Is it Fresh? ...and other important questions to ask at the seafood market

by Elizabeth Grossman

At low tide in Sitka, Alaska, I watched bald eagles, ravens and small shore birds dive for fish and feast on sea creatures along the beach. That evening friends shared Dungeness crab they'd just hauled out of the bay, and king salmon they'd recently caught. The birds, and my Alaska friends knew the seafood we were about to eat was fresh. They knew where it came from. What do most of us know about the fish we buy at our local markets? What should we know?

In the Pacific Northwest fish seem to be part of the collective public consciousness. Salmon are in the newspaper almost daily. The health of our rivers, streams and coastline is part of many civic discussions but the ocean seems full of mystery.

How does the seafood we see nestled on ice in a refrigerator case get there? What information is available to the retail consumer? How are issues of conservation taken into consideration?

A biologist at the Mark O. Hatfield Marine Sciences Center is asked by the Monterey Bay Aquarium restaurant if scallops on the menu coincides with their conservation mission. What's the proper response when learning the variety of "grilled fish" on offer may be overfished?

"Don't be afraid to ask your distributor where it's caught," advised Kurt Sigfusson, assistant sales manager for Seafood Producers Cooperative, speaking in March at a Pacific Northwest Seafood seminar. Ask where it comes from, was the advice from scientists, retailers, fishers, suppliers and restauranteurs alike. A fish that may be in trouble or caught in a manner deemed unsustainable one place, may be fine and well-caught elsewhere. "It's very difficult to be adequately informed," concedes Michael Randolph who runs the seafood program for Nature's Fresh Northwest, a small food market chain specializing in organic food and consumer education. "There's an overwhelming amount of misinformation out there," he adds, an opinion echoed by virtually everyone involved with marine resources.

"Fisheries data and information are rich, but the understanding poor," says Hal Weeks, a marine fisheries specialist at Oregon State University. "For hundreds of years we have avoided asking questions about limits and our relationship to them," he says of fishing's impact on ocean ecosystems. He describes fishing boats as predators on marine resources. He raises questions about fishing methods that create vast quantities of waste and extend into areas previously inaccessible.

With this sophisticated advice, and the seashore wildlife raw bar in mind, I headed out to some local fish markets to see what I would find.

On a Sunday morning in June at a large Portland Fred Meyer there are whole rainbow trout and Copper River sockeye (we steak or fillet for free!), Alaskan jumbo scallops, medium prawns, jumbo tiger prawns, bay scallops, calamari steaks, whole squid, razor clams, Venus clams, steelhead fillets, yearling oysters, fresh Pacific snapper, yellowfin tuna, fresh Alaskan halibut steaks, Dover sole fillets, Copper River salmon fillets, true cod, catfish fillets, and whole Dungeness crab "from the NW." The oysters in the shell, I am told, comes from False Bay in Baja California, the yearling oysters from Willapa Bay on the south Washington coast, and the whole squid from California.

Supermarkets order seafood from big wholesalers, like Pacific Seafood, who supply retail outlets throughout the region. "We rely on the reputation of the vendor and knowing the quality of the products," says Ed Drennan of Pacific Seafood. A few fishermen, he explains, sell directly to the wholesale trade, but most work through a processor who does the grading, sorting, icing, boxing and shipping. "Know who you're buying from. Buy from someone you trust," I am told again and again.

A smaller supplier, Newman's, runs their own high-end retail outlets and delivers to Portland area restaurants, acting as both wholesaler and retailer. Owner John Cleary shows me boxes of Copper River kings and handsome Chinooks with iridescent blue scales. "These just came in," he says, explaining that most fish now get transported from its source by air. A missed flight can spoil a shipment, especially of fish coming in from the east coast or south Pacific.

Reliable fish markets get deliveries two or three times a week. "It is important to keep inventory moving," says Cleary. "The worst thing," he says, "is running a slow fish market and watching your fish grow old."

Eric Stenberg of Higgins, a Portland restaurant with an interest in seasonal food, explains that they work with a broker who helps them select their orders. Fish is packed specially for them, whole, and met by their broker at the airport. Nature's gets most of its seafood from fisher-owned cooperatives based in Bellingham, with whom Randolph talks daily. One deals in seafood from the Northwest, the other with "exotic, South Pacific fish, like ahi, mahi and swordfish."

Most display labels describing fish say, "fresh," but a some say "previously frozen," or "frozen at sea." What does that mean, I wondered. What is fresh?

