Craig Keith skims his fillet knife through the red snapper’s cold flesh, reminiscing over the biggest fish he ever processed. It was a 630-pound bluefin tuna and it took him a couple of days.
On these much smaller red snapper, Keith makes only a few swift cuts. He flicks the knife once by the gills, tucks his knife under the meaty flesh, and then slides all the way down the length of the fish like scissors through wrapping paper.
Then he flips it over to do the same on the other side and tosses the carcass in an ice-filled bin next to his feet.
"He wants to get as much meat off the fish as he can. The more meat, the more money," said one of Harbor Docks Seafood Market’s managers, Tony Martin.
Though small, the market, which is hidden behind Harbor Docks restaurant just a few feet from the dock and opened in 1981, bustles with at least 10 fishmongers on this Tuesday afternoon. They wear orange rubber Grunden overalls and boots, each working different jobs and moving quickly from one task to the next. On a busy day, the crew can process over 15,000 pounds of fish a day.
Two men shovel ice into plastic buckets and haul them over to stacked cardboard boxes filled with fish orders.
The boxes are packed with ice so they can be shipped to local restaurants or loaded onto one of Harbor Docks’ nine refrigerated trucks to be delivered to restaurants in Alabama or Louisiana. Fish must be stored at a temperature of 40 degrees or lower to prevent bacteria growth, according to the FDA.
The business itself is vertically integrated. Harbor Docks employees drive the trucks to unload commercial fishing boats in Panama City and sometimes Dauphin Island or Bon Secour in Alabama, process and package the fish in Destin, and then distribute it to local restaurants such as Camille's at Crystal Beach, La Paz, Bella Sera, and Dewey Destin's.
"Our 18-wheeler has an ice maker in it, so that’s where we get all of our ice," said Harbor Docks general manager Eddie Morgan. "We do more local orders than we do imports so that we can support local fisherman."
In the back of the room, Keith and John Brown stand filleting at a metal table. Fish entrails dot the concrete floor and bins of carcasses stand nearby.
"We ship these up to Canada," Morgan said motioning toward the carcasses. "The Asian population there uses them to make fish head soup."
"They eat the eyeballs and everything," added Martin. His once white T-shirt is stained with what looks like blood.
As quickly as the men work, accidents are bound to happen.
"Chief cut himself clean through the arm once," said Martin, pointing to a tall man wearing a faded Ralph Lauren Chaps shirt—sleeves rolled up to his elbows. A camouflage bandana is tied tightly around his forehead. "The end of the knife was sticking out right here," said Martin, tapping the soft area of his forearm.
They call Ron Broyles "Chief" because he retired from the Air Force as a chief master sergeant, which is the highest enlisted rank achievable. He checks the orders, all scrawled on square pieces of paper and hung up on a clothesline.
The work will continue like this throughout the day and possibly into the night until the day's catch is fully processed and delivered.
"Put it this way. If you order a fish around here and it’s like eight or nine bucks, it didn’t come from us," Martin said. "Now if you’re talking a nice, $25 to $30 snapper or grouper, that’s most likely from here."