New York's prize catch. Toadfish, swordfish, garfish, goatfish - find it all at the Fulton Fish Market

At 4 a.m. it is cold and dark at the Fulton Fish Market. Swirling snow is producing a wind chill of about 15 below zero as we slip and slide through the slush at the start of a tour of this huge market where fish arrives from all over the world. ``This is the best time to see the market in action,'' says Richard Lord, an intense young man who works for the market's information service and is a member of the marketing team of the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Development Foundation.

``It's all over by 7, so we need to start early,'' says Mr. Lord, whose three or more years here, as well as his experience in fish-farming projects in Ecuador and England, well qualify him for the job.

I had invited other food editors attending the International Food Media Conference at the Vista Hotel to come along, but only one hardy reporter managed the early morning rising.

Eleanor Ostman, food editor for the St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch, was waiting in the lobby at 3:30 a.m. - not very bright-eyed, she admitted, but bundled up in all the cold-weather clothing she could find.

As an arctic wind whipped off the East River, Lord led us across the unplowed street, between big trucks being loaded and unloaded, to a small, steamy, coffee shop.

Sheltered inside from the storm, he told us that Fulton Fish Market's history goes back to 1807, when the Beekman Estate gave the city a plot of ground to be used exclusively as a public marketplace. It's been used for that purpose ever since.

Today, it's as noisy and bustling as a midway at a county fair. Ice and fish shimmer under the streetlights, and scattered here and there down the long row of dealers' bays and stalls we see little bonfires, made of burning crates and boxes.

In the predawn hours, the market seethes with buyers and sellers: booted, hatted men weave through the maze, pushing boxes of iced-down fish, shouting or whistling warnings to make way. There are fish wagons, cars, street peddlers, trucks - and everywhere stacks and stacks of fish.

We were anxious to see Fulton at work, for it is among the great fish markets of the world. Although I haven't been to Rungis, the huge French fish market, I have visited fish farms in China, London's colorful old Billingsgate market, and the amazing Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, probably the largest of all. In Bombay, at the main fish pier, one boat was ``manned'' by women only, dressed in their red, blue, and gold saris and working more agressively than many of the men.

``Fulton's is probably about the fourth or fifth largest wholesale fish market in the world,'' Lord says. ``We handle a larger variety of fish than many other fish markets.''

It doesn't seem logical, but in spite of a long coastline, the United States imports 60 percent of all the seafood we consume. It comes mostly from Canada, but also from South America, Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries. Canada is the world's largest exporter of seafood.

With today's increasing demand for seafood, the US marketplace has become a target for ``jet setting'' fish and shellfish. On a busy day at Fulton, there are up to half a million pounds of fish on consignment to the 75 to 80 wholesalers crowded into a four-square-block area along both sides of South Street in lower Manhattan.

There are eels squirming in sacks, land snails from Haiti in handwoven wicker baskets, irridescent blue-gold mahimahi or dolphin from Ecuador or Panama.

There are toadfish, garfish, goatfish; clams from British Columbia; octupus from Taiwan; small, red, Maine shrimp; skate rays caught off the Chesapeake; mullet, a popular fish with Mediterranean people.

And there are two kinds of calamari - the long-fin squid and the short-fin squid.

``The greatest volume of fish comes into the Fulton Fish Market in the spring, when many of the fish are filled with roe - not just shad roe, but also roe of mackerel, flounders, sea robins, and sole. They are all delicious,'' Lord says. ``People should try them.''

Fulton's might appear to be an anachronism in some ways. We saw men still cracking crates with hand axes, and picking fish with old-fashioned, wood-handled metal hooks. Yet behind all the confusion is a system for marketing fish that functions with complete efficiency.

Richard Lord dashes ahead, opening jaws and gill flaps, pointing out unusual markings of sturgeon, showing the different shades of red snapper, noting teeth for identification, and spreading dorsal fins.

We sidestep puddles of half-melted snow and ice, duck around hanging metal scales, and dodge piled-up crates as he points out North Carolina scallops stacked next to Cape Cod scallops, huge frozen swordfish from Japan, and pallets of beautiful Atlantic salmon from Norway.

``There's been an amazing increase of fish-farmed Norwegian salmon,'' he explains. ``It started in 1979 and has grown so much that salmon has become an American staple. The quality is excellent and it's available year round.

``Of course we have our own salmon, too,'' he says. ``There are five species of Pacific salmon and one species found in East Coast waters.''

Nearly every fish and shellfish group is represented at Fulton.

There are flounders, cods, carps, whiting, silver hake, snappers, and basses. There are croakers and drums, mackerels, halibuts, haddocks, and herrings.

We also see some of the rarities that top chefs from special hotels demand - items such as sea urchin roe, lotte, skate, blowfish, the very expensive Dover sole, and orange roughey.

``Fancy restaurants are willing to pay the high prices,'' Lord says.

There are frozen and fresh shrimp and lobsters, too, of course - some from such faraway places as India and Sri Lanka.

``India is the largest shrimp producing country, but the Japanese buy most of it - because of their strong yen,'' Lord explains. ``Most of our imported shrimp is from Mexico and South America.''

Asked about high fish prices, Lord answers that it's usually a question of supply and demand.

``It depends on whether or not a kind of fish is plentiful at the time people want it.

``The oceans provide us with hundreds of different kinds of fish, but not all come in the amount needed to fill the demand,'' he explains. ``And who can predict the changes in the taste and trends of the American palate?

``Some of the unfamiliar fish people should ask for are mussels, cusk, hake, eels, and different kinds of shark. In season, Atlantic mackerel, bluefish, and shad are abundant and inexpensive,'' he says.

He also recommends skates, smelts, pollock, mullet, grouper, and certain tuna and salmon because it is so plentiful.

``Some of these fish are not always available in huge numbers, but there are a myriad of them in variety.''

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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