Articles in Fishing

A fish market in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Back in the 1950s, it wasn’t unusual for fishermen plying the waters off Istanbul to land tuna weighing hundreds of pounds, or to have one of the massive fish leap out of the sea and over the prow of their boat. Dolphins cavorted alongside fishing vessels that hauled in lobster, oysters, razor clams, four kinds of crab and eight varieties of mussels.

“Fishermen in their 70s and 80s tell stories depicting Istanbul like an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s as if we’ve moved to a totally different place since then,” says Defne Koryürek, the founder of Slow Food Istanbul, which has organized an annual holiday to draw attention to the city’s rapidly depleting waterways and to try and reverse the tide.

Lüfer Bayramı celebrates the bluefish

Celebrated each October with fishing competitions, film screenings, children’s art activities, talks, and special meals, the holiday is named after one of Istanbul’s favorite fish, the fatty, flavorful — but now endangered — lüfer (bluefish). This Lüfer Bayramı grew out of a campaign the group launched in 2010 to get restaurants, fishmongers and consumers to stop buying, selling and eating juvenile lüfer that aren’t large enough to reproduce. (“Bayram” means “holiday” in Turkish.)

Many of the city’s best chefs have signed on, including Didem Şenol, the acclaimed founder of Lokanta Maya and Gram restaurants.

“I grew up in a fish-loving family. My father would grill lüfer on Saturdays, and we’d eat it with fish soup, pilaki [a bean dish], and vegetables cooked in olive oil,” Şenol says. “We weren’t rich, but fish was so cheap then that my father could buy lüfer in big batches at the early-morning fish auctions and give the extra to our neighbors.”

Prices of fish have gone up as stocks have diminished; data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicate that the amount of bluefish caught in Turkey has plummeted over the past decade, from 25,000 tons in 2002 to just over 3,000 tons in 2011. Other research suggests that dozens of species have already disappeared from the Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea, two of the bodies of water on which Istanbul lies.

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Fishermen on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Both waterways are part of the lüfer’s annual migration route, a more than 1,000-mile-long journey that gives the fish its strong, distinctive taste, according to chef Şenol. “Bluefish in the United States, where I studied [at the French Culinary Institute in New York], is not the same,” she says. “Our lüfer travels from the Mediterranean up the Aegean to the Black Sea and back. It’s a route with different climates and salinities, and all that really affects its flavor.”

Lüfer season in Istanbul begins in the early fall, when the fish start their trip back down to more southern climes after spawning in the nutrient-rich waters of the Black Sea over the summer. Too many, though, are caught while still too small to breed and are sold, depending on their size, under the name çinekop or sarıkanat.

“People didn’t even realize these were all the same fish, but it’s really just like the difference between a sheep and a lamb,” says Koryürek. “Catching this fish so young eliminates the possibility of having more of them in the future.”

Campaign nets converts to the cause

A lobbying campaign led by Slow Food Istanbul along with Greenpeace Mediterranean has resulted in the raising of the minimum legal catch size for commercially fished lüfer from 14 centimeters to 20 centimeters (roughly 5.5 inches to almost 8 inches) — a good step, according to Koryürek, but an insufficient one. More than 100 restaurateurs like Şenol have agreed to not buy lüfer smaller than 24 centimeters (9 inches), the size activists say would be a more sustainable limit.

“We only have lüfer on the menu at Lokanta Maya for a very short period each year, when it is most plentiful,” says Şenol. She was one of a dozen top chefs in Istanbul who participated in this year’s Lüfer Bayramı by serving a special bluefish-based dish for a limited period of time.

“Since lüfer is a very fatty fish, it works best when grilled so it stays juicy inside as the skin gets crispy,” she explains. “It goes well with stronger flavors, so I paired small portions of the grilled fish with a salad of radishes, arugula, and red onions pickled with vinegar and just a little bit of sugar.”

Şenol and her staff also went out with fishermen to catch lüfer on the Bosphorus, an experience she says gave her a new appreciation for how hard the work is and how difficult it can be to keep from inadvertently landing some undersized fish even when using correctly sized nets.

Slow Food Istanbul has likewise been careful not to demonize local fishermen in its campaign, instead working to recruit them as allies.

“These waters have survived for hundreds of centuries with small-scale fishing,” says Koryürek. “But since the 1980s, the boats and nets have been getting bigger, the technology has changed, and the number of fishermen has gone up dramatically.” She estimates that large commercial boats are now catching 90% of Istanbul’s lüfer, and too often take advantage of lax enforcement of regulations by fishing too close to shore, in illegal amounts, or with methods that are environmentally damaging.

Istanbul’s soaring population over the past few decades — from less than 3 million in 1980 to more than 14 million today — poses a threefold threat to the city’s formerly robust fish stocks. The unchecked growth means increased competition among fishermen, greater consumer demand, and more heavily polluted water and highly urbanized coasts.

“Lüfer is a symbol of all we’ve lost and all we may lose,” says Koryürek. “These fish are a natural resource that is diminishing; protecting them needs to become a joint effort.”

