Friday, January 23, 2015

The Hidden Loss Of Sustainability

If you have purchased Halibut recently, or with some frequency over the past five years, you know that the price tag for the popular fish has increased dramatically.  Many customers are looking for answers, and rightfully so.  Halibut has been touted as a sustainable "best choice" for over a decade and the fishery is considered one of the best managed in the nation.  So if we are being good stewards of the fishery then why is there such a scarcity?

Ten years ago the Alaskan halibut quota was 74 million pounds.  Recently the quota was slashed to 27 million pounds, and by all accounts will continue shrinking in the near future.  Is this dramatic drop in biomass and, subsequently, quota, a result of poor management?  No, not necessarily.

There is a major threat to halibut out at sea and it has big wallets and big interests behind it.  This devouring monster is the factory trawler.  Factory trawlers are commercial fishing vessels that operate by dragging monstrous nets and snaring everything in their path.  Pillager of species worldwide, enormous trawlers have been responsible for the decimation of many ground fish species including cod from our eastern shores.  Most trawlers operating in the Bering Sea are catching pollock for fast food icons such as McDonalds.  Pollock is a ground fish that makes it's living as the standard component of fish sandwiches offered by fast food restaurants worldwide.  Though McDonalds and other chains can boast that the pollock fishery is sustainable, it comes at a cost.  Factory trawlers fishing for pollock are responsible for killing six million pounds of halibut as bycatch every year.  Most of these fish will simply be thrown overboard as garbage.  Thirteen out of every fourteen halibut caught in the pollock fishery will be discarded at sea.  Not only is the pollock fishery responsible for robbing the sea of its halibut, its also stealing fish from dinner plates.  How can this operation be considered a sustainable one?  

If history tells us anything, its that an insatiable greed coupled with gross neglect and backed by an unconscientious bankroll will always win out.  That is, until the fish are gone.  That's really always been the bottom line.  We get to a point were the catch is no longer profitable and only then does the social conscious swoop in to put the pieces back together.  The next time you are enjoying your sustainable and fast fish sandwich, keep in mind that, although it may seem quite affordable, halibut are paying the price.  The cost of sustainability has possibly never been this high.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Cost Of A Trophy

Quotas have once again been cut for the Chesapeake Bay's iconic striped bass, known colloquially, with love, as rockfish.  The harvest quota will be reduced by 20% for the 2015 fishing year according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council.  The cut comes in the wake of the latest biomass assessment completed by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2014, which showed that, due to a declining population, measures needed to be taken in order to protect the healthy stock.

Right away most of the public wants to point a finger at commercial fishermen as the source of the blame, but taking a deeper look into the issue may prove that there are alternative agencies at work.  Believe it or not, recreational, not commercial, fishing is responsible for 70% of the rockfish mortality.  The average harvest for the commercial fishery over the last 4 years has been around 7 million pounds.  In 2006 alone the recreational fishery accounted for 31 million pounds of fish.  As recently as 2012 the recreational fishery took 19 million pounds of fish out of the water.  These figures do not even account for the loss of fish that are released by recreational fishermen but do not survive.  This is called release mortality.  It is widely accepted  by scientists that for every pound of fish caught and kept by recreational fishermen, another pound is killed when released.  Recreational release mortality figures are much higher than commercial, which begs the question: which fishery is more wasteful?

The recreational fishery brings in more money than the commercial fishery and financially supports local communities and employees a lot of people.  I understand the service it provides, but really looking into these numbers, is it wise to remove the fish from our plates to protect the fish on our walls?  Why should the commercial sector suffer quota cuts when the recreational fishery is responsible for the majority of the harvest and loss?  I hope that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council takes all these factors into consideration when setting commercial and recreational quotas to ensure that enjoying rockfish for dinner will not be a costly and infrequent endeavor for Chesapeake Bay area residents.      

