Gone Fishing... When Fish Taste Better With A Name To Sell.
By Brad Nelson
Saturday, 8th August 2009
There is something about fishing towns, maybe it's the idyllic scenes of the foggy docks, pleasure and commercial boats moored alongside one another, or the alluring smell of the sea.

Whether it be Gloucester or Bangor, Steveston or Westport, I always feel at home in these small villages.

With that in mind, I worked in a quick salmon charter out of the port of Ilwaco, Washington while in Seattle last week. It had been many years since I have fished there, having done so many times as a kid vacationing in Long Beach, Washington. Ilwaco is positioned at the mouth of the Columbia River and the fishing grounds are out a few miles out in the Pacific, around Buoy 10.

Traversing the treacherous space where the two great bodies of water meet, the "Bar" as it's called, is as much fun as the fishing itself, if you don't mind swells of 4-9 feet. This trip was as expected, with swells topping around 9 feet, perfectly suited for the 43 foot charter boat Comanche that I and my 5 new fishing partners were on. Once there and trolling, it took only a few minutes until the first hooked fish, a small keeper.

Our deckhand checked each fish to insure they were not "native", which are not legal to catch. You can tell the difference as hatchery fish have their andipose fin, the small find between the dorsal and tail clipped. It's a keeper without the fin; back they go with the fin. I hooked two natives and three keepers, small but respectable Silvers by 2009 standards at around 8 pounds. All told, our boat caught the limit of two per person in just over 2 hours. No big clunkers, though I did give my third fish to a fishing mate who had only caught one.

As we were steaming back to port, I recalled how much larger the fish were 30 years earlier. Maybe they just seemed bigger because I was a kid, but I remember well the big 25 pound native Kings regularly caught in this area back in the 70's. Not anymore though, a fish that size is a rare catch indeed.

Fishery management has always stressed the importance of regulated resources, but often it is nearly too late. A study just released in the journal Science, states that targeted fishing of species once considered bycatch, trash fish thought to be unmarketable, has led to 63% of these species being at unsustainable levels.

David Farenthold's well written article in The Washington Post also points a defining finger at seafood marketing, and the impact of simply changing a name. Remember the power fish of the 80's? What if that fish was called by its original name, the Slimehead, instead of Orange Roughy? It probably would not have been on many menus. Does Goosefish sound like something tasty? For some reason, Monkfish sells better than Goosefish. If you are a Monkfish though, you would rather be called by your original name.

Anytime there is a discussion about overfishing, the story of the Patagonian Toothfish is immediately cited. This slow growing, deep water fish of the Antarctic has been nearly wiped out, after being improperly renamed "Chilean Sea Bass" by creative fish mongers in order to market this unknown species. Neither a sea bass nor Chilean, this great tasting white fish has been the darling of many menus because it is simply impossible to overcook, stays moist, and is so mild it barely tastes like fish. Fish that never dries out and can carry any flavor is a winner, and quickly showed up on every foodie's hot list of the 90's.

But a species that takes 17 years to grow to a market size will never be able to keep up with a hungry public, and within just a few years there were cries of panic as the resource was nearly decimated. Let's just hope the environmental efforts under way to manage this resource work, and we can all enjoy the Patagonian Toothfish for years to come. In the meantime though, let's give the species a break and use better managed species like Black Bass, Alaskan Halibut, or Mahi-Mahi.

There are some great guides for sustainable shopping, most notably the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch List of species to avoid or enjoy.

As the world turns to healthier seafood, managing these fragile systems will largely be influenced by chefs and their menus. More and more is known about what it takes to sustain our intricate ecological systems, yet the challenge we all face is finding the balance of providing appealing food in sustainable ways. Seafood is not the only precarious resource, but the world's oceans must be cared for. One way to do it is to encourage chefs to menu sustainably and conscientiously species that can be supported, giving the overfished a chance to bounce back.

What's on YOUR Plate today? On mine, it is a small but well managed salmon, caught 3 miles offshore of Ilwaco, Washington.

Brad Nelson is the vice president culinary and corporate chef of Marriott International, he has worked to build an international culinary team that continues to raise the bar in dining. He takes his respect for nature's simple, clean flavors and instill it into the philosophy of the numerous kitchens he oversees.

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