Main photo: A fish market in Istanbul.  Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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The town is Lipsi in Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

If a glass of ouzo and a chewy chunk of octopus is what comes to mind at the cocktail hour, you need a boat with a sail and a following wind to carry you round the Dodecanese, a string of volcanic islands that belong to Greece but are rather closer to Turkey.

Gastronomic delights on the little island of Lipso — if you’re not a yachtie, as many of the visitors are, you can get there on the thrice-weekly ferry out of Samos — are goat’s cheese and cephalopods, mostly octopus, or octopodi. Lipso’s cheese can best be appreciated in the form of pies, tiropita, available hot from the wood oven at Taki’s bakery on the harbor front of the island’s friendly little capital, Lipsi. Meanwhlie, the night’s catch of octopodi are visible throughout the day dangling suckered tentacles like reddish bunting from the awning of Nico’s ouzerie by the quay where the fishermen land their catch. Octopus, for the tender-hearted, are voracious carnivores whose favorite supper, also on the menu at Nico’s, is pipe fish, an eel-like creature no longer than your hand with a pointed snout and a luminous blue-green spine.

As you might expect, there is more than one way to cook an octopus. There’s octopus simmered with tomato and onion; octopus salad; octopus frittered or fried; octopus preserved under olive oil with vinegar to eat with fat slices of just-cooked yellow potato; octopus cooked with big white beans; octopus stewed with red wine and the peppery oregano that grows wild on Greek hillsides. But the simplest and most delicious is octopodi cooked to order on the grill at Nico’s after the place opens for business at sundown, in the company, say, of a Greek family and friends celebrating a christening or wedding or just having a good time in spite of what’s happening with the European Union in Brussels and the government in Athens.

Eating octopus at a cafe table. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Eating octopus at a cafe table. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Octopodi as served at Nico’s is not for the squeamish. Which of course you’re not, or you wouldn’t be reading this. You will already have observed the evening’s menu dehydrating in the morning sunshine when you took your breakfast at Taki’s — open 24-7 because of the yachties — where your order might be Greek coffee (medium sweet), freshly squeezed orange juice and Lipsi’s speciality pita, a puffy open-topped tart filled with grated cheese set with egg. The bakery’s activities, you will observe from the video playing on the countertop, have been blessed by the Orthodox priest from the white-washed tourquoise-domed basilica on the hill where christenings and weddings take place, providing good business for the ouzerie and sharpening appetites for octopodi.

At sunset, when you take your place on one of the blue-painted chairs at a yellow Formica-topped table at Nico’s, your order is taken by a blue-eyed, bearded man with a profile straight off a Greek vase who slings one of the draped octopodi over white-hot charcoal and watches patiently till it sizzles and singes. Then he chops it into bite-sized pieces, drops them on a plate and plunks it down in front of you with a quartered lemon, a jug of ouzo and as many glasses as you have friends — of which you will have plenty if, like me, you’re recording the scene with sketchbook and paints. If your friends are happy and the ouzo flows freely, dancing will follow.

And no, I can’t provide a recipe for grilled octopodi with lemon and ouzo as prepared at Nico’s because preparing octopus is men’s business — so what do I know? You’ll just have to go there and order it yourself. What I can deliver, however, is instructions for octopodi ladolemono, octopus with oil and lemon as prepared by Lazarus, chef patron of the taverna of the same name on Ulysses’s island of Ithaca on the Italian side of the Greek mainland. It may not be the same, but it’s a start.

Octopus salad with oil and lemon

Octopus. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Octopus. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

“As a woman,” explained Lazarus. “Octopus is not your business. But as a foreigner in need of instruction, I shall tell you. First, you must capture your octopodi. For a skilled spear fisherman such as myself, this is not difficult. Now comes the work. You must pick the creature up without fear and throw it 40 times against a rock. Less times are needed if it’s small, more if it’s large. First the flesh is hard, but slowly it softens. Now you must rinse it in seawater so that it foams. Unless you do this, it will never soften. You’ll know when it’s ready because the tentacles will curl. You must not take off the skin, as so many ignorant people do. The skin turns red when you cook it, and this is what tells you the octopodi is fresh and good. No Greek would eat an octopus which is skinned and white. To prepare it for a salad, put in a pan and cook it gently with a ladleful of sea water until it’s perfectly tender — allow 20 to 40 minutes. Drain it and slice it carefully into pieces — all of it is good. Dress it with the oil pressed from the fruit of your own olives, and squeeze on it the juice from the lemons from the tree in your own garden. Now you must shake over it a little of the oregano which you have gathered wild in the hills. Now all is ready. Set out the glasses with the ouzo and fetch water from the well, since you will also need to quench your thirst. Now you may call your friends, as many as are suitable for the size of your octopus. If you have too many friends, provide more bread and plenty of olives.”