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Fisherman Behind The Winter Candy

The realization hits that winter is finally buckling down as nature straps on her grey suit and the TV weathermen toss around frightening phrases like "winter blast" and "polar vortex."  The world is in its dormancy and outside activities have become non-existent; well, at least for some of us.  Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on whose porch you are sitting on, there is work to be done in the bleak, weather-beaten days of winter.

The short days between November and March mark the season for some of Nature's best candy: Nantucket Bay scallops.  This year BRG restaurants look to Captain Jeff Henderson of the fishing vessel Miss Alice and his small team of 15 boats to brave the bitter cold and supply us with some of the freshest, plumpest, most consistent bay scallops I have ever seen.  It's not easy getting after it predawn on days in which you can see the steam come off the ocean and your coffee freezes after only minutes of neglect but, like most Nantucket fishermen, it's a labor of pride and tradition that has been driving Captain Jeff for decades.  

The fishery can be a tricky one.  Bay scallops are harvested by fishermen in small boats using hand dredges and are landed live.  Once the open decked boats are back at the docks, the haul of live scallops is taken to a "shucking shanty" where veteran shuckers deftly open each scallop with three quick turns of the knife, the best of whom can open over a thousand in a day.  If the air temperature is lower than 28 degrees before 10 am, fishermen are not allowed to harvest due to the fact that the scallops will die immediately.  This includes the undersized juveniles, which will typically be cast back into the water in order to grow, so the rule is enforced strictly to protect the stock.  Some winters fishing ends over a month early due to the Bay freezing over completely.  Although the season ends in March, it's easy to understand why that doesn't necessarily mean that we will have Nantucket Bay scallops throughout the season.  This scarcity only increases the lust after the beautiful, delicious scallops.
Shucking Time

What separates Captain Jeff's bay scallops from the competition is the size and freshness of his catch.  His team knows the nooks and crannies of the Bay and is excellent at finding where the largest and sweetest scallops are hiding.  When working with Jeff, you know that your scallops are shucked the same day as they are shipped.  That means on one day boats are going out dredging and the next day I am unwrapping a sealed Fed-Ex box of delectable scallops that were filtering water less than 24 hours before.  Sometimes the meats come in still twitching.  Glistening with sugared sweetness, the succulent Bay scallops seem to burst out of the bag with fresh ocean aroma and it's not abnormal for our chefs to have a moment of weakness and try a few raw, right out of the box.  All in the name of quality control, of course.

It's a testament to the artisanal quality of Captain Jeff's work that his scallops are best served and appreciated eaten raw.  They do not require any intrusive sauces or clunky spices.  Save that for lesser products.  If anything, I would recommend just a bit of sea salt.  The rest, leave up to Jeff's knack for finding the best scallops in the Bay and your lucky taste buds.      


Captain Jeff after a good haul

Friday, December 5, 2014

Diver Scallops, No Really

When you see the word "Diver" describing scallops on menus in the U.S. these days you can just about bet the house that the scallops you will be dining on are not actually diver caught.  Let's just get real about it: the term has been widely misused in such abundance that it has lost its meaning.  Diver scallops are scallops that are harvested by a single person who dons scuba gear, dives into the frigid water, and retrieves each scallop, one by one.  It is the most ecological sound, the most non-intrusive, and the hardest way to harvest a scallop.

Less than 1% of all domestic scallops harvested are diver caught.  In the U.S. there is only one fishery that still harvests scallops commercially by diving on a large enough scale to matter, and that is in the state of Maine.   Most other diver scallops are taken by recreational fishermen.  Maine gives out about 300 fishing licenses for scallops, and of those only about 1 in 5 are a diver's license.  Divers rarely ever catch their limit, which is a little over 135 pounds.  So if you do the math, you will see that it's impossible for 60 divers catching a little over 6,000 pounds of scallops to supply every menu in the U.S. that boasts diver scallops.


That doesn't mean that they don't exist.  There is still a small fishery in Maine that continues to harvest premium, day boat, true diver scallops.  That fishery opens in mid December (read right now) and extends through April, though the season never really lasts that long.  Most often the quota is met, weather gets bad, or the divers just stop going out there long before March or April comes along.  The peak times to enjoy some of the best scallops available are during the months of December, January, and February.  Usually diver scallops are available to the highest bidder a few days out of each week and typically the short supply goes fast.

