Laura Hayes
Laura Hayes

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Step onto the ProFish warehouse floor and you’ll spot area fishermen dropping off Styrofoam boxes of still-squirming seafood and longtime workers shoveling ice or properly bleeding fish. But what’s impossible to see with the naked eye is the sheer size of ProFish’s operations.

Partners Greg Casten and Tim Lydon opened the seafood wholesaler in 1988, and the Ivy City company now boasts more than $60 million in annual sales. In more tangible terms, ProFish sells about 100,000 pounds of salmon a week, offers more than 1,500 products, and services 3,000 customers from New York to Virginia Beach—all in about 14,000 square feet.

But that’s about to change. Ivy City Partners, which includes ProFish, has been awarded a city contract to develop the historic Alexander Crummell School, which will enable the company to stay put and more than double its square footage.

Lydon says the company reached a tipping point about 10 years ago when it needed more space to accommodate its growing business but desperately wanted to stay in the District. “Being in D.C., I think that separates us,” he says. “We are Washington’s only seafood wholesaler.”

It’ll take years for ProFish to migrate to its allotted underground space in the old school, but Lydon is patient. He says it’s fulfilling “to know that … our entire career will be in one location, one city block with expansion, with modernization.”

City officials say Ivy City Partners was selected in part because ProFish’s priorities align with the current administration’s goals of local job growth and sustainability.

“We were the first to even think about this,” says John Rorapaugh, ProFish’s sustainability director of 13 years. Its longstanding eco-friendly practices include sustainable and domestic sourcing and zero waste.

A staggering 90 percent of the seafood Americans consume is imported. “The question you want to ask a seafood wholesaler is how much domestic versus imported do you sell?” Rorapaugh says. “I guarantee you that since the country is 90 percent imported, most seafood companies are going to be 90 percent imported as well.”

High-end restaurants  like Sushi Taro and Kaz Sushi Bistro, whose source-conscious chefs use fish imported from Japan, aren’t the problem. Instead, it’s casual, high-volume restaurants that use untraceable commodity fish that are concerning.

“When you have a fishery out of Micronesia or India, there’s slave labor involved and there are models of piracy,” Rorapaugh says. He describes harrowing scenarios in which unscrupulous ship captains promise men work for a week then keep them at sea for six months before dropping them off somewhere without pay. “This happens all the time—you see machine guns and stuff on these boats.”

Consuming imported seafood also comes with other risks, like not knowing whether products are safe or whether they are the result of overfishing. That’s why ProFish only offers 40 percent imported seafood, most of which comes from countries with protections similar to the U.S. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) manages every domestic fishery on the sustainable level, “which means there is no overfishing in the United States,” Rorapaugh says.

Domestic, especially local, seafood is also preferable because it requires less fuel. A small local fishing boat that turns off its motor while catching only desired species is vastly more sustainable than big global fisheries that use multiple vessels, cast huge nets, and cover 400 miles.

End consumers of ProFish products can even learn how their food was sourced. Rorapaugh coaches restaurants on traceability, providing scannable “fish print” cards that show information about the fishing vessel, captain, water source, and transport to ProFish.

ProFish not only works closely with NOAA, but it was also one of the first East Coast fish wholesalers to tap into Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which designates seafood as green (best choices), yellow (good alternatives), and red (species to avoid) to better inform consumers and businesses.

Until five years ago, Seafood Watch had tilefish on its red list, but it based that designation solely on Pacific/Gulf of Mexico tilefish. “The West Coast and Gulf are 10 times more polluted with mercury than the East Coast,” Rorapaugh explains. Tilefish eat shellfish, which are known to contain mercury. “So all these fisherman up and down the East Coast were like, ‘Monterey Bay is killing us.’”

Rorapaugh authored a report about it, which led to separate designations for Pacific and Atlantic tilefish, the latter now among Rorapaugh’s favorite products.  

While ProFish has been a leader in sustainable fishing, its history isn’t perfect. In 2010, the company was sentenced to three years’ probation and fined more than $575,000 for its role in a scandal that involved purchasing illegally harvested striped bass (rockfish). Lydon received 21 months in prison and former fish buyer Benjamin Cough received 15.

“It was a definitely a lesson” Rorapaugh says. “We have teams now to inspect everything and make sure it’s done legally, which helps the state and country because the system was broken.” He says the case changed the way Maryland handles striped bass fishing and the way the company works with fisherman more generally to ensure they aren’t gaming the system without ProFish’s knowledge. 

For ProFish, sustainability isn’t limited to what happens on the water. Its green practices extend to when fish arrive in Ivy City. Most notably, ProFish has been a zero-waste business for a decade. ProFish uses whole fish, 30 to 40 percent of which are filleted and sold to chefs. For most companies, the rest of the carcass is waste. “But 10 years ago we started collecting them and selling them to a dog and cat food company,” Rorapaugh explains. “That’s eight million pounds that we didn’t landfill per year over eight years, or 80 million total.”

Starting in 2017, ProFish will diversify how it uses discarded fish carcasses. It’s working with the University of Maryland to develop a fish-waste fertilizer—literally bringing surf to turf. There was already a patent for single-species fish fertilizer, so ProFish secured one for multi-species. A good portion of the Crummell School facility will likely be allocated to producing it.

It has also innovated how to use Styrofoam containers, purchasing a $100,000 polystyrene Styrofoam densifier that dramatically shrinks the environmental evil. A recycling company then converts the product into picture frames and door frames.

Del Campo Chef Victor Albisu, who has been a ProFish customer for years, says the food industry has taken notice of these best practices. “John’s been somebody plugged into the chef community in an authentic way because he’s extremely knowledgeable,” he says. “Not to overstate it, but they’ve become a beacon. If a product has their blessing, you feel pretty confident serving it.”

But there are still some chefs who look only at the bottom line. “When you go meet a chef and he says, ‘Shit you’re too high, you’re three bucks higher,’ are you comparing apples to apples?” Rorapaugh says. “Is it a Florida gulf shrimp or is it an Indonesian pond shrimp raised under who-knows what conditions?” But he believes pressure from consumers will force their hands in the coming years.

Albisu also appreciates the company’s philanthropic spirit. In addition to supplying product for various charity events, ProFish has its own non-profit, Charity Off The Hook.

“Every month we pick a charity and give them a percentage of profits from invasive species sales,” Rorapaugh says, pointing to Northern snakehead and blue catfish. Beneficiaries have included Miriam’s Kitchen, Brainfood, and DC Central Kitchen. In five years he hopes to have 40 charities “in the family.”

“You’re building a stronger environment around philanthropy,” Rorapaugh says. “Nobody writes philanthropy into their business model, but if you look at our business plan, it’s in there now.”