Main illustration: The town is Lipsi in Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

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Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon

As a longtime pescetarian and proponent of healthy eating, I’m delighted when people mention adding seafood to their diet. My heart sinks, though, when I hear that these additions consist of imported shrimp and tuna or farmed Atlantic salmon.

Although I appreciate any attempt to eat more wholesomely, I wish Americans would make wiser, more environmentally sound choices when it comes to shellfish and fish.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 91% of our favorite seafood was shipped in from overseas in 2011. Meanwhile, our own waters teem with nutritious yet highly invasive species such as Asian carp, northern snakehead and lionfish. In an age of increasing concerns about the environment and sustainability, our dependence on imported and ecologically unsound seafood makes no sense. It’s time for us to stop making unviable choices and start eating America’s glut of destructive, nonnative fish.

Eating invasive fish aids sustainability

Think that the need for invasivores – people who eat invasive species — might be overhyped? Consider Asian carp, specifically bighead, silver, black, and grass carp. They were introduced in the late 1960s to control parasites, algae and weeds in Southeastern U.S. aquaculture.

Unfortunately, these aggressive fish didn’t stay down on the farm. After escaping and crowding out or killing off  native aquatic life, Asian carp now rule over large stretches of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. Today, they threaten to take over the Great Lakes and other water systems.

This story is not unique. Dumped out of exotic aquariums, the flamboyant and venomous Indo-Pacific lionfish has infiltrated the coastal waters of Florida, spreading as far north as North Carolina and as far south as the Caribbean. Left unchecked, the lionfish has destroyed entire reef populations and drastically reduced biodiversity.

Native to Africa and Asia, northern snakeheads have likewise decimated wildlife in the Potomac, sections of the East and West coasts, Florida and Hawaii. Able to live several days out of the water, they wriggle over land to ravage nearby ponds, reservoirs and lakes. As a result, snakeheads are particularly troublesome.

Although America spends millions of tax dollars attempting to contain or eliminate these and other invasive fish, they remain prized foods in their native lands. In China and Southeast Asia, cooks grill, fry, poach, braise, steam or stew snakehead.

Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt preparing for a cooking class. Credit: Sean Dippold

Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt preparing for a cooking class. Credit: Sean Dippold

In Cambodia, this freshwater fish serves as an essential source of protein and stars in the traditional curry dish amok trey. Firm, white-fleshed and moderate in flavor, it makes a fitting substitute for overfished darlings such as monkfish and snapper.

Low in mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), Asian carp also abounds with culinary possibilities. Along with smoking, steaming, grilling and frying, it performs well in soups, curries and stews. Mild and white-fleshed, it’s a good stand-in for the depleted Atlantic cod and Icelandic pollock.

Lionfish, too, is a pleasant-tasting replacement for environmentally unsafe fish. In July 2010, the Washington Post prophesized that lionfish could be “the new sustainable ‘it’ seafood.”

Pan-seared lionfish with rice and beans. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Pan-seared lionfish with rice and beans. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Mild in flavor and white-fleshed, it offers a versatile alternative to popular but eco-unfriendly choices such as grouper and orange roughy. It responds well to most cooking techniques and pairs well with a number of ingredients.

Although lionfish does possess venomous dorsal spines, its meat is safe to eat. I say this from experience. This past winter in the Florida Keys, I had several lovely, light lunches of speared, filleted and then pan-seared lionfish topped with a spritz of lime juice or dollop of mango chutney. Obviously, I lived to write about it.

Our aquatic enemies may be tasty and a snap to cook, but not everyone will want to devour a fish called “snakehead” or “bighead carp.” This is where smart marketing comes into play. Most people would avoid the unattractively named Patagonian toothfish. However, tucking into an exotic Chilean sea bass has proved to be A-OK with diners. Same fish, different designation. Provide snakehead and Asia carp with fancy or friendlier names, and watch how opinions change.

Lionfish. Credit: Frank Wilmer

Lionfish. Credit: Frank Wilmer

Exposure will likewise aid in gaining converts. Invasive species-themed dinners have already taken place in Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Baltimore. Along with raising public awareness of these marauding creatures, the events aim to tantalize the public’s palate. Chefs create tempting specialties such as snakehead po’ boys, European green crab stew, lionfish sashimi and Asian carp croquettes. Bite into a moist and flavorful snakehead taco, and you’ll never fill your tortillas with shrimp or tuna again.

With a bit of consumer education, exposure and smart marketing, we could control — if not eliminate — America’s invasive seafood species problem. In the process, we would reduce our dependence on unsustainable, imported seafood. It’s time for us to take note of the invasive species’ culinary appeal and start catching and consuming our nemeses.

Main photo: Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon

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Rotary Club members from Essex, Conn., remove the nails pinning shad to cedar planks for roasting. The organization has been holding a shad festival in the river town for more than 50 years. Credit: Richard Levine

Perhaps no fish has a more fabled and forgotten place in American history than shad, a seasonal springtime fish that can be found up and down the East Coast where freshwater rivers meet the ocean.

