Landlocked traders fight for flying fish

MINNEAPOLIS Thu Mar 25, 2010 4:44pm EDT

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MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - A quiet street in an American city a thousand of miles from the nearest ocean is an unlikely battleground in the world's fish trade.

But that is exactly what Brent Casper likes about it.

"People think you throw a line in the lake and pull up a walleye in Minnesota. But the majority of what we buy is being shopped for aggressively by all the countries of the world," said Casper, who founded his trading company, The Fish Guys, here in 1993 to buy and sell wholesale seafood.

"It's tuna that Japan is fighting for, it's tuna that France is fighting for, Spain is fighting for. So it's a global economy that's coming from everywhere," Casper says of his daily scrambles as a 21st-century fishmonger.

Casper and his partner Mike Higgins, who manages the logistics of keeping their fish fresh amid far-flung inspections, flight snags, truck snarls and weather surprises around the world, said they may not be jostled by ocean waves but they still like the action.

Fish trade, Higgins says, is "the wild, wild West of the food industry -- the last completely over-the-counter market."

Casper and Higgins, both transplanted Chicagoans, have built their firm of 40 employees (www.thefishguysinc.com) into a $21 million business, the largest wholesaler in the Midwest, a region known for its corn-fed beef and hearty pork chops.

In fact, most fishmongers are on the U.S. coasts with just handful like The Fish Guys in the Midwest.

Higgins, who exited the bustling world of the Chicago grain markets in 2003, moved north to Minneapolis and met Casper when he was looking for a new business venture.

Casper had started The Fish Guys after learning the seafood business during a 25-year career in the famous Randolph Street wholesale fish markets in Chicago.

"I can control maybe 20 percent of my day. The other 80 percent is totally at the whims of Mother Nature, the boats, the airlines, my customers, truck drivers," said Casper.

A recent nightmare was the Valentine's Day holiday weekend in February, when many of his restaurant customers had geared up orders for a crush of diners. But a blizzard snowed in many parts of the United States and, Caspar said, 4,000 lbs (1,800 kg) of their fish ended up in Salt Lake City instead of Minneapolis.

"It's a challenge and I love that kind of business," he laughed. "Every day is different."

A HUB FOR FLYING FISH

Once a fishing boat docks in New Orleans, or Alaska's Aleutian Islands, or Halifax, Nova Scotia, brokers representing Higgins and Casper bid aggressively for the catch -- wild salmon or halibut, say, or perhaps the occasional rouge fish.

Those brokers are bidding against high-end distributors in Japan, China, Europe and other areas of the world.

Fish are packed on ice or frozen and flown daily into Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The Fish Guys then use courier services for next-day delivery throughout Minnesota and into Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and parts of Nebraska and Illinois.

Catches coming in from overseas are handled by forwarders who manage customs and logistics for international freight.

"Right now at 9 a.m. there is probably a boat pulling into one of our vendors at a port in Maryland with wild striped bass. That fish is put on ice, packed by 10 a.m. and on its way to the airport," Higgins said.

"The bass is shipped overnight, filleted here in the morning and ready for lunch at a Minneapolis restaurant by noon."

The Fish Guys begin their day at 4:30 a.m. as processing crews start filleting whole fish by hand.

"We are a commodity business, even though it's a fresh commodity," Casper said.

Occasionally Casper or Higgins will get a midnight call even before a boat docks somewhere from someone on the vessel describing their latest choice catch, such as a 250-pound (110-kg) sword fish, and asking if they are interested.

"You're trading in a spot market and it's cash over the counter," Higgins said. "We could have the fish sold before it ever lands in Minneapolis."

The U.S. fish industry brings in about $70 billion a year, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. About two-thirds of U.S. households buy fish for home consumption while 80 percent consume fish at least once a year at a restaurant.

Fish protein and oils are praised by nutritionists. But the recession has hurt demand for fish despite its health benefits. Annual U.S. per capita consumption was just under 16 lbs (7.26 kg) in 2008 versus 16.3 lbs (7.39 kg) in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The fish industry has also been a target of environmental and sustainability groups worried about degraded oceans, over-fishing, species loss and pollution. The Fish Guys have allied with commercial groups promoting sustainable fishing practices, such as the Marine Stewardship Council.

(Reporting by Christine Stebbins; Editing by Eric Beech)

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