When Oysters and Seawater Don’t Mix

Two weeks ago the Hog Island Oyster Company in Marshall, CA hosted a tour of their shellfish farm. The goal of the tour was to raise awareness of ocean acidification. Coordinated by co-owners Terry Sawyer and John Finger; Dr. Tessa Hill from the UC Davis Bodega Bay Labs; the Ocean Conservancy and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, the tour would also showcase how the Hog Island Oyster Company has responded to ocean acidification. The collaborative research project to monitor the seawater pH of Tomales Bay that is conducted on site at the shellfish farm with Dr. Tessa Hill is one such response and a major part of Hog Island’s plan to stay in business in times of uncertain ocean pH.

Those looking on at our group gathered on the edge of Tomales Bay would have thought we were enjoying a leisurely day in the late autumn sun. And we were. What they might not have thought was that we were addressing a serious topic. That day ocean acidification was discussed and many questions asked as we slurped oysters, a briny sweet reminder of what we stand to lose if we don’t get a handle on carbon emissions that cause the pH of seawater to drop.

Why is a drop in the pH of seawater an issue to be concerned about? When the pH of anything drops, it becomes more acidic. For many people it helps to consider their own backyard to better understand why pH levels matter. Even if you aren’t a master gardener you have probably heard about acid loving plants and plants that like ‘sweeter soil’ or soil with a more alkaline pH. Maybe you have asked a salesperson at your local garden center if a particular plant will be happy in your yard and heard in response, “Is your soil acid?” Perhaps like me you took home a tempting plant only to have it fail and wither as it didn’t like the acid soil on offer in your garden beds. When you were digging in the acid soil filled corner of your yard did your hands get burned by the soil with an acid pH? No, but the plants that died in the same soil sure had a different response. Substitute you in a swimsuit splashing unaffected in an acid ocean amongst struggling oyster larvae and a mix of other microscopic members of the marine food web and you’ve got it.

A drop in the pH of seawater affects the ability of juvenile shellfish and other zooplankton to form their first protective layers of shell. Without protection these microscopic animals can’t survive and mature to the stage at which we identify them as seafood. This is also a problem for the larger members of the marine food web like salmon and tuna as small fish are eaten by big fish and really small fish eat zooplankton.

For some people on the tour of Hog Island Oyster Company this was their first introduction to ocean acidification. Others in the group could and do lecture on the implications of changes in seawater chemistry. Regardless of how much was known going into the tour, all left well fed, more informed on ocean acidification and inspired to cut carbon. But if you were like me, you still had questions about what could be done.

Later that same week and up the coast to Washington State, a similar tour was hosted at Taylor Shellfish Farms Quilcene Hatchery on Dabob Bay. Again the goal was to raise awareness of ocean acidification and to learn how Taylor Shellfish Farms are responding to the threat ocean acidification poses to their business and the more than 3,200 jobs the Washington shellfish industry supports. This time the tour guests sported raingear and wool hats, not sunscreen and sunglasses. In spite of the howling wind and threatening rain and because we expect this in the Pacific Northwest, there was a great turn out.

The tour groups at both the Hog Island and Taylor Shellfish sites were diverse and included journalists from media sources covering topics ranging from the seafood industry, environment and policy to food and sustainability. Chefs, shellfish farmers, and nonprofit organizations rounded out the tour groups for truly diverse sets of individuals who came together to learn more about ocean acidification. In addition, the Taylor Shellfish tour group brought out University of Washington faculty and students and members of Washington State’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification.

The Washington State Department of Ecology website offers this description of the role of the Blue Ribbon Panel. “In December 2011, Governor Gregoire convened a Blue Ribbon Panel of leading tribal, state, federal and local policy makers; scientific experts; public opinion leaders; and industry representatives.”

“The Blue Ribbon Panel has focused on documenting the current state of scientific knowledge, ways to advance our scientific understanding of the effects of ocean acidification, and recommend actions to respond to increasing ocean acidification, reduce harmful effects on Washington’s shellfish and other marine resources, and adapt to the impacts of acidified waters.”