An oily fish that lives in saltwater but spawns in fresh water, shad was a staple of the Lenape Native Americans’ diet as well as a fertilizer for their crops. George Washington supplemented his income with an ingenious netting method that captured spawning shad running through the Potomac River in front of Mount Vernon, his Virginia home. In addition to selling the fish, he used them to supplement food for those enslaved on his plantation.

Shad gaining favor from East Coast to West

Through the years, Chef Walter Staib has had shad on and off the menu at Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern, where he is the executive chef. He has served boneless shad and shad roe, which is pocketed in a lobe and considered a delicacy by aficionados.

“The problem is that people don’t really know about it — including new, younger chefs. It also has an unusual though delicious taste,” Staib said. “Twenty years ago, I did a lot with shad and had regular customers who started calling when the runs began, wanting to know what we’d have on the menu.”

The chef’s love of the fish prompted him to feature it on his PBS cooking series “A Taste of History.” He said the fish was a favorite throughout the 18th century, including among the founding fathers who gathered at the original City Tavern during the Continental Congress and afterward when the city served as America’s first capital.

Washington’s own relationship with shad was a lifelong one. Legend has it British troops netted the Schuylkill River outside Philadelphia to divert the shad run from where Washington’s starving troops were encamped downstream at Valley Forge. The commander in chief’s own taste for shad was legendary, and his steward and cook often sought to procure the earliest fish for his breakfast table — at considerable cost.

In those days, shad was an abundant fish, making the fortunes of many an East Coast river town, notably among them Fishtown, Pa. When overfishing for food and fertilizer reduced stocks, the fish went out of fashion.

Today, the fish is making a comeback, although declining stocks are not all that prevents shad from regaining its place as the quintessential American fish.

“Shad fisheries are rebounding because of regulations that have moved gill nets offshore,” said Joe Lasprogata, vice president of new product development for Samuels & Son Seafood in Philadelphia. Gill nets, which had traditionally been strung across river mouths, prevented shad from spawning and made them easy prey for the striped bass that find them so tasty.

The larger issue, Lasprogata said, is that shad is strongly flavored because of its high oil content and has an unusual bone structure that makes filleting a challenge.

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Place the fillets with their thick (head) end facing you and perpendicular to the work surface. Using a sharp filleting knife, cut into the fillet along one side of the darker red center line starting about 4 inches (10 cm) back and cutting toward the head end. Credit: Steve Legato

Samuels & Son has specialty shad filleters, and its process was featured in the book “The Fishmonger’s Apprentice” by Aliza Green. (See slideshow above for directions on how to fillet shad.) Specialty shad filleters are also a feature of the many shad festivals that still take place during the small window of opportunity to enjoy the fish.

“There is an urban legend that shad can be roasted whole in low heat for a long period of time, and the bones will soften enough to simply eat, but I’ve never tried it,” Lasprogata said.

In Essex, Conn., John Mackuck is one of the few, if not only, remaining  shad smokers, using a closely guarded old recipe that starts with a salt, sugar and molasses brine then hot smoking with hickory, apple and cherry woods.

On the West Coast, with most harvested shad used for canning, some Pacific Coast chefs are putting shad on the menu.

“It does not have much of a following here in the Pacific Northwest due to the popularity of salmon,” said chef Thomas Dunklin of Three Degrees in Portland, Ore. “However, I welcome the opportunity to educate my guests about it.

I like the delicacy of it.  The roe is amazing served up seared. “

Shad roe and fillets can be sampled at various, mostly East Coast, festivals to which devotees flock. The shad festivals start earlier the further south you go and generally are held by community organizations.
You’ll find a shad bake virtually anywhere the ocean meets fresh water.

The Grifton Shad Festival in Grifton, N.C., has been around since 1970 and is generally held in early April.  Lambertville, N.J., has a renowned ShadFest and art show that takes place yearly in late April. The Shad Derby in Windsor, Conn., is usually held in mid-May and has crowned a Shad Derby Queen every year since 1966. In Essex, Conn., the Shad Bake has taken place since 1955, and organizers say they fillet and roast between 300 pounds and 350 pounds of shad yearly. This year’s Shad Bake will be June 7 in the Connecticut river town.

These festivals are a great way to sample shad prepared at the hands of loving experts, but if you hurry can still get your hands on shad fillets or the highly prized roe. Fillet of shad can be had for roughly $15 per pound. Try the recipes below, which feature simple, tasty ways to enjoy this all-American fish.

Shad Roe in Caper Butter

This recipe by Chef Walter Staib of Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern is a simple preparation for shad roe, considered a delicacy for centuries. The method is also demonstrated in this video.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Ingredients

1 shad roe lobe

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons capers

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Juice of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Lemon wedges, as desired, for garnish

Directions

1. Season the shad roe with salt and pepper.

2. Melt butter in a large fry pan over medium heat. When the butter stops foaming, add roe and gently sauté for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn over with care once using a spatula.

3. Cover the pan and let the roe cook in the butter for about 6 or 7 minutes, or until browned on the outside but still tender and a little rare inside.

