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Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken, who comes from a fishing family, holds up a whiting caught off Gloucester at the Seafood Throwdown in August.
Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken, who comes from a fishing family, holds up a whiting caught off Gloucester at the Seafood Throwdown in August. Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe

This is a story that starts at 2 o’clock in the morning, when those who work on Gloucester fishing boats rise for the day, ready to hit the water.

“Gloucester Fresh” is the mantra coming from America’s oldest fishing port, intended to tap into the farm-to-table trend while applying it to the Atlantic Ocean. The bid to reinvigorate the city’s historic industry conjures a tradition of hard work, blue water, fresh air, and one of nature’s most beneficial resources.

“This is a very healthy protein,” said Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, whose husband, John, is one of the hardy souls who sets off in the early morning and returns to the dock at 3 p.m. with that day’s catch. “It’s the only natural protein left in the world. You’re talking about the North Atlantic, the cleanest water around the United States. We’ve fought very hard so we can keep a clean ocean for the fish.”

While cod, flounder, and haddock continue to serve as the breadwinners, the ocean-to-table movement is promoting underused species such as whiting and redfish that are often eaten by fishermen’s families but not often found on restaurant menus. Exposing consumers to new species is the reason Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken has been demonstrating how to cook redfish soup at seafood shows.

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“We’re trying to create a market for a fish like whiting,” said Mark Ring, a lobsterman who chairs the city’s fisheries commission. “It’s a seasonal fishery and it all comes at once, and the market for whiting has always been in New York.”

Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken (center) cooks with Angela Sanfilippo (right) of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association and Maria Cannavo (left) during a demonstartion at at the Seafood Throwdown.
Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken (center) cooks with Angela Sanfilippo (right) of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association and Maria Cannavo (left) during a demonstartion at at the Seafood Throwdown. Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Building a local market would create a less expensive option for consumers, while helping fishermen get a better price.

“It takes time, but it’s an awesome fish,” Ring said of whiting. “You just need to get people to try it.”

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According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, up to 90 percent of seafood consumed in the United States is imported.

“We could never supply the whole country, but we could supply more than what we’re supplying right now, with the hope that our fishermen can get a little better price so that they could survive during these hard times of fishing regulation,” said Sanfilippo, who comes from seven generations of fishermen. “That fish doesn’t get any better than when it’s landed in the docks, every single day.”

Early returns indicate that ocean-to-table has consumer appeal. Since replacing cod on the menu of the Ninety Nine Restaurant & Pub in April, fresh haddock — marked on the menu as “A local favorite that just came off the boat from Gloucester!” — was the top seller on the spring seasonal menu for the 105-restaurant chain, the company said. It sold 77,000 haddock dinners from April to mid-June.

“Our guests have really enjoyed the local angle there,” said P.J. Boncek, an operations director for eight Ninety Nine restaurants north of Boston. “People really enjoy that when they’re coming out to eat, they’re supporting their local communities and local companies. Our servers really enjoy being able to tell our guests not only when the fish was caught, but which one of the five specific boats that the fish was caught on. It has helped generate a great conversation.”

Jason Goodrow, Ninety Nine’s director of marketing, said sales continued to be strong during the summer, with more than 5,100 orders a week in New England and New York. Beginning Sept. 30, Sweet Potato Crusted Fresh Haddock will be added to the seasonal menu through the end of the year.

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“We think this is perfect for the fall in New England,” Goodrow said. “It’s fresh. It’s local. It’s seasonal.”

The partnership with Ninety Nine is one of the first successes for the Gloucester Fresh initiative, which has been funded by a $151,000 state Seaport Economic Council grant used for billboard advertising, hosting foreign delegations, and participating in shows such as the Seafood Expo North America in March, Boston Seafood Festival, and the Seafood Throwdown at the 10th anniversary of the Cape Ann Farmers Market in August.

“Our number one goal is building awareness of the brand and what’s special about our seafood,” said Sal Di Stefano, Gloucester’s economic development director. “We want to be as famous as the ‘Got Milk’ commercials.

“There’s really nothing like this, because we still have fishermen that go out, catch the fish, bring it back to the dock, and bring it back fresh. We’re promoting what we feel is special, which is our seafood here.”

The city also was one of 27 communities selected for the federal “Local Foods, Local Places” initiative, which aims to boost economic opportunities for local producers and businesses.

“It’s taken off,” said Ring. “We have work to do, but certainly it’s going in the right direction, from the fishermen to the processors to the restaurants. It’s going to be good for everyone.”

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Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken mingles as everyone digs in at the Seafood Throwdown in Gloucester.
Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken mingles as everyone digs in at the Seafood Throwdown in Gloucester. Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

David Rattigan can be reached at drattigan.globe@gmail.com.