Five generations of the Martin family have fished the waters of the Atlantic, sharing their catches, talents and stories with customers

Written By: | Photographer: Stephen Cherry

The philosopher Seneca is credited with having said: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” – though the aphorism would seem to be equally if not more true were the words “luck” and “opportunity” to switch places. But no matter how you like your 2,000-year-old Roman maxim sliced, it is more than apt when it comes to one of Ocean City’s grandest families of the sea, the Martins.
The luck – albeit bad luck for the residents of Ocean City initially – came in 1933 in the form of a hurricane that blew into town and carved it up faster than Oprah does a key lime pie. The storm surge washed over the beaches, with all the ocean water seeking the weakest path through which to escape. In the end, South 1st, 2nd and 3rd Streets were wiped out utterly, and Downtown Ocean City was essentially obliterated.
The opportunity came, ironically, in the wake of the disaster, in that a natural inlet was cut into the land that the Army Corps of Engineers wisely chose to exploit by keeping it open. To a significant degree, the Ocean City we know today is due to that savage storm and a decision made by a group of men who were able to envision the future.
In that same decade, the Martin family decided to move to Ocean City, which made sense, since they had already been spending most of their time there fishing, anyway.
John W. Martin and his cousin Harold Martin decided to go into business together, so they bought a few boats and the land where the family business, Martin Fish Co., Inc., remains to this day (though it wouldn’t be until 1958 that the business was officially incorporated). It was from this location on Harbor Rd. that John W. and Harold presented their day’s catch in what was something akin to an open market. Eventually, they would set up a retail store that has been in operation ever since.
Fishing for the Martins actually started in Sweden, in the 1800s, back when the family name was still Burnsenton. They became the Martins circa 1900, when they immigrated to the United States, where it had been customary among many at the time to use one’s first name as the new family name in their newly adopted country.
Family patriarch John Patrick Martin initially settled in North Carolina, in the area known as Nags Head, near Kitty Hawk. There, using gill nets, he started fishing for sturgeon and other fish. Always testing the waters, so to speak, for new opportunities, he began to migrate farther and farther north, landing in Chincoteague in 1918. John Patrick’s son, John W., and his brother, Robert L., also took up the fishing business in Chincoteague, with John W.’s first boat, the John H., a 40-footer with an old Buick gas engine. He fished for flounder, using a trawl net.
The third generation of Martins took the helm in 1975, when John David Martin (John W.’s eldest) became the proprietor of Martin Fish Co. With two sturdy sons and a daughter, John David – who just goes by David – saw to it that the by-now high-profile family business would thrive and be properly staffed going into the future.
His daughter, Erika, 31, and her niece, Ginger, 21, are the Martin women responsible for running the retail store on a daily basis – and quite a job they do, especially considering that despite being up to their eyeballs in fish all day long, they both smell remarkably like women, which is definitely a good thing.
“If my family has one mantra,” offered Erika from her office overlooking the retail market, Ginger nodding vigorously in affirmation from over her shoulder, “it is simply ‘Work hard.’ That’s what my great-grandfather did and what he and the family expected of his children and what is expected of us, too. It’s almost as if the family feels on some unspoken level that good fortune and blessings will only come if we earn them by always working hard and with the utmost integrity.”
So, where many young people in their teens get handed the keys to a car as part of their rites of passage into adulthood, the Martin kids get handed the keys to a boat instead – but only after they’ve worked long and hard and proven their worth as Martin family fishermen. Even so, each young Martin was required to pay his father back from the profits of his labors, until he owned his boat outright.
Another manifestation of the family mantra includes working seven days a week, at least 10 hours a day, during the busy season, preparing and selling the day’s catch. That’s where Erika and Ginger do their stuff.
The retail market they run includes such fruits of the sea as rockfish (striped bass), tuna, swordfish, mako and mahi – all locally caught. The Martins are especially proud, incidentally, of not only their local scallops – which are not processed in a preserving
solution that can shrink the product to half its original size – but also their flounder, which is hand-skinned, an extremely delicate and complicated task that requires lots of experience and skill.
From outside the local area they also bring in fresh halibut, codfish, grouper and red snapper, all of which are popular in this region. There are also sea bass, porgies, ling, whiting, gulf shrimp, monkfish, squid, and, of course, clams, mussels, (only) Maryland crabmeat and even Maine lobster.
But whatever your predilection, make sure you try the specialty homemade soups created by Frances Martin, Erika’s mom, who passed away in 2006. The soups, whose recipes are as closely guarded as the secret formula for Coca-Cola, are a gustatory
treasure, a customer favorite and an enduring tribute to a beloved matriarch. They include cream of crab, vegetable crab, clam chowder (both New England and Manhattan style), shrimp bisque and lobster bisque – all made on-premises, available both fresh and frozen. You should also pick up their cookbook, “Where the Boats Unload,” which includes recipes from an annual contest that you may enter. The competition begins May 1; entries must be received no later than August 1. Call Erika or Ginger for more details.

Martin Fish Company
, 410-213-2195

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