4. Add the capers, Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice and mix.

5. To serve, place roe onto a plate and spoon melted butter sauce over the roe. Sprinkle with parsley, and garnish with lemon wedges.

Shad Scaloppini With Fiddlehead Ferns & Lemon

Because shad is a delicate fish, Chef Walter Staib says he likes to have his greens and all the ingredients for the shad itself ready and waiting. Instead of Fiddlehead ferns you could prepare baby spinach, ramps, or dandelion greens with this dish as well.

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

For the fiddleheads:

1 tablespoon salt

8 cups water

1 pound fiddle head ferns, washed and trimmed of any brown spots

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the shad:

Pinch nutmeg, freshly ground

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Juice of 1 lime

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 pound shad, cut into 8 medallions

½ cup flour

1 egg, beaten well

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 small lemon, peeled and sliced thinly

1 small lime, peeled and sliced thinly

Directions 

For the fiddleheads:

1. Have a large bowl ready with 1 cup of ice and 3 cups of cold water.

2. Bring the salt and water to a boil in a large pot and add the fiddlehead ferns. Boil for 1 to 2 minutes then remove from the water with a slotted spoon.

3. Add the fiddlehead ferns to the bowl of ice water and allow to sit for 1 minute. Drain and set the ferns aside.

4. Heat a large fry pan over medium-high heat and add the grapeseed oil.

5. Add the fiddlehead ferns and stir well. Cook until they begin to get lightly brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and then spoon on to a platter.

For the shad:

1. Combine the nutmeg, salt and pepper, lime juice and Worcestershire sauce in a shallow, large dish. Marinate fish in the mixture for no more than 5 minutes. Leaving the fish in longer will result in the protein breaking down.

2. Remove fish and discard marinade. Dredge each medallion in flour. Shake excess flour off medallions. Dredge medallions in egg, coating well. Shake off any excess and set aside on a plate.

3. Heat a large fry pan with grapeseed oil and butter over medium-high heat and add the shad medallions. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown, then flip and fry on the other side.

4. Remove shad medallions from the pan and layer onto the fiddlehead ferns.

5. Place the lime and lemon slices around the dish for garnish.

Main photo: Rotary Club members from Essex, Conn., remove the nails pinning shad to cedar planks for roasting. The organization has been holding a shad festival in the river town for more than 50 years. Credit: Richard Levine

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San Diego-based Harney Sushi serves edible QR tags with its sushi so eaters can scan the tags and get information about the sustainable status of the fish on the plate. Credit: Harney Sushi

Securing sustainable seafood is a convoluted prospect at best. That statement applies whether you are the individual harvesting groundfish from the ocean’s floor, farming shellfish in local estuaries or buying wild salmon at the fish counter.

Buyers have to be “well versed in the adjectives (and colors) needed to ensure they are really buying sustainable seafood,” says Sheila Bowman, manager of culinary and strategic initiatives at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Geographic have built seafood buying guides called Seafood Watch, FishWatch and Seafood Decision Guide, respectively. These guides employ green, yellow and red visual cues to advise consumers which fish are sustainable choices. Those ratings are based primarily on species population numbers and how pulling those fish from the ocean affects the overall marine ecosystem.

According to Barton Seaver, a longtime sustainable seafood advocate, seafood buying guides represent a good start. They help eaters choose the types of seafood the oceans can afford to give (those with green ratings and sometimes yellow), as opposed to the ones (red ratings) that may be overfished.

Seaver serves in a dual capacity as director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food program at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment and as a sustainability fellow at the New England Aquarium in Boston. He argues that issues of economic viability for the fishermen, cultural preservation of fishing communities and the overall health of seafood eaters must also be taken into consideration when assessing seafood sustainability. Pulling these multiple elements of the sustainable seafood picture into focus will require advanced technology.

Seaver, Bowman, Steve Eayrs, a research scientist with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and Shah Selbe, an aerospace engineer and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, can readily point to technologies they believe are changing the sustainable seafood landscape. Their suggestions fall into three categories: making fishermen more efficient at harvesting fish in a sustainable fashion; cracking down on illegal fishing; and providing eaters with a reliable means of tracing where the fish on their plate came from and how it arrived there.

Technology No. 1: Precision Fishing

Smart Catch Technologies is a company co-located in Newport, Ore., and Palo Alto, Calif., that creates products to support sustainable commercial fishing. Seaver pointed to the company’s CatchCam and SmartNet products because they enable “precision fishing,” a scheme under which non-target fish are released from nets before they are hauled ashore, thereby reducing both bycatch and waste.

Technology No. 2: Revamped Bottom Trawling Gear

Bottom trawling is the practice of towing a funnel-shaped net anchored open by two “doors” that have continuous or occasional contact with the ocean floor. Trawls catch shellfish and groundfish found near the seabed, and they have long been criticized for entrapping everything in their path, including sponges, corals and non-target species. Eayrs cites a recent study conducted by his institute showing that changes in the trawling gear — in how the doors are constructed to minimize contact with the floor and changes both in the size of the net holes and the materials from which they are constructed — reduce seabed impact by as much as 95% and yield a 12% reduction in fuel consumption with little or no variation in the targeted cod catch. If eaters are educated enough to be able to accept the premise that the fish was caught legally using the best available science, “then they can buy their cod with confidence,” Eayrs said.

