Mark Marhefka has been fishing the waters of the South Atlantic almost his entire life. It is where his father, a commercial fisherman, operated and where Marhefka began his career – straight out of high school – as a commercial fisherman over 40 years ago. Still, Marhefka has never been tied to tradition and has always kept his horizons open to the new ideas. His innovative approach has not only made him among the most in-demand commercial fishermen in the Carolinas, but also placed him as one of America’s most prominent champions of sustainable seafood. The Charleston, South Carolina-based fisherman has been written up in The New York Times as well as being featured on CBS Sunday Morning and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown TV series.
Marhefka’s route to success was achieved by going against the current. His interest in sustainable fishing began in the 1980s when he noticed fish populations were dipping in the South Atlantic. Rather than follow the pack and haul in short-term profits, Marhefka alerted officials that fishing quotas were needed to protect fishing areas. He backed up his beliefs by becoming an official advisor to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council in the 1990s. It was at a Council meeting in 1998 that he met a government staff biologist, Kerry O’Malley, who was tasked with establishing Marine Protected Areas (MPA) in the region. He was impressed by her work and she was impressed that a fisherman cared deeply about MPAs. They married a few years later and work together as co-owners of Abundant Seafood. Both Mark and Kerry remain involved in several agencies concerned with maintaining and improving marine ecology.
The early 2000s was a turbulent time in the South Atlantic fishing industry due to economic policies and overfishing. Realizing a drastic change was needed to stay afloat financially, Marhefka steered away from the standard business model (where commercial fishermen sold their catch to dealers who then sold the fish to larger wholesalers) and became his own fish broker, selling directly to local restaurants. As he explains to visitors on the Abundant Seafood website: “By cutting out the middleman and selling our catch directly to local restaurants we were able to catch less fish and keep the fish that we caught in the local food chain with only a few miles between the boat and the plate.”
Marhefka’s iconoclastic thinking also extended to the type of fishes he sold. With the South Atlantic’s prime catches (grouper and snapper) rapidly depleting, Marhefka turned to catching fish like amberjack, triggerfish, porgy, rudderfish, mackerel, and wreckfish. These so-called “Trash Fishes” traditionally were overlooked by the commercial fishing and restaurants. Having well established his expertise regarding local fishes, he was able to convince local chefs to take a chance on these underutilized species. As the James Beard Award-winning chef Jason Stanhope related to Charleston Magazine: “We cut into (the fish) and were like, ‘What the hell is this? How did we not know about this fish? Is he inventing a new species?’” It was, in fact, just a rudderfish – an old species that didn’t typically find its way into restaurant kitchens. And once Marhefka won over the chefs in Charleston’s thriving restaurant scene, the rest of America’s culinary world started taking notice.
In 2010, the Marhefkas made another unconventional move by transforming Abundant Seafood into one of the first, and still one of the only, Community-Supported Fisheries in America. CSA members pay a share, which allows them to pick up fresh fish straight off of the dock. The Marhefkas, who are among the James Beard Foundation’s 2020 Leadership Awards honorees, launched their first retail market this spring. They unfortunately opened it two days before South Carolina’s governor closed restaurants due to the pandemic. The timing, however, has turned out to be a mixed blessing. While the quarantine greatly shrunk their wholesale restaurant sales, the retail sales through their market helped to buoy their business, which stands to improve more now that South Carolina restaurants have begun reopening.