If you’ve eaten a fish caught off the northeastern coast of the United States in the past few years, chances are good that it passed through the giant refrigerated warehouse of the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction in Gloucester, Massachusetts. That’s where I met Steve Dunn, a fish grader, one morning last April. At 4:00 a.m., the building, big enough to hold three basketball courts, was filled with row after row of black plastic bins called totes, each tagged with a lot number and filled with ice and about 100 pounds’ worth of whole fish—cod, haddock, monkfish, skate, pollack, flounder, hake, and sole—that had been unloaded from three boats a few hours earlier.
Dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, Dunn meandered among the totes as I walked alongside him. He prodded the fish, and he jotted observations on a clipboard. Dunn and his colleagues, mostly former fishermen, act as the eyes and noses for more than 30 wholesalers and retailers scattered across the country. Recognized as the premier seafood auction in the East, the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction handles about 15 million pounds of fish each year, brokering sales for buyers as far afield as Atlanta, Denver, and San Francisco, supplying wholesale centers like New York City’s Fulton Fish Market, and selling to companies like Whole Foods Markets and the restaurant chain Legal Sea Foods. Even if the fish you’re eating wasn’t sold at the auction, the price you paid for it was largely determined by what someone shelled out here.