The flying gurnard (dactylopterus volitans) looks about as much like a pterodactyl as a sea creature can – huge splayed fins, fierce visage, oddly armored head. Even at the Fulton Fish Market, Manhattan’s fabled Ellis Island for ocean life, it takes a reference book to I.D. the thing. “I’ve never seen one before,” marvels vendor David Samuels, whose Blue Ribbon Fish Company has hung its shingle at Fulton for four generations. “Would you buy it?”
They’ll buy anything here, of course – “I like the race to see who comes in first to get the best stone crab,” says Franck Deletrain (pictured), executive chef at Tropica, who is trying to track down a Chilean elephant fish at 4:30 a.m – but not, perhaps, for much longer. Last month, the city announced it was considering moving the market to Hunts Point in the Bronx to comply with new federal food-storage mandates. Fulton has famously resisted relocation plans before; at least one source in the market’s leadership puts the odds of the Hunts Point move at only 50-50. But technically, the market could go anywhere: It’s been decades since the truck-based market actually used the East River to get its fish. As the rest of lower Manhattan goes digital and residential, the 178-year-old nocturnal world of burly men unloading trucks, riding forklifts, and dumping ice on crates suddenly seems more fleeting and mystical than ever. “I describe it as Brigadoon,” says Rick Moonen, executive chef at Oceana.
In the past five decades, Fulton has grown beyond its quaint Joseph Mitchell-chronicled era to move $1 billion in fish each year. But the selling of fish on consignment is in serious decline: Direct fish auctions in Maine and Massachusetts now let fishermen unload their catch at a premium, displacing middlemen like the Fulton market. This new vulnerability, combined with Fulton’s ever-crumbling physical plant, has convinced some that the time is right to ship out. “It’s our home,” says Dino Fiorentino, 22, who grew up at his father’s fish stand. “But we’ve got a big electrical problem. If we move, we’ll save a lot of money.”
Still, the biggest argument for relocation could be the market’s Jurassic culture. “It turns my stomach,” Moonen says. “Guys with cigars in their mouths and hooks in their hands, dragging fish around the ground. I don’t want to scare people, but more regulation really is needed.” The federal rules call for fish to be sold in enclosed, refrigerated spaces; only the most nostalgic would deny that such change is long overdue. “Right now, everything is on ice and I don’t think it’s a problem,” says Deletrain. “But in July and August, it’s completely different.”
Of course, this being Fulton, only one dealer sells ice, and no one remembers the last time anyone competed. Like the flying gurnard, some traditions here seem downright prehistoric.