There’s Always A Catch
My search for sustainably sourced seafood
By Megan Molteni
It’s Friday night in Oakland, California, at a seafoam green Victorian on West Street, where a potluck dinner has drawn a throng of twentysomethings, ranging from kindergarten teachers to dot-commers. The house warms with the heat of bodies as guests converse in nooks and crannies. Quinoa abounds.
And then it appears: the shrimp cocktail platter.
Recently defrosted and packed tightly around a cup of horseradish-spiked ketchup, the huddle of coral crescents looks like a group of headless synchronized swimmers. I pray they go fast.
My friends tuck in; I politely refuse. The questions start.
Are you a vegetarian? No… So you just don’t like seafood? No, it’s not that. I like seafood. I just don’t eat it. But why?
Suddenly there’s a soapbox under my feet, and I’m blurting out things no socially self-aware person should utter in polite company: “Because there’s no conscionable way to eat shrimp! Have you ever seen a shrimp trawler? For every pound of shrimp caught, there are about 10 pounds of fish thrown back into the ocean as bycatch!”
Eyes widen. Mouths stop mid-chew.
Unfortunately, it’s not the first time this has happened. I’ve inadvertently made a habit of culinary awkwardness ever since I threw in the towel on seafood five years ago. The decision came down to two things: One, everywhere I turned, there were lists of fish to eat or not—fish that were farmed, fish that were caught in ways that harm dolphins, fish that were caught without harming sea turtles, and on and on in a morass of 200-word news bites. My confusion was exhausting.
And two, because in this era of modern fishing fleets—with longlines that can stretch for 100 miles and nets that can haul in a million pounds of fish in one swoop—about three-quarters of wild marine fish stocks are exploited or overfished. If we continue to take from the sea at the present rate, by the turn of the next century, all that will be left is a desperate race for the last wild fish.
So when a friend from the potluck later asked me, “Is there any seafood you feel okay about eating?” I thought for a moment and shrugged. “With what I know right now, no.”
What would it take for me to eat seafood? Maybe, if there was something truly sustainable out there, I could convert my amorphous convictions into a defined personal canon. I decided to search for seafood I could buy without selling my ethics short.
I started my quest by staking out the seafood case at my local Whole Foods, wondering what Berkeley’s progressive clientele was buying. I found myself eavesdropping on a customer lecturing the counter worker about what happens when toxins like mercury get eaten by little fish and work their way up the food chain. By the time they wind up in a big ocean predator, like tuna, the toxins have accumulated and intensified in the fish’s body. It’s the reason doctors recommend choosing fish, which are a great source of protein and omega-3 fats, that are low on the food chain.
That’s what this guy was looking for—a small, short-lived fish that eats mostly plankton. There weren’t many to choose from in a cooler dominated by salmon, trout, and branzini. He eventually settled on the American mackerel filets at the far end of the ice-filled case.
Since 1999, Whole Foods has sold seafood bearing the blue-and-white Marine Stewardship Council eco-label, which represents the world’s most well-established standard for sustainable seafood. Fisheries that apply for MSC certification undergo a lengthy process that costs anywhere from $15,000 to $120,000, depending on their size and complexity. Currently 184 fisheries, which account for about 11 percent of wild-caught fish, are MSC-certified.
Although MSC’s mark of approval is widely considered a dependable standard (not just Whole Foods but also Wal-Mart, Costco, and McDonald’s rely on the eco-label), the organization has been criticized for allowing fisheries to become certified as “sustainable” years before implementing required changes.
“Form a relationship with who you’re buying a fish from and, by doing that, you can be sure you’re making good decisions.”
The Whole Foods store also uses a color-coded rating system developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program to help customers make good choices. There are five criteria that Seafood Watch takes into account when making a recommendation: inherent vulnerability, status of stocks, nature of bycatch, habitat and ecosystem effects, and management effectiveness.
A green label means “Best Choice” and is the equivalent of a green light. Yellow means “Good Alternative.” And red holds true to its almost universal connotation: stop, danger, or technically speaking, “Avoid,” as in, don’t buy. Ever.
Whole Foods seafood coordinator Mark Hernandez is in charge of purchasing seafood for the 37 locations in Northern California and one in Reno, Nevada. “I like to say you can walk up to our counter and feel that it’s up to the highest standards of sustainability and traceability,” he says. This is a recent development: Until April 2012, Whole Foods sold red-labeled seafood. Hernandez says it was always the plan to pull those products; it was just a matter of taking the time to educate customers and ease them into a new regime.
The mackerel that just went into that guy’s shopping basket was labeled as wild-caught in the US and bore a yellow “Good Alternative” stamp of semi-approval. From a health point of view, a good choice—but environmentally, not so much.
The primary type of gear used by American mackerel fishermen is the midwater trawl, a huge net that’s towed through the water above the ocean floor and often captures things other than its intended catch. There is evidence that removing mackerel from the ocean at their current numbers is likely to undercut food availability for other marine animals and have substantial ripple effects across the entire ecosystem.
Because of factors like that, some merchants around the Bay Area say that neither the MSC nor the Monterey Bay Aquarium goes far enough in recommending fish that can be sold in good conscience.
Paul Johnson is the president of Monterey Fish Market, a local seafood purveyor. He also sits on the Blue Ribbon Task Force for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program (which has no connection to his business). Johnson was dismayed when the aquarium began to work with mega-corporations like Wal-Mart. “Even though I’m on the board, I have more interest in the smaller fisheries that get left by the wayside.”
