Thursday, May 24, 2012

Buying By The Guide

Buying seafood these days can be a little like obeying traffic signals.  Customers come in toting their cards and cut-outs and looking at fish like they are traffic lights.  You got your greens, your yellows, and your reds and without noticing, you can easily get yourself into metaphoric 'traffic jam'.  This happens when there is conflicting information on a species or when information gets so specific that you leave the market with your head spinning and with a product you know nothing about except for the fact that your card has a green fish by its name.  With all this information out there its easy to get lost or become frustrated when all you want to do is provide a healthy protein for your family that is tasty and environmentally cautious.

Well the good news is that I am not here to tell you to throw away all your lists because they are baloney. They are very helpful in pointing you in the right direction and for the most part they serve a great purpose.  Unfortunately, I am going to bring to light that they are not the end-all-be-all to making conscientious seafood purchases.  They can't be.  The fact that these lists are printed prevents them from being so.  You see, information changes very quickly.  Scientific studies are constantly being done and analysis is continually being reviewed and reassessed.  Just recently it was announced that 6 North American fish stocks were considered rebuilt in a 2011 report.

Another issue is that these cards refer to ranking species in a generalized way and do not reflect some of the smaller fisheries and locations where said 'red' species is being harvested in a way that is sustainable.  Take domestic red snapper for an example.  On every list of green, yellow, and red fish rankings you will always find domestic red snappers in the red.  They are on the avoid list everywhere, without exception.  This information is an accurate assessment of the 70's and 80's when stocks were being destroyed by recreational and commercial fishermen alike.  In 2007 commercial harvest for American red snappers went to an IFQ (Individual Fishing Quota) system.  This is a system where each fisherman is allotted a certain number of landed pounds a year, based on their respective historical catch.

Since then, American red snapper stocks have recovered quickly and National Marine Fishery Service biologists have increased the quota for 2012. Stocks look as if they will fully recover before the mandated 2018 date.  This does not equate; 'eat snapper five times a week because there are too many of them.'  What it does mean is that there are fisheries, such as the one that Congressional Seafood and BlackSalt Fish Market purchase snapper from, that are doing the right thing by harvesting fish in a sustainable manner.  BlackSalt gets its red snapper from a company based in Panama City, FL that is landing fish by hook and line and report that there are plenty of fish in the water.  It is also important to understand that BlackSalt is purchasing larger snappers, around 6lbs each.  These fish have spawned more times than a smaller snapper would have and like most large fish, the bigger the fish, the more eggs it produces.  So a snapper at 4lbs will produce millions of more eggs than a snapper at 2lbs.  This ensures that the fish the market sells have reproduced millions of offspring and helped keep the stock in the 'green'.

On the other hand if you look at Alaskan Halibut, most lists will consider it to be in the 'green' or a best choice.  However, the Alaskan halibut quotas have been cut 30 million pounds (around 50%) in the last two years.  This is a result of less and less large fish in the water.  How can a fishery be considered a best choice while the fish stocks are continually diminishing?  Well the answer is a bit complicated.  It is hard managing any species where different class years of fish will raise or drop the number of fish in the water.  There are natural fluctuations of all wildlife species, but it is important not to overlook the benefits that awareness and proper fishery management has contributed to worldwide fish stocks.  Halibut is a best choice because it is well managed.  The slashed quota is a result of proper management.  There is much more concern for fish stocks now than in the past and people are paying attention to what we take out of the water and what we leave in.

I am not saying don't buy halibut and do buy snapper.  What I would recommend is to mix it up.  Don't eat halibut 3 times a week.  Mix in some other sustainable seafood.  Don't get so engulfed in the cards that you stop listening to updated information.  Go to a reliable fish market or restaurant, like BlackSalt, and ask questions.  Find out where they are sourcing their products.  The answers might surprise you.  Don't throw away your index cards by any means, they can be really helpful as a general guide.  Just remember to look from them and meet the people who are serving you.  They just might have some insight into their products that you won't find on a 3"X5".

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Old Switcheroo

Recently on May 14th Oceana hosted an event at the National Aquarium addressing the concerns about the growing problems of fish/seafood mislabeling amongst restaurants, wholesalers, and retailers alike.  The event pitted fillets from similar looking fish against each other and had guests try to figure out which fillet was the real McCoy from the line-up.  Oceana is going to great efforts to ensure that this growing issue is brought to the publics' attention.  When ordering beef, you usually don't have to worry which animal it is actually coming from.  You should be able to purchase seafood with the same confidence.

Oceana fish display at National Aquarium
BlackSalt Fish Market supplied the fillets that were being used by Oceana for the event;  snapper, fluke, wild salmon, farm salmon, halibut, and hake.  Some guests had no problem identifying the correct fish, but there were many that had trouble doing so.  This only highlighted the point that Oceana was there to make;  Seafood fraud is a real issue and it can happen to anyone, especially when you consider that cooked and prepared fish loses its identity even more once it hits your plate.  Mislabeled seafood allows for illegal fish to hit markets and makes it difficult for customers to make the correct, environmental choices that they wish to support.

