A pair of Nantucket establishments - Slip 14 and the Great Harbor Yacht Club - have been fined by the Health Department for having freshly caught yellowfin tuna in their walk-in coolers, but after a hearing Thursday before the Board of Health, both will avoid suspensions of their food permits if there are no further violations.
Why would island restaurants be fined for having fresh tuna caught from the waters around Nantucket?
The tuna were discovered during inspections by Health Department personnel, one of which was conducted at Slip 14 on Aug. 7 at the request of the Environmental Police. But the tuna discovered came from fishermen who were not licensed to supply restaurants, a violation of health regulations put in place to ensure that customers are only served safe fish.
“This is a serious violation and needs to be taken very seriously,” said John Hedden, the town’s chief environmental health officer. “It’s a dangerous fish. It needs to be processed and tagged with a wholesale dealer that goes through a pretty intensive process of ensuring the safety of the fish and dealing it back to the restaurants.”
During Thursday's hearing, the Board of Health seriously considered suspending the food licenses of the two establishments for up to three days.
“You’ve got to treat this so it doesn’t happen again,” Board of Health member James Cooper said during Thursday’s hearing. “We have to nip this in the bud.”
Representatives from Slip 14 and the Greater Harbor Yacht Club argued that the circumstances were unusual and the fish were never intended to be served to customers. A heavy penalty like a suspension, they contended, would unfairly punish staff for a regulatory breach that never put anyone in danger.
“The fish came in as a gift to our staff,” said Slip 14 owner Tim Farley, who told the Board of Health the tuna came from one of the boats participating in the Big Game Battle fishing tournament at the Nantucket Boat Basin. “One of our team members who wasn’t familiar with the regulations accepted it.”
The fish, Farley said, was never sold to customers.
“The fish that did come in we used for a staff meal and as gifts to our staff as was intended by the fisherman,” he said.
According to Santamaria, Farley initially claimed the tuna was from a licensed provider until Health Department staff found conclusive proof that it was not by checking receipts from island seafood wholesalers. Farley told the board that when health inspectors first contacted him about the situation, he was unaware that it had come from one of the boats in the fishing tournament, and as soon as he discovered that fact, he e-mailed the Health Department to explain the situation.
“I was not trying to be deceptive,” Farley said. “I was unaware of the actual fish that had come in on the previous weekend.”
Santamaria acknowledged that it was a first-of-its-kind violation for him as Health Department director, and the current owners of Slip 14 had no prior violations like this.
The Great Harbor Yacht Club admitted immediately that the tuna did not come from a licensed source, saying that it was not intended for public consumption and had been brought back by a staff member from a fishing trip.
“I apologize for this situation,” GHYC general manager Stephen Creese said. “My chef was honest. A member of our staff put it in the cooler just so it didn’t get warm, to take home…This is an incredibly unfortunate situation. A staff member obtained it on a fishing boat and brought it into the cooler. Nothing like this will ever happen again.”
Ultimately, after some discussion, the Board of Health voted 4-1 to not suspend the operating license for either restaurant - which was the Health Department staff recommendation for Slip 14- as long as there are no further violations, with Cooper dissenting.