Sebastian's waterfront has a long and rich history of local fishermen. Bill Tiedge is doing his best to move it forward.
Tiedge launched Crab E Bills Seafood Market in 2011 with a mission of consistently offering superior, sustainable seafood caught by local fishermen and divers. Tucked in the heart of the Sebastian waterfront, fishing boats bob at the docks, while sunlight shimmers off the Indian River. Soon after docking, a bounty of day-boat fish and seafood is delivered to the market's back door.
Housed in a building that has been a waterfront fixture for 90 years, Crab E Bills boasts a wooden beam ceiling, hardwood floors and quirky nautical displays. The gleaming front counter cases shows off a dazzling array of fresh-caught fish lying on pristine beds of ice. Plucked from the sea, the local catch is brought to the market usually within the span of a day or less.
The market prides itself in a wide selection such as snapper, hogfish, grouper, mahi, pompano, kingfish, and amberjack and yellow fin tuna that are teamed with fresh northern fish such as cod, haddock, halibut, and Scottish salmon. There are also succulent sea and bay scallops, oysters, petite spiny Florida lobsters and shrimp such as luscious Royal Reds and Key West Pinks.
“I tell folks to give the pumpkin swordfish a try, they feed on royal red shrimp and it changes the whole flavor of the fish,” said Tiedge, a commercial fisherman and scuba diver with more than four decades years of experience.
"The Royal Reds are very sweet, sort like a lobster taste. They are found in deep water, 500 feet deep and are only available for a few months. Our stone crabs claws come from near the Sebastian Inlet or in the Keys. Between last Christmas and New Year's, we sold more than 700 pounds."
Considered one of the biggest retail seafood operations in the region, Crab E Bills has the feel of a neighborhood fish market.
"One thing I like is the stock changes all the time, but it's more than just buying a piece of fish," said Sally Baker of Melbourne Beach. "They can trace that fish back to the fisherman who got it. That's huge. The staff I've dealt with are knowledgeable and friendly. They educate customers about the specific seafood and how best to prepare it. Lots of history articles on local fishermen. It's a great experience."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Tiedge grew up in Long Island and spent summers on Lake Ronkonkoma, one of the largest and deepest lakes in New York State. When he was twelve the family moved to South Miami Beach. One of his first jobs was as a clean-up boy and clam shucker at the famed Joe’s Stone Crab. Tiedge obtained his scuba certification and became a dive master in the Keys. He learned the butchering trade at Lorenzo’s Italian Market in North Miami Beach, and later worked for Whole Foods Market where he managed the fish, meat and poultry businesses throughout the Southeast.
Early on a recent Friday morning I'm spending time with Tiedge and his crew in their briny world. Suppliers haul in boxes and bags stuffed with the ultra-freshest seafood. I peer into bags brimming with clams and spiny lobsters. A large container is filled with beautiful red snapper.
Carmine Leonetti has been a professional fish cutter for more than three decades. Six days a week he rises before dawn travelling from his Melbourne home to the Crab E Bills market. In the back room a large walk-in freezer is full of ice-filled boxes of very fresh fish – brought in that morning – neatly lined up. A weekly catch totals about 300 to 400 pounds of fish.
Dressed in a bright blue hooded sweatshirt, a white full length apron and white gumboots at a work station, Leonetti wields a long, narrow knife carving sides of fish with a surgeon's precision. He's quick. With concentration he fillets a whole fish in just seconds. There is a different technique depending on whether he is cutting a flat fish or a round fish. He lifts a picture-perfect snapper that he estimates at 20 pounds.
"It's not really about speed, but how much a cutter can yield from each fish," Leonetti explained. "Anyone can cut a fish. It's how much return (fillets) you get."
All of the fish daily transported to the market are caught offshore, typically from 20 to 30 miles out. The fishermen are one-man local operations who head out to the water when the sky is still black.
"We're a big part of the community and that feels good," Leonetti said. "We try and be as fair as we can with our fishermen, paying fifty cents or a dollar more a pound than other people. It enables us to get first dibs on their catch. If you pin me down, I'd say my favorite is mutton snapper with a very sweet taste and firm texture."
Crab E Bills catch is never netted or caught on long lines. Much of the fish is brought in by scuba divers who use spear guns. A combination of hunting and fishing, this method requires skill, patience and solid sporting ethics.
The method allows the fishermen to specifically target a single fish rather than spending precious time accidently catching fish they don’t want (bycatch) or fish that are under-sized. A number of their divers are local cops and firemen. They carry three-band spear guns, five to six feet in length. The boat goes out for eight hours and the divers perform five or six drops down to a depth of 80 to 120 feet. The location is chosen mindful of the fish populations and their recent dives.
Some of the most popular hunts are for tasty hogfish, powerful amberjacks or landing a yellowtail–a swift aqua-and-gold striped schooling fish with a brilliant canary tailfish. There aren't many moments in hunting or fishing when you get to look the hunted in the eyes from just a couple of feet away before you spear it. The divers identify a target, stalk, shoot it, and fight it to the surface. When the waters warm up, Tiedge joins the dive crews a couple of times week.
"We go for a head shot where the eyes aren't all popped out like a fish battling on fishing line," Tiedge explained. "It's a better looking fish and better tasting. It's all about the beauty and the adrenaline rush. It's like a new country down there where you're traveling over land then down into the holes where the hunting begins. We only target what we're after.
"It's an otherworldly experience. I hope to do it for many years to come."