Climates are changing. Weather is changing. Cities are changing. Work is changing. Extreme heat, dangerous air quality, flash flooding and other severe storm events all pose challenges for those whose lives and livelihoods depend on navigating the built environment. But New Yorkers are resilient and innovative, and many new infrastructure projects aimed at reducing emissions or making the urban fabric more resilient are coming online. The green transition is already here; for some it has been ongoing for quite a long time. We are speaking with individuals at the forefront of New York City’s response to the climate crisis. How are they adapting to, driving, and even thriving in the new green economy? Who is getting left behind? Who is shaking things up? And what new urban forms, policies, and practices will emerge as a result? The Green Shift will feature everyday people whose industries are changing — and who are changing their industries — in both big and small ways.
New York City consumes over a hundred-million pounds of seafood each year. Most of this is imported — via trucks, boats, or planes — and it comes from both around the country and around the world. Yet as oceans warm, extreme weather worsens, and species vanish, stakeholders in the fish business are increasingly rethinking how the city gets fed. We spoke with Vinny Milburn, a fifth-generation fishmonger with a keen interest in reshaping the culture of fish consumption in New York, about how climate change is altering the local fisheries industry, inspiring everything from regenerative sourcing to urban aquaculture farms to net-zero transport. – A.G. and A.H.-C.
So you’re a fifth generation fishmonger. How did you and your family get into this business?
My great, great grandfather came over on a boat from Ireland in the 1860s. He landed in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he began fishing and got quite good at it. Eventually he started his own company, which was incorporated in 1887. My mother worked at the company for 30 years, and my brother works there now. It’s a major Boston company. I worked there when I was younger.
I didn’t then, and I still don’t, quite feel comfortable being part of the commercial fishing industry, given the way that it’s contributed to some truly horrific environmental collapses. There are certainly people that do it right. There’s some people that do it very wrong. And unfortunately, it’s hard to differentiate between the two in the marketplace.
I moved to New York to get out of the fish business. And then I got here and I wanted some fish for dinner and was horrified by the seafood on offer at the Key Foods. I was like, where’s all the fish going? Because I know that New York has a great fisheries on Long Island and in New Jersey. Eventually, I had my brother send fish down to me from Boston. And then my neighbors wanted some and, you know, it kind of went from there.
But I decided that I was going to do something a little different, and put a limit on what seafood I was going to sell. Normally, when you walk into a grocery store or fish market counter, it’s the entire ocean on display. That’s just insane. In our business, we don’t have certain things that people expect. We have great things when they’re in season, but we don’t carry them in the offseason. The fact that this was a revolutionary concept as recently as the 2010s, when we got started, shows where things are.
I think even the idea of seasonal fish is probably new to many people today. They might know that there’s an oyster season, but the knowledge stops there.
Oysters are actually year-round. It’s just that refrigeration and transport pose a problem at some times of year. But certain species like tuna are what’s classified as a highly migratory species. They go all over the world. Up until the early ‘90s, tuna was a seasonal thing that you got in summer. But when the sushi craze exploded, there was huge demand for it all the time. We have restaurants that are like, I have to have this product 365 days a year no matter what. So they’re fished all around the world at all times of the year. And this doesn’t allow for the regrowth cycle.
There’s just too much demand and too little product. You’re seeing now a lot of the big industry players move into recirculating aquaculture systems — inland systems, ones that don’t require open ocean. You can grow in a race track. A hybrid striped bass is being grown in a hydroponic system here in Greenpoint. It’s possible that the economics of this aren’t quite right, because it’s still very capital intensive, both input and output. But in 50 years, it’s going to be almost unthinkable that people were once not interested in farmed seafood.
How would you say fishing has changed in the region over the past ten years? In particular, how have things changed for you as a result of climate change?
First of all, everything that everyone does, whether they are cognizant of it or not, is directly related to climate change issues. The way that it affects me in my industry, specifically at my level as a distributor, isn’t as significant as it is for people who are actually working the seas or working their aqua farms.
Water temperatures rising is one of the biggest issues. On the East Coast, we’re seeing fish species come north that you would never see previously. There’s pelicans up here! Spanish mackerel are coming in much bigger numbers than before. The Gulf of Maine is, I think, warming more than any other body of water because of the way the warm waters of the Gulf Stream come up the coast and get trapped there. This is pushing native species out further into the ocean where there’s colder waters. The seasons are also shifting a bit. Whereas it used to be that the tuna were all gone by Halloween, now it might be Thanksgiving, or maybe Christmas.
Then there’s the severe weather events that affect fishing. Wind sometimes lasts for weeks now, when it used to only last a couple days. It’s often too dangerous for boats to go out, and especially smaller boats. There’s also a lot more precipitation, which leads to more runoff, which leads to more fecal matter in the water, which means that operations focused on shellfish, which are filter feeders, have to be shut down. And that’s happening more frequently.
