Fresh fish at 4am

One of the first non-trattoria-related things I did in Macerata was visit an early morning fish auction in Civitanova Marche, a small city about twenty miles east of Macerata on the Adriatic Sea. Civitanova has a long history as a fishing port, and it supplies a large quantity of seafood to the province of Macerata. I went to the market with with a group of students from the AHA Macerata Program (led by Filiberto Bracalente) who are in Macerata studying the impact of food production on the environment. –WH

If you want to get the freshest fish in Le Marche, you have to get up early. Too early. Our bus was scheduled to leave for Civitanova Marche at 3:30am, and when the alarm sounded at 3am, I was not happy.

F—k. Is this really worth it?

(pause)

Yes.

It’s not every day I have a chance to see a fish auction, so I rolled over, clumsily threw on some clothes and stumbled down the stairs that led outside. The sharp click of the front door echoed down the street, bouncing off the long rows of houses lining Via Crescimbeni. As I walked toward the bus stop, the thick, heavy soles of my shoes landed hard on the pavement, each step’s thud amplified by the still of the morning.

A couple minutes later, I passed through a tunnel in the city wall, crossed a deserted street and arrived at Giardini Diaz, a public park that doubles as an important bus stop.

No one was there, not even the bus.

Great, did I come to the wrong spot?

I was pretty sure I hadn’t.

Relax, you’re a few minutes early—who the hell shows up early at this time of day?

My anxiety was unnecessary, as everyone else showed up soon thereafter, and our bus pulled out of the park (almost) on time.

Thirty minutes later, the group walked into the market, still half asleep. The air inside was heavy with the sweet, oily smell of fish. A good deal of cigarette smoke was mixed in too, despite at least twenty (large) signs around the room that said smoking was prohibited.

The auction area was laid out like an old high school gym, with wooden bleachers rising high on either side. Instead of a hardwood floor and hoops in between, however, it had two conveyer belts running through the middle, each carrying plastic trays full of different types of fish, fresh off the boats. Every morning, weather permitting, Civitanova’s fishing fleet brings its catch to the market to be sold.

Four types of buyers come to the market, which is not open to the general public: large disributors, who sell fish to retailers throughout Italy and Europe; fish retailers, such as the smaller fish stores you see in and around Macerata; small mobile fish vendors, who sell fish from trucks at the weekly markets in small towns around Le Marche; and restaurateurs. For boat owners and for the fish buyers, this market is serious business. Until the last fish was sold, about an hour after we arrived, everyone kept a close eye on the prices reached.

 Working hard to sell the fish.

Working hard to sell the fish.

The fish are sold via a “Dutch auction,” where the price starts high and then counts down toward the final price. The designated fish buyers all have remote controls that allow them to enter the price they are willing to pay for a particular lot of fish. When the highest bid is reached, the countdown stops. A wide variety of species came through the auction, including flounder, tuna, sole, shrimp, scampi, cuttlefish, and several I did not recognize.

As the fish come down the conveyor belt, two “auctioneers” (I don’t know the actual term—but their goal is to pump up the value of the fish passing by) continually talk about the fish, lifting a few up for the buyers to see, or shaking the tray so the shrimp will start moving (the shrimp and the scampi are often still alive when they reach the market). Above the conveyors, two large LED screens listed the pertinent information for the buyers, including the species of fish up for auction, the boat where it was caught, the prices, and the winning buyers.

All the fish brought to the market are closely monitored to make sure they meet the minimum size requirements set by the European Union (the effectiveness, fairness, and sustainability of the set quotas is a topic of huge debate in fishing communities across the continent). An official stood at the beginning of the conveyor with a ruler in her hand, checking any fish that did not look big enough and removing those that did not meet the standard. She did not have to remove many, as the fishermen are very aware of the rules and (often begrudgingly) stick to them.

 Talking with the owner of a fishing boat at Civitanova's port.

Talking with the owner of a fishing boat at Civitanova's port.

The size requirements and catch limits are important issues, because the catch coming into Civitanova is decreasing, a troubling sign for the fishermen who work on the boats.  As the catch decreases, so does the number of boats and the jobs that go with them. Primo Recchioni (not pictured), owner of Recchioni Primo & Adolfo, a sizeable fish processor (and the author of a book about the decline of the traditional boats and fishing techniques), told us that while the fish industry is still culturally important for Civitanova, it is a much smaller part of the economy than it once was. So, while the wider economy is not suffering too much for the loss of fishing, a way of life is slowly being left behind.

Regardless, the remaining fishermen (in Civitanova everyone working on the boats were men) will continue to go out every day, as they have for generations, to bring in the early morning catch for people across Le Marche. (And I don’t even want to know what time their alarms go off.)