Why is a diver scallop better?  As long as a diver scallop is handled properly, the customer is ensured that the meat is unadulterated and fresher out of the water than any other scallops in the market.  A diver scallop is often harvested and shipped on the same day, so consumers can actually be dinning on scallops just hours out of the water.  Diver scallops are pristine in quality and set the bar for sweetness and quality.

So why mention diver scallops if they are so hard to find?  Well BlackSalt Fish Market is excited to have a small amount of our first of the year diver scallops available this weekend.  We plan on carrying the Maine day boat scallops throughout the season, but the diver caught scallops will be sporadic in availability and a little more in price.  Either way, great quality scallops are a can't miss at our market throughout the winter and I recommend you take advantage of the best months to eat scallops.        

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Bays Are Back

November 1st marked the opening of the Nantucket Bay Scallop fishery and, for most of you, that's all I really need to report.  Nantucket scallops, lovingly referred to as "nanny bays," are an incomparable balanced bite of natural sugar and brine.  It's as if nature performed some sorcery in her mad lab, developing a perfect morsel that man has never improved upon.  Seriously, when people ask me how I cook my nanny bays I usually simply deadpan, "I don't."  I find the best way to enjoy them is to simply pop them in your mouth and savor all the goodness of what some call the candy of the sea.  If pressed though, I would have to recommend a quick, and I really must stress quick, saute in butter with a finish of sea salt.

High winds marked the beginning of the season, preventing some scallopers from going out.  This caused already high prices to be exorbitant at the start of the season, but I expect the initial tsunami of demand to ease back into a more traditional rough tide and prices should come back into this stratosphere by the end of the week.  Let's not mince words here, Nantucket Bay scallops won't ever be a cost effective item on your home menu due to their popularity and short season, but this year is predicted to be better than last so we could see some improvement at the cash register.  BlackSalt will have its first shipment in this week and we could see product until late December or January, depending on weather.  When temperatures become too cold that scallops die once brought out of the water, the fishery closes.  Though the season technically goes until March, there are often many closures during that period making supplies tight and prices spike.

Bay scallops are also being harvested from areas such as Martha's Vineyard, MA and Peconic Bay, NY.  These notable varieties are very tasty and slightly less expensive than the nanny's and, depending on where you are from, there is also a debatable difference in sweetness.  Most people outside of Long Island hold Nantucket Bay scallops in the highest regard, a bay scallop above all, while everyone off the Long Island Expressway will tell you that Peconic Bays are the Yankees of the scallop industry.  All have their merits and all three varieties of these scallops, when in season and fresh, are some of the best seafood items you can enjoy.  There is, however, only one Nantucket Bay.  It's just something in the water there that produces that sweetest, most delectable scallop in the world without rival.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Very Special Transplant

Virginicas is the species name of the oysters that are native to our East Coast.  They can be found from Prince Edward Island, Canada to the Florida Gulf Coast and have been consumed by humans for over 10,000 years but, the fanfare for their crisp texture and briny punch has never waned.  East coasters are proud of their oysters and most will tell you that there aren't any equals.  West Coasters surely disagree with these sentiments, though most of their oysters are implants from Japan.

Olympia oysters are the only native West Coast species of oyster, but kumamoto and gigas species from Japan dominate production due to their popularity and rapid growth.  Gigas are the most farmed oyster in the world, they are also the largest and fastest growing.  When describing oysters from our Pacific waters you will encounter descriptions such as melon, algae, creaminess, and sweetness.  West Coast oysters grow plump meats with fluted shells and typically don't have the strong saltiness or clean, crisp meats that the East Coast oysters do.  You would be hard pressed to find a West Coast resident who would exchange their tenant oyster's complex, often over the top, algal and melon flavor for an East Coast oyster variety.  So what do you do?