Johnson, who got his start in the seafood industry buying fish for famed restauranteur Alice Waters, owns a wholesale business in addition to the retail store he has had in Berkeley for more than 30 years. His standards tend to be stricter than those of either the MSC or the aquarium. But he also has a business to run, which means sometimes he winds up stocking things he doesn’t really want to: “For example, char is the best of the worst,” he says, in what’s left of a Rhode Island accent. “I’d prefer not to, but sometimes I do sell it.”
Johnson is considered by many well-respected chefs and restauranteurs in the Bay Area to be a trustworthy source for buying sustainable seafood. But before I would try eating seafood again, I wanted to know if there was anyone in this industry who works totally free of compromise. So I went to meet Kenny Belov, perhaps the most polarizing figure in the region’s fishing industry.
Belov opened Fish, a dockside restaurant in Sausalito, in 2004. Almost immediately, it was known for setting the standard for sustainability. “I thought I could do no wrong,” he said of his initial criteria. But then Belov started going on boats and realized he had been lied to at every step of the supply chain. Fishermen who claimed to limit bycatch and obey official catch limits were doing no such thing. So he decided to verify sources himself.
“Look,” he told me forcefully the first time I met him at Fish, “if you’re not out there meeting new fishermen, you’re expecting someone else to do that for you, and you have to trust them.” So now, for example, the halibut Belov sells for a stunning $22 a pound comes from an Alaskan fisherman he knows and regularly visits.
Six a.m. is a dangerous time to find your way around Fisherman’s Wharf. White trucks careen between rows of warehouses, and loud-mouthed dockworkers dart back and forth in forklifts. I spot Belov through the early-morning darkness and follow him into the bright fluorescent light of the building that houses TwoXSea, his wholesale company.
Inside, a single table is the staging ground for prepping about 400 pounds of McFarland Ranch rainbow trout. Wielding a chef’s knife, Belov turns each trout into two foot-long filets the color of tangerines. It takes him five cuts and less than 15 seconds.
“Our crab boat is still out,” he explains, crossing the room to check a board of hanging order sheets for upscale places like Nopa, BIX, and Bi-Rite. “Things have been slow so far. It’s not expected to be a good crab year.” The Dungeness crab season opens in November and lasts until June or July.
Inside the warehouse, a cell phone rings. Wiping the fish slime on the back of his jeans, Belov picks up the phone. “Where are you?” he asks, squinting his eyes and heading out toward the water. When he comes back, it’s with another man who’s hauling a small rolling cooler behind him. “You’re going to want to see this,” he tells me.
Nestled against one another are the strangest fish I have ever seen. At once bulbous and sleek, their bulging faces and dark bodies dissolve into fins tipped with a flash of crimson. Monkeyface eels. I find it hard to believe that people eat these little gremlins.
Kirk Lombard catches the eels (which are not really eels at all, but fish from the prickleback family) with a method called poke poling. Lombard pokes a long bamboo pole tipped with a baited hook into rock crevices to find the fish. It’s a laborious process that yields only one fish at a time, which is why almost no one does it.
It took Lombard four hours to land the 20 pounds sitting on Belov’s scale. Luckily for him, a number of Bay Area chefs have developed a taste for the underutilized fish. He leaves TwoXSea with a check for $200.
To me, this rather humble exchange is an X marking the spot on my treasure map. Finally! A sustainable, low-impact, small-scale, and local fishery! There was only one problem: Despite their newfound cachet, I wasn’t eager to take home one of the slippery, snakelike fishes. What else, I wondered, might be on the local, sustainable menu?
There was something on my mind that Belov had said the first day we met. “The best thing you can do is learn everything you possibly can about one fish at a time,” he said. “Form a relationship with who you’re buying a fish from and, by doing that, you can be sure you’re making good decisions.”
I thought about the crab boats coming in that afternoon. What did I really know about Dungeness crabs? Not much, so I knew I wasn’t ready to buy a crab yet, even from Belov.
Over the next week, I immersed myself in the anatomy, geography, life cycles, and management of crabs. As scavengers, they are low on the food chain, so not only do they accumulate fewer toxins, they also provide a pretty efficient source of protein. I learned that California’s crab fishery is guided by the three S’s: sex, size, and season. Only males can be taken, ones that are big enough to have reached sexual maturity, and only after mating season. In the 50 years since the large-scale industrialization of the fleet, California’s Dungeness crab fishery has never had a collapse from over-fishing.
All of this looked good on paper. But I was missing the personal element that would fulfill the Belov standard. I still hadn’t met any crab fishermen. Nor did it make environmental sense to spend fossil fuel going to Fisherman’s Wharf to buy one or two crabs. My normal shopping routine consists of bike rides to the store, Sunday strolls to the farmers’ market, and picking from what’s in my garden.
And then, a week or two later, while at the farmers’ market down the street from my house, I come across a stand I’d never seen before. “Carapace Fishing, Oakland, California,” reads the banner. The woman selling crabs behind the table says the company’s owner—her husband, Will Ward—caught the crabs the day before near Bolinas Bay.
I tell the woman I’m interested in speaking to Ward, and she gives me his phone number. I leave the market without a crustacean, but I do have a lead.
The Nola May is docked in a slip at the Berkeley Marina, flanked on all sides by slender-masted sailboats. The boat can fit only 15 crab pots on deck at one time. That amounts to about 300 crabs on a good trip. Ward works alone, fishing mostly in the shallow areas near Stinson Beach, and sells all his catch directly off the docks, at farmers’ markets, or occasionally to local chefs. He eats only seafood he catches, namely crab and salmon. Ward says he wouldn’t have bought into the whole sustainability rhetoric if he hadn’t experienced it himself—that a fresh-caught fish really is better.
As for me, finally, I cook the first seafood I’ve eaten in half a decade, from a local fisherman. The sweet white meat erupts in chunks with every satisfying crack. I dunk it in a pool of melted butter and close my eyes, savoring every bite.