Technology No. 3: GPS-Enabled Selective Trawling

According to Bowman, establishing a trawling footprint — clearly articulating which parts of the ocean floor can or can’t be open to trawling — and having fishermen (and enforcement agencies) use GPS technology to make sure fishermen do not drop their nets within a set distance from protected areas, is a use of technological application that holds the most promise for helping to feed the planet’s 9 billion people. “But it will also likely raise the most controversy on what the ocean can continue to give up for the sake of human consumption,” Bowman said.

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Engineer Shah Selbe, center, recently gave a presentation at the New England Aquarium about his work to use low-cost drones and open-source software to help monitor protected areas of the ocean for illegal fishing activities. Credit: New England Aquarium

Technology No. 4: Cheap Open Source Gear Helps to Decrease Illegal Fishing

In his recent lecture at the New England Aquarium, Selbe outlined FishNET, a project that focuses on developing integrated, low-cost technology solutions that help improve the ability to observe and collate data about illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). This suite of technologies comprises a Web-based data collection server, off-the-shelf drone and cellphone equipment, and cheap, open-source monitoring devices that together capture and analyze official and crowdsourced data on fishing vessels and exploited areas.

Technology No. 5: Sophisticated Satellite-Enabled Poaching and Dumping Surveillance

Seaver points to companies such as Windward and SkyTruth to illustrate the role of satellites in vessel tracking and how these efforts can help with all IUU issues and enable better fisheries management.

Technology No. 6: Bar Codes for Near Real-Time Seafood Supply Chain Tracking

Norpac Fisheries Export is a successful processing and distribution business that has developed and implemented traceability software to track fish from catch to retailer. Through the use of bar codes and back-end software, this system lets sellers and buyers know where their fish are at any point in the process, letting them pinpoint procedural inefficiencies and keeping illegally caught fish out of the chain. Seaver also points to the emerging field of DNA bar coding as a possible evolution. “Whoever invents a hand-held tissue sampler that can accurately ID a species on the spot will win big!” he said.

Technology No. 7: Sustainable Seafood Matchmaking

Colorado-based FishChoice Inc. has built an online matchmaking service for buyers and suppliers of sustainable seafood. According to Seaver, this service opens up the chance to distribute and purchase sustainably sourced products and streamlines recommendations and certifications from the NGO community. “The service … provides education and the opportunity to conduct the transaction right there,” Seaver said.

Technology No. 8: Storied Sushi

Owners of San Diego-based Harney Sushi have developed edible quick response codes (QR) — made of rice paper and edible ink — that customers can scan with their cellphones before eating any fish served to them. The codes link back to NOAA’s FishWatch database. “By demanding this kind of detail, we help send a message to suppliers that they need to know and verify their seafood sourcing,” Seaver said.

Main photo: San Diego-based Harney Sushi serves edible QR tags with its sushi, so eaters can scan the tags and get information about the sustainable status of the fish on the plate. Credit: Courtesy of Harney Sushi

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Rock cod (Lotella rhacina) caught off the California coast. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Whenever I think about fresh fish I always picture that old MAD magazine column “Silly Answers to Stupid Questions.” The female customer asks at the fish store, “Is that fish fresh?” And the fishmonger answers, “No, it’s very well-mannered.” Seriously though, the question was fair because it does come down to the fishmonger knowing best.

Today’s fishmongers offer a variety of filleted fish, making our lives easier. But this convenience sometimes means customers get lower-quality fish than they did when they bought it unfilleted. Judging whether a fish is fresh is not such an easy thing. It’s not hard for the fishmongers because when they buy it they have access to the fresh-caught fish and knowledge of fish that the consumer does not have.

They often know the fishermen or fish brokers. They have the opportunity to smell and handle the whole fish. Good fishmongers know where the fish was caught and who caught it and they know which areas of the ocean and seas have the right kind of nutrients for particular fish. Not all fishmongers know this, but the good ones do.

Consumers are at a great disadvantage. They cannot even see the whole fish because it often arrives at the fish store from a central processing facility. The fillets are cut into perfect and identical pieces with little to distinguish them from one another.

A fish name doesn’t tell you everything

Furthermore, the fish often have names that have nothing to do with their species. When you buy black cod you’re not buying cod. When you buy Chilean sea bass you’re not buying sea bass. In the first case, black cod is sablefish (Anoplopoma fimbria), which tastes nothing like cod and is the only species in the Anoplopoma genus. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved “sablefish” as the only acceptable market name and considered “black cod” a regional name not to be used for statement of identity purposes. In the second case, Chilean sea bass is an invented marketing name for Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), a deep-dwelling Antarctic Ocean fish.

