Off the coast of Maine, Tim Rider is revolutionizing how fish come to market—and chefs are falling for it hook, line, and sinker.

Credit: Greg DuPree

Daybreak. It's the dead of winter, below freezing with an icy chop, and the F/V Finlander is rocking in 299 feet of water 60 miles off the Maine coast. We are here because the fish bite at dawn. We left the docks at 1:30 a.m., steaming due east for four hours and passing right over some of the most productive cod fishing grounds on the coast, an insane act we’ve been driven to by an insane system of fishing regulations.

We shouldn’t be out here this time of year in a boat this small, on water so cold that you could count your survival time in minutes. No one else is. The whole way from shore, I watch the eerie silence on the Finlander’s radar screen. Not a single blip.

When I point this out to Tim Rider, captain of the Finlander, he says in his coastal New England accent, “Rowan, from November to April, I have never seen another boat fishing where we fish. Not a one in my life.” Rider is in his early 40s, wiry and stubbly and intense. He anticipates my next question: “If we have a situation right now, in a 36-foot boat, we are most likely a fatality. They will never get to us in time.” Rider tells me about some of his close calls—the 44-knot storm that would have flipped the Finlander if he’d taken his hands off the wheel; the massive wave last year that cracked the windshield and ripped the life raft from its cradle atop the cabin—and then he casually flips the reel on his rod and drops his line into the depths.

Insane, yes, and many have accused Rider of being just that. But he pushes himself and his boat to extremes for two clear, if fanatical, reasons: because he wants to have the best fish in the country, and because he wants to change the system.

The moment my lure touches bottom I feel hits from multiple directions, like linebackers popping a ballcarrier, and then I’m cranking an uncooperative force 299 feet to the surface. All five crew members are doing the same. Three Atlantic pollock are hooked on my line, sleek and silvery with gunmetal backs, and we wrestle them aboard and do what Rider and his crew do with every fish: cut the artery under the jaw to bleed it out immediately, then gently sink it into an ice brine to shock-chill it.

And then it’s back to fishing. “Get those hooks back in the water, Rowan,” Rider barks out. “This isn’t a party boat.”

Rider grew up working party boats on the New England coast, helping weekend warriors preserve their catch at the peak of quality. When he finally saved up enough money to buy his own boat and become a commercial fisherman, he kept doing things the way he always had: treating every fish as if it’s going to be served for dinner. It just never made sense to him to ruin a fantastic fish by throwing it around or letting blood soften the meat, even though he got no premium for his efforts. Like most fishermen, he sold his catch at auction to wholesalers, and he had no control over the price, which would plunge whenever a big commercial trawler came into port.

Those large trawlers are where most classic whitefish comes from—cod, haddock, pollock, flounder. They can stay at sea for two weeks at a time, raking half a million pounds of fish off the sea floor into weighted nets. This is the source of the fish that fill most seafood counters and restaurants.

Unfortunately, in the Northeast there’s no alternative to the current system, which rewards a few fat cats at the expense of owner-operator fishermen like Rider. The problem started in 2010 with the implementation of a fisheries management system called catch shares. Stocks of cod—the big-money species—had been declining for decades, and catch shares were supposed to prevent overfishing. The government calculated the number of fish that could be sustainably harvested and then divided those shares among active fishermen. The fishermen were free to do what they wanted with their share—they could fish it, or they could sell their rights to those fish on the open market.

What the government hadn’t anticipated is that a handful of well-funded fishing empires, which had the big boats and the economies of scale, would buy up the shares and drive the little guys out of business. Of the more than 1,000 fishing boats that plied New England waters in the 1990s, less than 400 are left, and many of those work for corporations.

Rider has to pay $3 per pound for the right to catch cod, which is sometimes more than he can get for the fish. “I tell people, try paying 30 percent of your income in royalties to someone who did your job years ago and see if you survive financially,” he says. “It’s painful.” This is why we had sailed over the near-shore cod grounds to risk our lives on the pollock grounds 60 miles out. Pollock is more abundant and in less demand, so its quota price is negligible.

Rider struggled to make a living on his pollock operation until he met Spencer Montgomery and Amanda Parks, the young couple currently cranking their reels beside me. Montgomery and Parks were active in the Slow Food movement and were interested in establishing community-supported fisheries. When they discovered the quality of Rider’s fish, and how little money he got for it, they volunteered as crew and suggested a plan. Both were alums of Black Trumpet restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and knew that the chef and owner, Evan Mallett, was a tireless champion of local foods. Maybe, they thought, if he liked the fish, he’d be willing to pay a premium for it.

He did, and he was. “What has come into my kitchen from a dealer is sometimes bent, stretched, crushed,” Mallett later explained to me. “The groundfish from Tim was ivory-white.” When fish isn’t bled quickly, it becomes soft and discolored and develops an unpleasant smell, but this fish was firm and sweet. “It was the same species, but it was clear right out of the gates that it wasn’t the same product,” Mallett said. “He was giving it the same care that you find in Japanese fisheries. His reverence for the fish is unparalleled.” Eventually Mallett tracked down Rider in person: “I said to his face, ‘Your fish is amazing. You are the Exalted One,’ which, of course, is exactly what he wanted to hear.” Black Trumpet has been featuring Rider’s fish ever since, from bacon-wrapped monkfish to grilled mackerel, the most flavorful and underappreciated fish in the Gulf of Maine.

Soon the Exalted One had a new business model. Screw the auctions. He, Montgomery, and Parks founded New England Fishmongers, which delivers fish from the Finlander directly to restaurants in exchange for a much better price. “Chefs have never had a captain deliver their fish by hand before,” Rider tells me. “They’re kind of stunned.” (I later confirmed this with Jeremy Sewall, executive chef and co-owner of Boston’s Row 34 and Island Creek Oyster Bar. “Most unf---ingbelievable fish I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s still in rigor! The flesh is firm and flaky, and the mouthfeel is rich. It kind of changes what fresh fish is.”)

One fisherman does not a new system make, but New England Fishmongers is working on that, too. In the waning winter light, as we steam toward port with 2,500 pounds of beautiful pollock, Rider tells me that other fishermen are interested in the craft-fishing revolution. New England Fishmongers is teaming up with their restaurant clients on fundraising dinners to help small-scale fishermen pay their cod quotas so they can stay near shore. “If we can get them a more reasonable rate on their fish,” Rider says, “they’ll be successful, and eventually we’ll have enough numbers to change the situation.” Rider wants a use-it-or-lose-it rule so “armchair captains” can’t just rent out their share to the highest bidder every year. He also wants a law that no single entity can own more than 2 percent of the catch, as is done on the West Coast.

It will take time, but it bodes well for New England—for the fish, for the fishermen, and for everyone who ever dreamed of getting a perfect fillet on their plate a day after it emerged from the sea—and I find myself believing we are going to see a lot more small-scale fishermen in the coming years.

Eighteen hours after departure, we reach the docks and unload. Montgomery and Parks will hit the road tomorrow morning delivering fish (while I can’t think about hitting anything other than my pillow), but Rider turns and heads back toward the Finlander. When I suggest sleep, he shakes his head. “Gotta turn and burn,” he says. He’ll grab a couple of hours of shut-eye on the boat, then load a new crew and do it all over again. After all, you gotta pick your days this time of year, and tomorrow’s seas are supposed to be only mildly terrifying.