The Menemsha Fish House

Ten years of supplying Island restaurants with fresh catch.

The morning bustle at the Fish House. —Sam Moore

Alec Gale is well-known in the world of Martha’s Vineyard commercial fishing. The Island native started a business, the Menemsha Fish House, in 2006 with the goal of providing fresh fish to local buyers, with extra product being shipped to the mainland.

A lot has happened along the way; you might say the fates have been kind. Also kind has been the town of Menemsha, which has supported his efforts in various ways. A decade of long hours and hard work paved the way.

Where he once had a crew of four working just the summer months, Alec now has 12 people working year-round. He also has two very sharp guys named Mike who oversee the business end of things.

Experience has brought insights and new ideas. Necessity has brought inventive — even funky — gadgetry with which to process thousands of pounds of fish every day. A generous spirit, considerable knowledge, and an unflinching sense of fairness and trust have brought 300 local fishermen as providers as well as countless loyal customers from Aquinnah to Edgartown.

And all of it is pretty much a secret to most Menemsha visitors. As Alec says, “A thousand people walk by our building every day, and not one of them knows what’s going on inside.”

And where exactly is that building? We found out just the other day … after walking by it for years without knowing what was going on inside. What you do is face Larsen’s Fish Market in Menemsha and look to your right. It’s that simple.

The Menemsha Fish House is Alec Gale’s baby. He bought the building in 2010, hoping to realize his longtime vision of providing as much fresh fish to Island restaurants as they needed. He had pursued this vision from the start, in one form or another, but never with the autonomy and shared leadership he has now.

Peer around the corner of this nondescript building, and you’ll see organized chaos in its purest, most productive form. At around 6:45 am every day the first boats will offload their catch, and a dozen Fish House workers will swing into action. Fish will be bagged, labeled, and packed onto a waiting truck that will leave the dock at 8:30 on its way to up-Island restaurants such as the Home Port, Chilmark Tavern, and Outermost Inn.

As more boats come in, a second truck is loaded, and by 10:30 is on its way to Edgartown. Meanwhile, depending on the orders coming in from around the Island, some fish may be iced in huge vats or on special shelves, awaiting later delivery. At 10:30, the first truck, its Aquinnah run completed and already reloaded, will head to restaurants in West Tisbury, Vineyard Haven, and Oak Bluffs.

And then the shellfish arrive. Along with more offloading, more icing, more bagging and labeling, more packing, more deliveries.

“Thanks to Mike Holtham [general manager] and Mikey Rottman [local seafood coordinator], we have a system that really works,” said Alec. “I couldn’t do it without them. They’re experienced Island chefs, and they know the business side of things. Me? I’m no good at business.”

For a closer look at the business side of things, we climbed a steep, narrow flight of stairs and entered the war room. Or, as Alec described it, a mock fishing boat cabin. The tight quarters and L-shaped bank of windows looking out on Menemsha Harbor did give it a “high seas” feel.

Four computer screens provided data that allowed both Mikes to track incoming fish deliveries, stay abreast of additional or revised restaurant orders, follow weather patterns, and much more.

Back on the ground floor, we got a glimpse of one of Alec’s primary contributions to the operation. “My partners are business geniuses. I’m the fabricator,” he said.

By way of explanation, Alec pointed out some of the gadgets he has MacGyvered to meet important needs: the lightweight, shovel-shaped, netted lobster scoops that allow easy handling and transfer; the thick fiberglass icing shelves stacked along one wall that effectively maintain freezing temperatures; and the rotating ice chute, which protrudes from the ceiling and spews ice nonstop in a 360° pattern onto a fish-packed surface.

As the day continues, new orders come in from around the Island, along with calls from boats looking for buyers for their fresh catch.

“We can handle it all,” says Alec. “We have the manpower and the system to deal with it. And whatever we don’t sell here, we can ship to Boston through Red’s Best, a fish wholesaler.”

And that captures the essence of where Alec Gale finds himself today. With a leadership team in place and the equipment and space he requires, he is able to fulfill the vision: to deliver excellent service to Island restaurants and chefs, to put money back into the local economy by supporting Island fishermen, and to enjoy peace of mind.