Joy Martin is part of a fishing family and works for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. She describes her job as educating fisherman and consumers about quality fish. "The biggest myth I'm out there it dispel is that all fresh means is that it hasn't been frozen," she says. The time between catching a fish and when it gets to market is crucial. "If fish is taken care of properly," says Jon Speltz of the Wild Salmon market at Fishermen's Terminal in Seattle, "it can last up to ten to fourteen days from the time it is harvested." Fish iced the moment it's caught and brought to market within 24-30 hours, experts agreed is the ideal time for ensuring freshness.

Martin and Randolph concurred with others who advised that a fish bled, gutted and immediately frozen – frozen at sea – produces a high quality product, that when sold, is defrosted slowly, or let go slack. Cory Schreiber of Wildwood Restaurant in Portland, however, does not consider any frozen fish of "restaurant quality." He believes three to four days the maximum preferred time from water to dining table. "Fresh," he said, is "not frozen." But Randolph and Speltz offered that fish frozen at sea is a way to have wild, rather than farmed fish, year round.

Where, how and when caught – even Latin family names – are part of the seafood labels at Nature's. There I find bay scallops, rock shrimp, turtle safe Georgia sweet white prawns, domestic sea scallops, manila clams, true cod, king Chinook salmon (oncorhynchus tsawyntscha) "long line caught - delivered to Nature's 16 hrs out of the water - sustainable harvest practices," blue marlin, Dover sole, red rock snapper family scorpaeridae) - "hook and line caught, delivered to Nature's 16 hrs out of water - sustainable harvest practices," aqua farmed and ruby red boneless trout, Oregon sea bass, ahi tuna, and Copper River sockeye salmon fillet.

A large poster explains the "Turtle-safe certified" guarantee. "The shrimp are harvested only with the use of Turtle Extruder Device nets in a sustainable manner...[by] supporting these shrimpers we can avoid purchasing aqua farmed shrimp which are raised with the use of antibiotics and are directly related to the destruction of mangrove forests throughout the world." Buying seafood suddenly seems to involve serious decision-making.

What are "sustainable harvest practices?" Why is it important to know how the fish is caught? And what about farmed? Fish are caught in nets and with hooks and lines, but with each method there is much variation.

Trawlers sweep the sea bottom with big weighted nets, scooping up the targeted fish – or other sea creature. With it may come what's called by-catch, frequently in large quantities, and often discarded. Large bottom-trawling operations that disturb the sea floor significantly and create great amounts of by-catch, are of growing concern to those concerned with conserving marine resources.

Despite "extensive knowledge of the physical, chemical and biological processes that occur in the sedimentary environments of the world's oceans," explains Waldo Wakefield, Fisheries Research Biologist and Oceanographer with the National Marine Fisheries Service Northwest Fisheries Science Center, scientists are just beginning to understand "the influence of various fishing gear on this type of marine habitat and its role in marine life."

There is also mid-water trawling, the method by which pollock and hake is caught, which does not interfere with the seabed. Nets are also used for selective fisheries, such as reef netting for salmon done in the San Juan islands of Puget Sound, or the method developed by the Hawkshaws who catch salmon from Prince Rupert, BC. These fishers catch relatively small number of fish which are sold at premium prices.

The most common method of catching premium deep sea fish, like halibut and tuna, selectively is with hook and line, called troll-caught. It's a painstaking process, says Martin who used to fish for salmon and halibut. "Baiting halibut hooks," she says, "is like making lace." There are drag lines, which raise the question of how many hooks to a line, and whether or not the hooks have barbs, which can lead to by-catch and waste. Overfishing throughout the marine-life food chain is a serious problem.

"I look at the ocean a little bit like a garden," Cleary, explaining the value of a targeted fishery – fishing specifically for one species, in a certain place, at a certain time. "I think fisheries need to be managed more aggressively on a conservation basis," he says, referring both to quantities, locations and seasonal limits. "You wouldn't go into the garden and take all the tomatoes at once including the green ones and all the plants around them."

At Newman's in northeast Portland, I find a global geography of seafood. Oysters on the shell, live New Zealand little neck clams, Oregon troll Chinook salmon steak and fillet, fresh Alaskan halibut fillet and steak, Copper River Chinook salmon steak and fillet, Idaho rainbow trout - dressed, fresh Pacific long-line caught swordfish, fresh Central America Blue Marlin, fresh Oregon red snapper fillets, Idaho Catfish - pan ready, fresh Hawaii, long-line caught ahi yellow fin tuna, fresh Idaho sturgeon, fresh Oregon rex sole, Rhode Island squid tubes & tentacles, fresh Fiji tombo albacore tuna, fresh Alaska razor clams, Massachusetts chopped clams, Oregon small oysters, Mississippi rock shrimp, Mexico bay scallops, Mexico medium and large white shrimp, Maine sea scallops, Oregon shrimp meat and Oregon Dungeness crab meat.

