastically to the fillets, made possible by a new processing plant. What the co-op had not anticipated was how hard it would be to find fish cutters with the requisite skills.

Fish cutting requires precision with a sharp knife to lift the flesh off “the rack” (bones and head) in a few clean cuts to get the maximum yield. Once the cutter removes the skin, the fillet is then cleaned, inspected, weighed and packed either for fresh consumption later that day, or measured into a plastic bag to be vacuumed sealed and frozen for shipping or retail.

Back in the day, there were more processing facilities devoted to the groundfish catch along Maine’s coast, although it has been many years since Lane-Libby’s on Vinalhaven closed its production house, and O’Hara’s in Rockland is no longer in need of fish cutters.
According to Niles Cockrill, of Upstream Trucking, a small wholesale fish processor in Portland, “most fish processing facilities are found in larger urban locations as the trick to fish is getting volume processed, packed, and shipped as quickly as possible. So you’re going to find fish cutters in Portland, Boston, Gloucester; cities with greater access to airports or trucking distribution. Here in Portland, there aren’t as many as there once were. Often, fish is sent from Bar Harbor down to me here in Portland, I’ll process it, and send it back. Or similarly, a fish will be caught in the Gulf of Maine, brought to Portland, trucked to Boston, processed there and brought back to Maine.”

The interconnectedness of the industry becomes apparent in speaking with Cockrill. Here in Maine we have a global fish market, conducted by a small number of people, all connected by a product which is very much in demand, very much depleted, and more and more regulated. The relationships are complex in an industry that has changed over the years, following cycles of catch, customer demand, food trends, real estate, policy, economics (on both a household and national scale), international competition, new technologies, not to mention the fish stocks and the variability of their geography and populations.

“Fish cutting is all muscle memory,” says Cockrill when asked about what it takes to learn to cut. “I recommend that if someone wants to learn how to do it and begin to do it well, they start by buying 100 pounds of bluefish. It’s cheaper, at about a dollar per pound, and you can begin to get a feel for the anatomy and the knife. After that it is just about doing it over and over again.” Cockrill handles a wide variety of fish types every day. He also deals directly with the fishermen, the dealers, and the buyers, whereas larger fish processing plants might handle hundreds of thousands of pounds and a cutter might cut haddock exclusively, all day long, and never leave his knife and table.

Cheryl Stone Waite recalls when she first stepped onto the sardine-packing floor of the Port Clyde Packing Company in the late 1960s. Waite had spent her first year working in shipping since, at age 17, she was too young to work near the machines. After her 18th birthday she was allowed to move to packing. “I walked onto the floor and the first thing that caught my eye was the rhythm of the women swaying back and forth, back and forth. I thought, “What are they all doing?” Turns out, they were keeping their bodies in motion to keep their hands moving to get the job done. It was incredible to see, this room full of swaying women.”
Now, Waite can be found cutting round and flat fish at the MFC processing plant on Marshall Point Lighthouse Road in Port Clyde. With larger fish there is no evident swaying to Waite’s motions, but muscle memory and the physicality of fish cutting becomes apparent to the observer as the morning wears on.

“My family’s been fishing from Port Clyde for generations. I grew up around it. Then, I went fishing with my husband. We’d go out to Jeffrey’s (fishing grounds) for a summer, coming in only to sell, wash laundry, grocery shop and head back out again. I loved those trips because they were so peaceful, no phones, no television, just the sky and the sea and dolphins jumping in the bow wave on your way back in.”

After her husband died, Waite tired of the long cold Maine winters, sold her house and bought an RV, which she drives to Naples, Florida, where she works as a hairdresser from October through April. Getting back to fish this summer has renewed her connection to her familial roots and an industry she’d been missing.

Across the table from her, Paul Samuels, sharpens his Dexter Russell carbon blade and takes hold of a haddock to begin the first of series of cuts that will render a fleshy white fillet in a matter of seconds. Samuels responded to the ad that Glen Libby, president of the MFC, placed in the papers looking for fish cutters.

Samuels, who has lived in Maine for 40 years, honed his fish cutting skills at the Shackford & Gooch fish market in Kennebunkport in the 1970s, where he worked alongside two to three other fish cutters. “We’d watch the boats offload at the dock right there-we were right on the bridge-the fish would come in the back door for processing, we’d cut fish to order and watch it go out the front door. Shackford & Gooch is now gone, The Clam Shack took its place, but what a sight it was to see Carroll Gooch cut fish.”
“I tend to treat it as an algebra problem where you have several variables and must come up with the missing number that makes the equation work,” says Libby when asked about the need for more fish cutters back in July. “We have had to figure out marketing from a totally new angle, pricing, transport, sales, etc. with really not much to go on. It is not really a surprise that we would have to learn how to cut fish to fill this void as well. Happily, we’ve been able to hire a couple of people with fish cutting experience, to keep up with the demand this season.”
Antonia Small is a photographer and freelance writer who lives in Port Clyde.