Only one sure way to test whether it’s fresh fish

The standard techniques for judging whether a fish is fresh — using your senses of sight, smell and touch — often won’t help the average consumer. Along with not having access to whole fish, customers also often find the fish store does not know where the fish was caught and when. When was the last time a supermarket fishmonger answered, “The fish was caught seven days ago off the Alaska coast?” I can answer that — never.

A consumer’s senses also are useless when the fish sometimes has been doused in sodium benzoate that can disguise a poor quality filleted fish.

There is only one way to determine the freshness of filleted fish, and that is through taste. Since this is not convenient when shopping, customers must trust the fishmonger the first time and then repeat their business if they like his or her fish. If the fish you buy at a particular store is consistently good, then that is your guide for fresh fish. Fresh fish should not taste “fishy,” and the store should not smell “fishy.” It should smell like the briny ocean.

Where the quality fishmongers are

Top quality fish will taste good, unadorned with sauces, while lesser quality fish will taste insipid and generic and — in a telltale sign of non-freshness — fishy. Choose the freshest fish before choosing the recipe. I usually find top quality fishmongers in ethnic areas where fish cookery is important to that particular culture, such as Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, Portuguese or Caribbean neighborhoods.

Lastly, don’t be a boob and ask, “Is this fish fresh?” What do you think they’ll answer?

Main photo: Rock cod (Lotella rhacina) caught off the California coast. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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A dish of cured salmon roe, or caviar. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Every morning during the fall in Michigan’s thumb, I watch sport fishermen skimming by in boats outfitted with everything from baited poles to fancy outriggers. They are all after the same thing: salmon. Whether the catch is Atlantic, chinook or coho, it doesn’t much matter as long as they reel one in. Some have a knack for it, some get lucky, some just enjoy a quiet morning on the lake. But I like it most of all when someone brings a fish heavy with roe (or eggs) to my home, because it means we will get two treats out of one catch: caviar and a couple of smoked filets.

 Caviar is a slippery subject in more than one way. On one hand, it is the simplest of food experiences: a delicate hint of fish enveloped in a salty brine that slides down your throat with no effort at all. On the other hand, it is an ingredient that suffers from guilt by association with extravagance.

Prized specimens from the endangered beluga sturgeon of the Caspian Sea have been illegal for sale in the United States since 2005. Certain lesser grades like sevruga and osetra are available but can be astronomically pricey, at over $4,000 per pound. But fresh eggs from locally caught salmon in the Great Lakes are quite a different matter. Few fishermen bother to save these precious jewels. Fewer still know how simple it is to cure the eggs and prepare fresh caviar. So you can understand why I felt a little giddy when I got my hands on a recent 10-pound catch with two skeins of roe that yielded 2 pounds of beautifully glistening eggs.

The process for transforming the eggs into caviar is deceptively simple and takes about an hour. It involves little more than preparing salt brine and biding your time. Once the eggs are brined to a level that won’t overpower their delicate fish essence, they are ready to serve and share. All that remains is to offer a simple cracker with a smear of sour cream, a mound of cured eggs and a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper and chopped chives, or just a stunning spoonful to your grateful guests, and dig in.

A salmon belly full of fresh roe. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

A salmon belly full of fresh roe.
Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Great Lakes Salmon Caviar

Ingredients

Fresh salmon roe (eggs) (see Note)

1 cup of kosher salt

8 cups of cold water

Directions
1. Place the salt and cold water in a large glass or stainless bowl and mix well until salt is dissolved.

2. Gently rinse each egg sac under cool running water to remove as much blood as possible and lower into the salted brine. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

3. While the eggs are curing, prepare a second bowl fitted with a colander.

4. After 30 minutes, remove the sacs from the refrigerator and place them in the second bowl and colander in a deep sink, reserving the brine.

5. Cover the eggs with hot running tap water (approximately 150 degrees). As the outer membrane is exposed to the heat, it will shrink and begin to pull away from the eggs, making it simple to gentle slough the eggs away from the membrane and into the colander. Within the sac will be threads of more membranes that can be carefully removed by hand.

6. Once the outer membrane is removed and the eggs are separated, continue to refresh the bowl with cool water and stir the eggs, gently rinsing them by hand to remove the smaller white membranes that will float to the surface and may still cling to the eggs. Drain and repeat the rinsing process until the water in the bowl runs clear. This may require several rinses. Remove the colander from the bowl, draining the clear water away from the eggs.

7. Return the eggs to the original salt brine and refrigerate for up to another 30 minutes. Check the eggs at 10-minute intervals, rinsing and tasting the eggs for your desired level of saltiness. Continue to brine if not salty enough. If too salty, replace the brine with fresh water and let the eggs rest. The water will draw out salt until the eggs reach your desired level of brine.

8. Drain the eggs from the brine and store in a clean glass container with tightly fitting lid. Caviar can be served immediately or safely stored in the refrigerator for 7 to 10 days.