After a year’s work, on Tuesday, November 27th  the Washington State Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification will release their recommendations to Governor Christine Gregoire. Along with Dr. Jane Lubchenco from NOAA and other guests, the 28 members of the Blue Ribbon Panel, will gather at the Seattle Aquarium for the morning event and press conference.

The release of these recommendations marks an important milestone in the recent history of ocean acidification. The actions of Washington State in response to the recommendation made by the Blue Ribbon Panel will be watched by the whole world. The attention is definitely not the Oscars type of hype. The proceedings will be followed by a smaller, more specialized sector. Some might suggest it is a somewhat geeky population of the world but they/we/me are people who are concerned for the future of our oceans. I have to admit I am strangely hopeful and anxious to hear what is recommended by the Blue Ribbon Panel. We need some direction and leadership to pull us out of the ‘nothing can be done’ funk that a problem as big as ocean acidification can bring on. We are watching you, Washington.

Note: follow this link for more information on Washington State’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification: http://www.ecy.wa.gov/water/marine/oceanacidification.html

Halibut, spot prawns and chanterelles

Note from Amy: In mid June I abandoned my computer and Fish = Food posts for the decks of my fishing boat Duna. A summer in Alaska away from my office strengthens my desk weakened frame and restores my sanity. It also reminds me of why once home in Port Townsend I work to keep commercial fishing a modern-day trade and not a tale of yesterday to be viewed in an exhibit at a maritime museum or read about in history books.

When done right, commercial fishing is sustainable for the fish and the fishermen who make a living at it. Each boat and the crew that fishes that boat are unique, often to the extreme. They inspire me to do what I can to keep wild fish coming over the rails, into the holds and wages in the pockets of fishermen who will spend that money in their home ports once fishing season is closed. Call it a triple bottom line result or just good business. Either way, we should be proud to support our fleets and thank them each time we sit down to a dinner of wild caught seafood.

The boat is tied to the dock in Port Townsend and I am trying to reacquaint myself with my keyboard. Here are the results…

Greg and I made the decision mid September to call it a season. With the last salmon off the boat, we stowed the trolling gear away and turned Duna, our 40 foot wooden boat, south for the trip home from southeast Alaska to Port Townsend. Our route down Chatham Strait would take us by the Baranof  Warm Springs. The magnetic pull of hot water bubbling from the ground into rocky pools was more than we could stand. A turn to the starboard and we soon found ourselves sliding up along the floating dock in Warm Springs Bay.

Sarah, captain of the 82 foot power skow North Wind , saw us coming in and as good neighbors do, she  was soon taking the lines from my hand. With a few easy turns she had Duna secured to the dock. On the way back to her boat Sarah called, “Come by later for dinner after you’re done soaking.” A highly coveted spot at the dock, a friendly welcome, dinner plans and hot springs only an easy walk away through the woods; as Greg likes to say, “It’s all coming together now.”

Fishermen simmering in the Baranof Warm Springs

Power skows are famed for their welcoming galleys. The cooks who work these galleys know how to tease from an unruly diesel stove meals that restore a hard-working crews’ energy and improve sullen attitudes at end of a day. Lazy from our soak in the hot springs we climbed the steps to the North Wind’s galley knowing we were lucky as good food was just through the door ahead of us.

On the menu that evening were halibut, spot prawns & chanterelles, all beer batter coated, fried crispy and light. I have to admit I had my doubts. Halibut, yes, but spot prawns and chanterelles? These aren’t pub fare and are darn expensive if you’re buying them, hard-won if you are pulling shrimp pots or hitting the woods to forage for chanterelles. We cracked a beer and settled back to watch George work his galley magic.