You were talking about unusual fish coming north. Have you noticed declines in any species? What does that mean for your distribution business?
Definitely. There’s less of everything every year. It’s why I’m interested in scaling back on sales. But this is difficult and goes against every capitalistic value. It’s even harder when you have investors and partners. For the first couple of years, it was very hard. Someone would say, “I’ll buy all of my X from you. But I also need you to get me Y.” And I would say, “I can’t in good conscience sell you Y. And I really don’t want to lecture, but I think that you should take that off the menu.”
The problem that I run into all the time as a “sustainable seafood expert,” is people have a certain amount of guilt about enjoying seafood when they’ve heard so many bad things about it. So they feel like they need to assuage that guilt by coming to me and saying, “Just tell me which fish is good to eat, and I’ll eat it!” And it’s so much more complex than that.
So you’re sort of a fish therapist sometimes. Could you tell us a little more about the scope of your shipping operations? Where do you mainly get fish from?
First and foremost, I want domestic fish above imported, and of those domestic fish I want ones that are native to the Northeast. But that is just not possible to do. I really try to limit my carbon footprint with the products I take in. I prefer to have them come by truck or train instead of instead of the air. I get some things trucked in from the Carolinas, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. It’s not like I don’t take anything that’s flown. Although we want it to be flown on passenger planes, because they’re making the trip anyway.
What fish arrives on planes? Salmon from the Northwest?
Yeah, sometimes. There are salmon farms here on the East Coast but they don’t really have great environmental track records. The farmed salmon are mostly kept in pens in the ocean, and there are a lot of issues with bacteria, sea lice, and other things. So our salmon are flown in.
What about local transport? How does how does your fish get around the city? Do you see climate impacting that now or eventually?
We have diesel trucks. Incidentally, the price of diesel was out of control last summer. It was actually so high that some fishermen didn’t fish, because all those boats are run on diesel. It could cost 30 or 40 grand to fill up. But we do try to limit our usages of fossil fuels by getting people to order a little bit more in terms of quantity per order. Ordering two pounds of fish every single day is a waste of everyone’s time, resources, and energy.
In terms of waste and transport, one of the biggest problems is the cult of freshness. Part of what I’ve tried to do with this company is dispel a lot of myths and rumors like this idea that “fresh caught” means you’re eating something caught today. Well, I may have got it in stock today, but the fish was fished three weeks ago. That’s an extreme example, but it’s very possible. A fishing boat leaves on the first of the month and takes two days to get to their fishing grounds. Then they fish for two weeks. And then they come back with the fish they caught early in the month. Then this fish has to get processed and shipped. To think that if fish just came in this morning it must have been caught last night — how is that even possible? And if that was the case, wouldn’t it be just such a waste of resources?
People often ask me, “What fish I should eat?” But in order to be a more sustainable seafood consumer, it’s not just about what you’re eating, it’s how you’re eating it. I mean, a fish is shaped like a fish, right? And it tapers at the head and the tail. But fine dining restaurants only take the rectangular part of the filet in the middle. And the tail part gets thrown away, usually. I always say to chefs, “What is wrong with a six ounce portion from the tail?” Sometimes the answer is, “If it’s a little bit off size, then it might not cook perfectly.” But these restaurants are high end fine dining places with highly skilled people in the kitchens. They should be able to figure it out. The other response that I get more often, which I just vehemently disagree with, is that customers prefer the square pieces.
We’ve taken great joy in my restaurants in cooking what would otherwise be off cuts — taking scraps and making them into burgers or sandwiches. It doesn’t matter what carbon footprint the fish has or how well it was caught or regulated If you’re going to throw a big percentage of it away.
Do you ever have peak energy use problems in your building? When it’s really, really hot, do you notice the refrigeration not working as well? Do you have a backup generator?
We do have a backup. We haven’t had to use it, fortunately. Generally, the way the refrigeration units are built is such that if power goes down and you keep the door shut, they’ll sustain the temperature for something like three days.
What do you see as the future of the green transition in the fishing industry? If you imagine the business when you hand it over to your kids in thirty years, what does it look like?
Well, I’d love it if there was a collective mind-change and we all started to think and act a little bit more responsibly. But ultimately I think it’s going to be pressure from capitalism that will move the needle, unfortunately. There will be collateral damage before things start to change because there’s some people who will not stop until they catch the last fish. There’s also another big issue with the seafood industry right now, which is that the median age is something like 55. It’s not a young man’s industry, and you have to be a certain kind of masochist to enjoy this work, which is backbreaking and grueling and very dangerous.
But I think that, for these reasons, there’s increasingly a lot more science that is going into the aquaculture programs. And there’s a lot of good new green jobs that are going to be coming online. There are corporations that are building new facilities in Miami and Maine and Indiana. So there’s going to be opportunities for young people to get into this industry, but in a different way, like in a lab coat.
All photos by Amy Howden-Chapman