"Sourcing in seafood," says Jerry Reinholdt, fisherman and Oregon Processor Representative on the Salmon Advisory Panel of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council. "is the name of the game." Knowing where seafood comes from is often the first step to understanding its freshness, safety and how environmentally sound its harvest. Both he and Martin emphasize the importance of educated fisherman, and say the current generation is increasingly knowledgeable.

Of utmost importance to fishers and marketers like Martin and Reinholdt is how the fish is treated. "With kid gloves," advocates Reinholdt. "We didn't bust ass out in 70 mile an hour winds in the north Pacific taking care of these fish to get you a piece of crap," says Martin. People have to understand the limits of the resource, says Reinholdt, and "understand the sacrifices that need to be made," adding that an ever increasing world population is taxing marine environments.

How is the public to understand the limits and quotas placed on specific fish? Why not demand fresh-killed salmon twelve months a year? "Wild salmon is good for our bodies and our souls," said Riley Starks, an executive board member of the Washington Reef Net Owners Association, speaking philosophically. "Keeping wild salmon part of our public culture preserves the runs."

On a more basic level, farmed fish raises lots of questions, in terms of fisheries biology, environmental impacts and long-term food safety. Fish farming requires the use of antibiotics. There is uncertainty and concern about what happens when non-native farmed fish escape and mingle with native stocks. Nearly all retailers carry a mix of wild and farmed fish, not all of it marked as either.

Conservation issues surrounding particular species of fish are rarely simple. Some salmon runs are threatened and endangered. Others are healthy and prolific. Some rockfish and other ground fish species and stocks are seriously overfished, others are not. "We used to get thousands of pounds of fish off the Oregon coast," says Cleary. "Now we don't even drive our own truck to the coast. Oregon is in trouble," he says. Randolph and Martin concur. Many fisheries are in trouble all along the Pacific coast.

What can be fished in Alaska or California, differs from how, or if, that species can be fished in Washington or Oregon. In the US, limits vary from state to state. The setting of quotas and limits, and the closing of certain fisheries are hotly debated everywhere, partly because of the bounds of knowledge at every level.

At the Pike Street Fish Company market in Seattle, crowds of tourists ogle the huge whole salmon and jaws of monkfish. Fishmongers shout and toss their wares more as street theater than actual seafood commerce. There are whole live squid, live manila clams, Penn Cove mussels, golden mantle oysters, live kumomoto and Quilcene yearling oysters; fresh tilapia, Alaska spot prawns, fresh true cod, Chilean sea bass, fresh yellow fin ahi tuna, fresh rainbow and golden trout, pan ready catfish, and fresh buffalo fish. Signs announce fresh yellow-eye rockfish from Alaska, fresh Atlantic salmon, petrale sole and snapper fillets, Copper river king salmon, fresh troll caught hook and line king salmon, king crab, Alaska Dungeness crab, fresh blue marlin and swordfish, tubes and tentacles, fresh sea and bay scallops, and fresh soft shell crabs.

Penn Cove is in Puget Sound, the trout, buffalo fish and catfish farmed in Idaho. Sole is the flatfish also referred to as flounder. Hake is also called whiting. Dog salmon is now sold as chum or keta. Pacific snapper is rockfish, which can be any number of different kinds of fish, some species of which are dwindling in numbers.

At the Newport boat basin, a plastic barrel of fish is lifted onto a small scale. It weighs 145.3 pounds. "Rockfish," says the fisherman. "Greenies, brownies, blacks and yellow-eyes. Snapper," he says.

The Wild Salmon market posts a guide to wild fish of the northwest Pacific. The "catch of the day" is Copper River king or Chinook salmon, troll caught Washington king, Copper River sockeye, chum or keta from Prince William Sound, local rockfish, southeast Alaskan halibut and fresh ling cod, both long-line caught.

Speltz and partner Paula Cassidy offer recipes on fliers. Martin travels around the county doing cooking demonstrations. "People have to overcome their concerns about cooking seafood," says Speltz. Education, I am told again is key. "The more people you have interested in the resource, the better it will be for the resource," says Reinholdt.

In Newport commercial fishing vessels named Limit Stalker, Eat Me, Predator, Grumpy and Last Straw are in port. The owner of the Lisa Melinda is awaiting the next day's opening of the Pacific whiting season. The partner of a tuna fisher now 1,200 miles out at sea, works on her boat. At a nearby fish market two middle-aged men tell the saleswoman they want "fillet." "What kind of fish?" she asks, "you want Dover sole, petrale, snapper?" "Fillet," they say, "fillet."

Paul Koberstein