Estimates show that mislabeling for snapper fillets occurs as high as 77% and in general, seafood mislabeling ranges from 25-70% in different areas.  You can protect yourself by shopping at reliable seafood markets, such as BlackSalt, where fish comes in on the round (whole fish) and are butchered on site.  It is much harder to mislabel product that is still in its natural state.  The more processed the product, the easier it is to disguise its origin and source.  Please look into the link below.  You will find helpful information provided by Oceana on how to identify mislabeled products and what you can do to combat this problem.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Little Diddy Bout Soft Shells

I have to share this informative bit from a friend of mine who has been into seafood, catching it, studying it, selling it, and eating it his entire life.  Tim Sughrue works for Congressional Seafood and in his spare time fishes our Chesapeake waters religiously.  He is also a fisheries scientist and I trust his opinions and thoughts that are a result of his academic studies and life experiences.  Here is a little insight as to how that beautiful summer swimmer, soft shell crab, makes it onto your plate.  Enjoy!

"It has been an outstanding year so far for soft crabs. The mild winter temps have produced big runs in FL, GA and SC way ahead of schedule. I was talking to a supplier in Saxis, VA (just below Crisfield, MD) yesterday. His first peelers showed up March 20th (a record early date)! He can never recall having a big run in April like we have had this year. The cool weather over the last 10 days has prevented an avalanche of soft crabs from hitting the market and causing a price collapse. That will change this week with temperatures predicted to be in the 70's and 80's all week here and warmer in NC. 
        A peeler is a stage in the life cycle of a blue crab. Many watermen make a living targeting just peeler crab. Peelers are hard crabs that show an external sign that tell the watermen these particular hard crabs are about to shed. They are caught in a variety of ways including: peeler pots, bank traps, scrapes and traditional crab pots. In a peeler pot, a male crab is used as the bait to attract female peelers. Female crabs mate when they molt. This is how blue crabs (and all crustaceans) grow. They shed their shells and grow by roughly 30% each time.
      When a fishermen comes in at the end of a day of fishing "peeler pots", he will sell them to another person who does nothing but shed the peelers into soft crabs. The "shedder" will count each peeler that the fishermen catches and pay him by the piece. When the market is hot, peelers go for $1.50 each. When the market is flooded, they get down to 25 cents. There is no "average day" in peeler potting, but a good crabber last year in May, catching peelers in the Rappahannock River for one of my best soft crab suppliers in Deltaville VA, had $6,000 worth of peelers in just 5 days!!
The "shedder" puts the peelers into a rectangular tank or "float". Water is circulated over each "float' which can hold up to 1000 peelers. It is not unusual for a shedder to run as many as 100 floats during a peeler run. That means a soft crab dealer, during a wide open peeler run, could have as many as 100,000 each potential soft crabs ready to shed out. Adding to the madness, these peelers must be watched 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As soon as a crab comes out of its shell, it starts the process of hardening back up. Two hours later, it is the perfect soft crab. It can hold its claws up and it is firm enough to be shipped and survive the trip. Six hours after coming out of its shell, the crab has hardened so much it is difficult to serve as a soft crab. Taking the crab out of the water, stops the hardening process. As you can see, there is a very small window of opportunity to produce a good soft crab. Big soft crab operations have dozens of employees and can shed 1000 dozen in a single night. In the beginning of my seafood career, when I worked on the water, I shed soft crabs for years. My favorite was always the thunderstorms. The low pressure around the storms would trigger a "massive shed", where every peeler in the floats decided to"pop out" at the same time. That was insane, trying to "fish up" all of those soft crabs at once.
      The Chesapeake Bay blue crab is, by anyone's definition, a totally sustainable species. The Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Recovery Program started 5 years ago and reduced the female crab harvest by 35%. The results were immediate and incredible. The blue crab population has exploded by 70% in just 3 years. We are seeing huge soft crab runs all over the Bay. Crabbers are making good money during the season. Picking houses have a reliable supply of raw material to produce local crabmeat with. Local restaurants can advertise selling crabcakes picked locally and soft crabs shed locally. Proper fishery management benefits the entire community, not just the species in question.
    On any given day over the next couple weeks, our soft crabs will be coming from the following towns: Englehard, NC (Pamlico Sound), Wanchese, NC (Pamlico Sound), Deltaville Va (Rappahannock River), Saxis, Va (Pocomoke River, Tangier Sound) Crisfield, MD, Deale Island, MD and Point Lookout, MD. The peeler runs moves up the Bay like a wave and later in May we will get soft crabs from as far north as the Susquehana Flats (Havre de Grace, MD) where the Chesapeake Bay begins."

Thanks Tim.