With tattooed arms efficiently working a sleight of hand, George lowered beer battered chanterelles into hot oil, rendering them golden, delicate and sweet . This was totally different from my method of a dry saute for chanterelles followed by a hit of olive oil and butter with leeks added last and moved around the pan until just past wilted. As for the spot prawns?  Like the chanterelles the plump spot prawns responded nicely to George’s beer batter treatment. Who ever has enough of these critters to do anything other than boil them in salted water or saute them in garlicky goodness for a peel and eat treat?

In this case, the answer to the question of who has both the luxury and bounty of wild caught and foraged foods to stray from tried and true cooking methods is commercial fishermen. To answer your next question, no, chanterelles are not a staple food of commercial fishermen. Come mid September fishing season in southeast Alaska is winding down as the gale force winds are winding up. You find your boat with more frequency tied to the dock or swinging on anchor as you wait out the latest blow. With any luck, if so inclined, it is only a short jaunt to the forest to kill some time and slay some chanterelles.

Folklore tell us that Eskimos have a gazillion words for snow due to the sheer abundance of it. Anthropologists have disproved this tale but concur that without a doubt keen understanding of snow in all its forms has allowed indigenous people near the Arctic Circle to survive. On commercial fishing vessels our great abundance is fresh caught fish.

As fishermen, we eat what we catch as meat in Alaska is expensive and not always of good quality. If you have a boat load of [insert your target species here: Chinook salmon, halibut, blackcod, spot prawns, etc.] you get really good at finding ways to make your staple protein taste different at each meal. It is hard to imagine that a person could tire of eating any one of these fish or that the words ‘salmon again?’ could ever be uttered. But if that is what you catch, that is what you eat. The dinner time utterance will change as the fishing seasons change: salmon season rolls into Dungeness crab season, Dungeness crab into spot prawn season. If you hold individual fishing quota for halibut or blackcod, one or both of these fish will make it to your galley . Blackcod again?

To be honest, I never tire of eating fish or seeing the fillets on my galley table. However, this isn’t always the case with your crew. Each meal is an opportunity or an Iron Chef challenge, depending on my attitude that day, to see what can be done with the catch. Sometimes I reign victorious in Iron Chef Kitchen Stadium and other times it’s back to Alaska’s Test Kitchen to see if I can save dinner. In any case, there is plenty of product to bake, grill, fry, saute or poach if your culinary  imagination runs wild and time allows for other than throwing together a quick meal to refuel the crew.

The next time you don’t know what to do with your fish, ask a fisherman, preferably a season galley magician.

New York Times Editorial on Mining in Bristol Bay

Today the New York Times ran a brief and to the point editorial that reported the EPA found mining in the Bristol Bay watershed would pose a significant threat to wild salmon. “A big operation like Pebble, it says, would destroy 54 miles to 87.9 miles of critical streams and up to 6.7 square miles of wetlands.”

Here is a link to the New York Times editorial: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/05/opinion/a-threat-to-bristol-bay.html?_r=1&ref=opinion

If you are reading this blog post I suspect you are saying, “Of course mining would harm the Bristol Bay watershed.” Most likely this is because over the past five years you have participated in one or all of the Savor Bristol Bay campaigns in Seattle either as a chef or salmon eater. Thank you for supporting the fish and fishermen!

The Savor Bristol Bay campaigns are the work of Trout Unlimited (TU) and led by Elizabeth Dubovsky, WhyWild program director for TU. Well done, Elizabeth! She knows fish = food.

For more on the WhyWild program and TU’s work to protect Bristol Bay: http://www.whywild.org/

Partridge vs. Salmon: a taste test

And who won? Obviously the partridge because he got to eat the salmon – both of them! The Friday night May 25th Get Jesse segment of KING 5 News featured a taste off of Copper River Chinook vs. Washington marbled Chinook. Where is the partridge in this scenario?