Note

Salmon roe can be tricky to find if you don’t know a sport fisherman in salmon territory. Try making friends with a fishmonger instead, or check online purveyors.

Top photo: A dish of cured salmon roe, or caviar. Credit: Caroline J. Beck 

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Freshly shucked Blue Point oysters. Credit: Sofia Perez

As we approach the floating dock, Chris Quartuccio cuts the boat’s engine, and the steady hum of the motor is replaced by what sounds like a large pile of broken plates being raked. We’ve reached Blue Island, Quartuccio’s oyster farm out on New York’s Great South Bay, the 29-mile-long body of water sandwiched between Fire Island and Long Island’s South Shore. On the other side of the dock, one of his employees is tumbling oysters, vigorously shaking mesh bags filled with the bivalves before stacking them in an open rack to be lowered back into the bay, where the oysters will continue to grow.

Tumbling heightens what wild oysters would naturally endure as they are tossed around by the tides, rasping off their still-feathery edges to produce the relatively smooth shells that are served up on ice at raw bars. Having spent the day listening to Quartuccio discuss the history of the region’s shellfish industry, however, it’s hard not to see tumbling as a metaphor for the trade and the lives of the people who ply it. Ebb and flow is putting it gently; it’s a saga filled with hope, desperation and Mother Nature’s merciless logic — from boom to bust to boom again, repeat ad infinitum.

Although he’s only 48, Quartuccio has lived through a few of these cycles already. A native of Sayville, N.Y., he started digging for clams when he was 12. “Back then, clam diggers here were making a lot of money. The better ones lived in the same neighborhoods as the doctors and lawyers. But as more people got into the business, they started putting a lot of pressure on the bay.” To maintain their high incomes, many began to work the winter grounds illegally, targeting areas of the bay that were rich in shellfish but that also served as important spawning zones. By the 1990s, the population of hard-shelled clams was wiped out.

Reviving the real Blue Point oyster

During my visit, Quartuccio takes me to Blue Point, the spit of land for which the renowned oyster is named. In 1908, New York state decreed that in order to be sold as a Blue Point, an oyster had to have spent at least three months in the Great South Bay — though the law is rarely enforced, and it’s not uncommon to see menus with oxymoronic offerings such as Chesapeake or Connecticut Blue Points.

Like clams, oysters here have had a checkered history, periods of great abundance followed by foreseeable — and unforeseeable — decline. “This area was paved with oysters back then,” said Quartuccio, referring to the first third of the 20th century, but things changed after the great hurricane of 1938, dubbed the “Long Island Express.” Killing more than 600 people, the storm destroyed large parts of Fire Island and created numerous inlets into the bay, causing the oyster beds to be silted over.

Later attempts to get the industry going again were foiled by brown tides, the result of excess nitrogen in the water, as well as the appearance of parasitic diseases that — although not a danger to consumers — decimated the oyster population. In 2002, a local fish hatchery manager was quoted in The New York Times as saying the Blue Point oyster had likely reached its end.

Or had it? Predictions of its demise appear to have been premature. Thanks to seeding efforts and laws prohibiting the harvest of the youngest oysters, parts of the bay have become hospitable again. Quartuccio purchased his farm back in 2005 (he owns the dock and leases his prime underwater location from the town of Islip), and his company now sells its delightfully briny, firm-textured Blue Points to a roster of high-end restaurants that includes New York’s Four Seasons, Craft and Momofuku and San Francisco’s Waterbar.

Serving them up ‘Naked’

Despite his success, Quartuccio has learned to avoid putting all his shells in one bucket. In addition to his Blue Points, which he sells under the name “Blue Islands” — to distinguish them from competitors who’ve appropriated the original name for their oysters — he also deals in oysters from other parts of the country. And he’s always looking for the next big thing to promote.

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Chris Quartuccio shucking some of his Blue Island oysters. Credit: Sofia Perez

To make a good living in the industry, he tells me, marketing is key. “If you don’t have the right name, I don’t care how good the oyster is. It’s not gonna sell,” he noted. With his newest item, a diver-harvested oyster from Long Island Sound, it appears he’s hit the jackpot. Christened after Times Square’s most famous tighty-whitey-clad denizen, the “Naked Cowboy” is Blue Island’s best-selling oyster to date. “When customers see the name on menus, they tell their waiters, ‘I want to know what the Naked Cowboy tastes like.’ That happens all the time.”

Although these calculations may seem crass to some, the economic realities of the industry defy the landlocked’s tendency to romanticize a seafaring life. These days, Quartuccio spends more time in the office than out on the water, but when I ask him whether he misses that part of the job, he smiles. “I’ve seen so many sunrises and sunsets. And when I say that, I mean they were long days. When you’re out here, day after day after day, in all kinds of weather — from 100 degrees to watching the ice form on the tips of your fingers … ” he explained, the echo of his Long Island accent hanging in the air for a moment. “I’ve seen enough for a lifetime.”

Top photo: Freshly shucked Blue Point oysters. Credit: Sofia Perez

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