Panic grocery-buying is currently a widespread phenomenon in Florida and probably the whole country. But the Keys are uniquely positioned on this front — after all, we have an entire ocean on our doorstep and it’s filled with fresh fish. 

Normally, it gets shipped straight to mainland grocery stores and restaurants. That’s not necessarily the case anymore. (Spoiler alert: we’re not going to starve.)

Plus, Keys folks are a creative bunch. Keys Fisheries in Marathon is offering a free roll of toilet paper for every $20 spent at its retail market. No joke.

“Absolutely. Whatever it takes to keep the doors open,” said Greg D’Agostino, general manager for Keys Fisheries in Marathon. Keys Fisheries operates a wholesale fish house, a restaurant (takeout) and a retail market.

Wholesale has taken on a whole new meaning (pun intended). While answering the Keys Weekly’s phone call, Brutus Seafood owner Elise Mucha was hollerin’ at a friend. “Yes, the toilet paper is over there. No, worries. Just make sure you spread the word that we’re open!”

Wholesalers are branching out. Keys Fisheries and Brutus are selling landlubbers’ options like ground beef and other items regular grocery stores might be running low on. And, on a more serious note, they are keeping the local commercial fishermen alive.

“We have yellowtail snapper for $14 a pound,” Mucha said. “I’m basically selling that and things like stone crabs from Gary Nichols on Conch Key at cost.”

She’s partnered with James Paskiewicz of Island Skipper Fishing, who has a license to sell fish to retail outlets, but can’t “process” the fish, or fillet them. So Island Skipper does the fishing and Brutus does the cutting. 

“Normally my fish, and the fish I buy from other boats, would go to Miami or Fort Lauderdale and some Whole Foods stores,” Paskiewicz said.

Paskiewicz said the industry’s first reaction was to take the foot off the gas pedal. “Now, we’re looking at the ‘new normal.’ We need to know which places are still open, and at what capacity.”

Paskiewicz is a local born and bred commercial fisherman in Marathon. He’s married with three children. This is his livelihood. “At some point we have to look away from profit margin and make sure the fish gets where it needs to go, to families that need it. It’s a quality source of protein. We need to stimulate some movement and do whatever we can.”

If worse comes to worst, there’s always bartering. If things get really bad, he imagines heading up to Homestead with his catch, and coming back with fresh vegetables from local farms.

In the meantime, locals are getting some tasty meals on the table. 

“The customers called me up, placed an order and left a cooler filled with ice and a check on the front doorstep,” said Allison Sayer of Chic Fillets in Marathon. “In three days, I sold everything I had left.”

Sayer said she undertook the local selling, anticipating slow orders from the mainland where the business normally sells its fish to restaurants and grocery stores. In a good week, in high season, it’s between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds. Right now, Chic Fillets is taking a few days to pause, selling only out of its freezer, to gauge the mood and the market. 

So, eat some fish. But don’t wait for prices to hit rock bottom. That will be a devastating blow for commercial fishermen who, when the cost of going out no longer covers their bottom line, will leave the fish in the sea for another season. And, frankly, most of us aren’t good enough anglers to feed ourselves. By the way, Monroe County boat ramps are closed. So are DOT-owned fishing bridges in the Keys. 

Man cannot live by fish alone. Sweet Savannah’s is offering carry-out or curbside service for customers who NEED (and believe us, we do) ice cream, cookies, cupcakes or pies. “We’re asking customers to have exact change or pay over the phone,” said Kate Koler. “The menu is listed on our website and Facebook, and supplies are first come, first serve. We can also fulfill special orders — like three dozen Key lime cookies — if they are placed in advance.”

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