Consumer reporter Jesse Jones invited Danny Bonaduce, morning cohost on 102.5 KZOK, to act as the official taster of the salmon at Diane’s Market Kitchen in Pike Place Market.  In the way of many actors with success early in their careers, Danny is best known for his role as Danny Partridge on the 70’s sitcom the Partridge Family. Chef Diane LaVonne expertly prepared the competing salmon fillets and offered them bite by bite to Bonaduce. While each taste of the wild salmon elicited sounds of agreeableness, it was the Copper River that Danny preferred.

Did this bother me? Not really. Well, okay, just a little because Washington marbled Chinook is the locally caught fish and who doesn’t cheer for the hometown team?

My husband and I fish for Chinook off the Washington coast in the months of May and June before we head north to Alaska to chase the Chinook in those waters. For years we have been eating Chinook from both Alaska and Washington and loving them both for what they are: our favorite fish and what we serve when we celebrate with our friends and family.

What Danny did in the taste off was proclaim his preference for one Chinook over another. His preference. Is it my preference? No. I like the Chinook I catch. Ask any fisherman; the fish they catch are the best tasting fish, regardless of whether the fish are caught in Alaska, Washington or any of the other places where Chinook are swimming. One thing all fishermen can agree on is that the fish comes from the water inherently delicious; nature does that not the fishermen. It is the quick, careful handling and icy cold storage of wild fish by fishermen that turns the catch into seafood of superior quality.

A few things were left on the editing room floor for that KING 5 segment. After all, you can only get so much in a 3:21 minute segment. Such as what is Washington marbled Chinook?

Washington marbled Chinook in front, Washington red Chinook in back

Marbled Chinook are predominantly caught in Washington salmon fisheries. Like its red and white school mates, marbled Chinook is rich in both flavor and nutrition. The color difference refers to the flesh of the fish as the silver sided exterior of all color Chinook looks the same. Only once the fish is cut open will the fishermen know if the Chinook they caught is red, white or marbled. The marbled Chinook will have varying degrees of white and red marbled through the fillets. While Washington caught Chinook will be available fresh in season at Seattle area fish markets, the daily variable of what color Washington Chinook is found in the seafood cases will be determined by what color Chinook was caught by the fishermen on their last fishing trip.

All wild salmon are fabulous animals and a part of our Northwest heritage but not all wild salmon taste the same. This is in part because there are five species of salmon indigenous to the Pacific Northwest – Chinook a.k.a. King, Sockeye sometimes called Red Salmon, Coho or Silvers, Chum or Dog (also sold as Keta) and Humpies or Pinks.

In addition to each species of wild salmon having a unique flavor profile, another aspect of the taste difference in wild salmon is where they were caught and when they were caught. Much like the terroir of wine, the taste wine grapes absorb from the soil in the region in which they are grown, wild salmon caught in different regions will taste different from each other. This is because salmon in different regions are eating different food at different times of the year. A salmon dining on herring as its staple food will taste different from one who had krill or squid available to feed on.

If you are a fan of oysters you have become familiar with and look forward to the different flavors that the briny bivalves from different bodies of water will offer you. Should we call this merroir? Bring this same anticipation for a new flavor experience to the table with you when you eat wild salmon. Make sure to ask you fishmonger or waiter where the fish you are about to enjoy was caught.

While the 2004 movie Sideways dissed merlot, it at the same time sparked a convivial debate of the wine varietal’s merits. The popping of corks in cafes and kitchens could be heard nationwide. So I ask the wild salmon eating public, what is your preference? Copper River Chinook or Washington marbled Chinook? The only way to know is to eat both fish side by side in your own backyard taste test. You might find your preference for one fish to be different than that of your tasting companions. They are both great fish, taste ambassadors from the waters they are native to.

I am a fisherman not a gambler but I would put my money on this: you may buy Copper River Chinook for your own personal taste off but I bet locally caught Washington Chinook of all colors will be the fish you bring home again and again from the seafood market or grocery store.

Commercial Salmon fisherman Amy Grondin’s homeport is Port Townsend, WA. When not fishing she works in commercial fisheries outreach and sustainable seafood consulting.