Cindy Tarvin of Tarvin Seafood sells local and regional shrimp to consumers and restaurants | Ruta Smith file photo

Having a constant supply of fresh fish is integral to keeping many Charleston restaurants open and full of diners. To get the freshest products, chefs and business owners turn to local fish suppliers who have sustainability and longevity in mind. 

 Sustainability in fishing takes on different meanings depending on whom you ask. To James London, chef and owner of Chubby Fish in Charleston, it comes down to “fishing for the future,” which he says ensures that overfishing is kept to a minimum and buying from fish farms should be considered only “when necessary.”  

To others in the industry, such as Shaun Brian, chef and co-owner of CudaCo, James Island seafood restaurant and market, sustainability in fishing is aligned with not fishing the same spots constantly, as was the norm in days past. Brian is also adamant that “the biggest issue in seafood is styrofoam,” and he said he is doing everything he can to avoid using styrofoam in his business. 

For Cindy Tarvin of Tarvin Seafood on Shem Creek, sustainability means keeping the traditions of Mount Pleasant shrimping alive while being fair to shrimpers and longtime business partners. 

Tarvin’s philosophy is: “Pay the boats better. Pay the people well,” a method she said is working in her favor. Tarvin added, “We figure if we pay more, that forces the other docks to pay more … even at a time when we can’t afford to stay open all day.”

While doing so, she keeps her relationships with restaurants at the forefront of her business model.

“She’s amazing and the fact that her entire family has hands in the everyday workings of the business is super important to the way we run our restaurant,” London added. “It’s about more than the shrimp; it’s about how much they care about what they do.” 

Supplying fish — and education — to locals

Shrimping hasn’t always been fair to the fishermen themselves and that’s what Tarvin and her team hope to educate locals about. Shrimping in Mount Pleasant plays a major role in the town’s identity. Decades of shrimpers came before, and the only hope of continuing those traditions is to create and sustain a more long-term interest in the mechanics and personality of the industry, she said. 

Chef Ramon Taimanglo of Park & Grove utilizes his relationship with Tarvin to cash in on the freshest product they have. “You can’t buy better shrimp in Charleston, so we enjoy paying the Tarvins whatever price they want to charge us,” Taimanglo said.

Luckily for the Tarvins, their good standing with the restaurants they supply helps their retail sales as well. When chefs take pride in their sourcing, they, in turn, educate guests on where to buy shrimp. 

“The seafood business has a lot of ripple effects in Charleston, especially in the hospitality industry,” Tarvin said. After 10 reputable years, Tarvin raised her prices on shrimp by 15% per pound, and she said the response from her clients was: “That’s it? What took you so long?”

Tarvin Seafood started selling shrimp to Charleston restaurants thanks to connections from their neighbors Abundant Seafood, owned by Mark Marhefka who began fishing in Charleston as a teenager in 1977. He also runs a family business.

According to Marhefka, demand for fresh fish skyrocketed after the market crash in 2008 when people suddenly needed their dollars to do the most in supporting not only themselves but their local economy as well.

That doesn’t mean everybody who comes in contact with local fish houses understands exactly what they are buying, though.

“There’s a lot of people who feel like if it wasn’t caught off Sullivan’s or Isle of Palms or Folly Beach, then they don’t want it,” Tarvin said. 

Brian added, “Fish don’t have an address.” It isn’t realistic to expect that all seafood you buy will be caught off your closest shores, especially when the demand for fresh fish is so high today, he said.

Diversifying what’s available

To meet that demand, Abundant, CudaCo and Tarvin said they import fish and shrimp from surrounding coasts to liven up the market, which helps with sustainability by avoiding overfishing in concentrated areas. This practice also diversifies the type of fish sold, including lionfish, snapper, tuna, tilefish and monkfish. 

When it comes to supply and demand, it really “comes down to whether or not we can give them what they want,” Marhefka said. If somebody requests a certain fish that isn’t currently available, the best that seafood stores can do is offer a substitution. While this might make some retail customers less than satisfied, it provides local chefs with an opportunity to be creative. 

“I like the fact that I get texted a list every night,” Taimanglo said when speaking about his relationship with CudaCo. “I like the diversity.” 

When the quality and care are present in the processing and salesmanship of the product, people know that they are making the right decision. 

“Abundant and Tarvin are both known for their excellent customer service and quality,” said Alex Eaton, executive chef of Estadio. “They make it easy to support [a] local and sustainable business because their quality outshines other distributors. They’re just on a completely different level.” 

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