Well the great people over at Hog Island Oyster Farm have solved the riddle of who's got the best oyster.  The answer or, should I say divine result, is a virgincias (east coast) species grown on their Tomales Bay, California farm.  Everyone, meet the ultimate oyster, the Hog Island Atlantic.  This West Coast oyster has East Coast bones.  It's a blissful experience in which East Coast minerality and spirit meet with the saccharine funkiness of the West Coast soul.  Hog Island Atlantic's are a complex blend of both coasts, unique in the oyster world, and an oyster that any aficionado, from either coast, can't help but to relish as a one of a kind.  These transplants elevate merroir from a simple concept to a battle of duality that confuses and surprises the taste buds.  It's an exhilarating bite; theres brine, and algae, and melon, and minerality.  There's East Coast and there's West Coast, together.  Its one of those oysters where you can try one and immediately you want another.  They can leave you a little dumbfounded, as in: What did I actually just taste?  It's like hearing a great song for the first time, it sticks with you and you know, you got to play that track again.

These Atlantic oysters are not readily available.  For some reason the East Coast oysters do not naturally reproduce in West Coast waters, so replanting them can be quite a chore, not to mention costly.  Pearl Dive, Blacks Bar and Kitchen, and BlackSalt are some of the only restaurants on the East Coast that offer Hog Island Atlantic oysters.  Hog Island is very selective of who can sell their oysters, so we consider ourselves very lucky, and you should too.  Whether or not you buy into the East Coast/West Coast beef of who produces the better oyster, I suggest you try the best of both worlds on a half shell.  Its an oyster that ends all arguments with a simple slurp.            

Friday, October 17, 2014

Try The Sea Urchin

I can't imagine how it all went down, but I am forever grateful to reap all the benefits of that intrepid soul who first dined on sea urchin.  It had to have been an epic, ancient moment of extreme hunger and courageous creativity, or a simple dare amongst impulsive youth.  However it happened, consuming the delicate, exquisitely bold uni that urchins produce is in itself an experience of ocean bliss.

Sea urchins produce 5 sets of "roe" called uni.  In actuality these sacs are the gonads and are prized by the Japanese, often offered simply on their own or in composed dishes.  Sea urchins live on the sea floor and feed on small vegetable and animal matter.  They have feet, a mouth and, most notably, dangerous spines that can be hazardous for many unaware divers.  Some sea urchins are poisonous, but the most commonly consumed red, purple, and green varieties are harmless if you are careful when opening them.  In case you were wondering there are, in fact, female and male urchins, but only they can tell the difference!  They reproduce by respectively secreting egg and sperm into the water where they meet to form a new urchin.  
Inside Icelandic Urchin
Icelandic Urchins

So why go through the trouble of cracking a sea urchin open for 5 small orange or yellow sacs?  Because there is nothing, absolutely nothing in the world comparable to a freshly opened live sea urchin roe.  The texture is velvety soft, forgiving, almost like a supple fat that disintegrates on your tongue.  The intensity of flavor grabs your imagination, it's as if you've discovered the complexity of the ocean's secrets in one bite.  There are bursts of brine, metal and algae.  Some have exotic citrus notes that balance orange zest with flower petals, while others deliver briny blasts of seaweed and heavy cream.  Sea urchin offer a surreal bouquet, flavors oysterphiles dream about and wine enthusiasts forge.

Fall and winter are some of the best months to enjoy a sea urchin.  Right now BlackSalt Fish Market is carrying live green urchin from Iceland and live Pacific urchin from California.  The Pacific urchin are bigger than the Icelandic, with the Icelandic being more subtle in flavor.  The staff there will be happy to open the urchin for you so that the uni inside is easily accessible.  If you are not up for the ultimate experience of consuming uni in the raw, you can use the extravagant flavors to add an ocean kiss to many dishes such as soups, pastas, and sauces.  On the outside sea urchins appear dangerous,impenetrable, and daunting.  Open one up and you unlock the splendor of the ocean.
CA Urchin out of shell