For some people on the North Fork, the fish life is the only one they’ve ever known.
That’s certainly the case for Southold Fish Market owner Charlie Manwaring, who proudly recalls waking up at daybreak in his youth to go scalloping near Robins Island with his father, a commercial fisherman.
“It was a big thing for us,” Manwaring recalls. “During scallop season, you woke up early and you had to be the first one there.”
There was a time when Manwaring dreamed of growing up to be a police officer. He was even offered a job from the town department soon after finishing up at Methodist College (now University) in North Carolina, before opting for his current gig instead.
Still only 44 years old, Manwaring is fast approaching 20 years as owner of the market, where he began working at the age of 12.
He followed his father from the docks to the store, when it was still located at nearby Port of Egypt. When he wasn’t learning how to fillet a fish under the tutelage of former owner Ace Cottrell, Manwaring was out on the water with his dad, Charlie Sr., and grandfather Charles Harvey.
The industry has changed a lot during Manwaring’s lifetime around fishing, even just in the way people buy fish.
“The mothers, the wives, they bought whole fish,” he said of the 1980s. “They used the head and bones for soup. Nobody ever had fillet.”
That’s changed significantly, he said, as people are busier trying to make ends meet and opting to have a lot of the work done for them.
About 80% of the fish sold at Southold Fish Market, which moved to its current location in 2013, is still caught in local waters. The rest are popular items like halibut and lobster, caught in places like Alaska and Canada, or tuna from Hawaii and branzino from Turkey.
“We have so much good fish locally that we don’t need a lot of the other stuff, but I need to get the stuff people want,” Manwaring said. “If I don’t have it, they’re going to find it somewhere else. You try to have a little of everything to make everyone happy.”
Manwaring said he purchases from about 15 different local fishing operations.
Supply and demand largely determines the price at which he sells the fish. Due to increased fishing regulations, including catch limits, and the scarcity of some fish, prices have increased.
“I remember selling flounder fillet for $5.99 per pound,” he recalls. “Years ago, a guy used to catch a thousand pounds of fish and bring it in. Nowadays, you’re allowed 50 pounds of this, 70 pounds of that. We’re limited in what we can take in … but they need to let guys make a living.”
These concerns are genuine for Manwaring, an active member of the Southold Town Baymen’s Association, for which he’s worked hard to help raise funds for clam reseeding efforts in local waters.
Manwaring knows firsthand — and through watching the generations in his family before him — how much hard work goes into supplying shops like his with the freshest fish possible.
“My guys, they bleed their fish, they ice their fish — that means the world on a fish,” he said. “You can eat a fish that was left out in the sun, or you can eat a fish that was left on ice. That one’s going to eat like butter.”
Manwaring, who is also a co-owner of the popular Sophie’s Rest in Southold, believes he owes his success to hard work. There’s a reason you’ve never seen him in a suit.
“I don’t need the fancy glitz. This is my glitz,” he said, pointing to the fish market. “This is what I got.”
The proud father of two daughters — Chloe, 13, and Emily, 10 — Manwaring said he doesn’t know what the future will hold for his business, but he has no plans to slow down anytime soon, even if he has been at the market for more than 30 years now.
“I always joke that I’m done at 50,” he said. “But I won’t be. I’ll be in the store with a walker, like, ‘Can I help you?’ ”
Southold Fish Market is located at 64755 Route 25, Southold