Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Future of Fresh Fish

Several weeks ago, Scott and I met with Rick Goche, a local fisherman with a family business centered in Coquille, Oregon, near Coos Bay. He has fished albacore and salmon for over twenty years. Since the salmon fishing has become increasingly restricted in Oregon and California in recent years, he is very concerned about maintaining quality with the albacore catch. We were very pleased last year when Provvista Specialty Foods started carrying Rick's albacore loins quick-frozen in vacuum bags. Why would we be excited about frozen fish, you might wonder? Let me explain.

Ever since I moved to Portland in 2002, I have been confounded by the seafood supply here. I was dazzled by our abundance of remarkable farm produce, orchards, vineyards and ranchers raising everything from rabbits and lamb, to beef cattle and buffalo. Yet here, a mere eighty miles from the Pacific Ocean, there was a bleak supply of fresh seafood. Year round, we all see the same limited supply of salmon, halibut and Yellowfin tuna. Yet these are not fished year round, and rarely from local waters, unless Alaska and Hawaii are to be included in our locale. Most people, especially sushi lovers, don't realize that they have been purchasing previously frozen fish for years.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In the world's largest fish market, where a single Yellowfin tuna can average over $30,000 (a new record set in January was $396,000 for an enormous Bluefin tuna), the frozen-at-sea trade is by far the largest and most consistent was to maintain quality. When a single fish can fetch that much money, you'd better believe they are going to protect their investment. Despite our romatic notions of a fish that has just been pulled from the ocean waters, pristine red gills and deep clear eyes, what more often happens is that it takes a day or two before that "fresh fish" even makes it to the market in Portland. But why? It's not just the ninety minute drive from the coast!

In today's world, seafood can only be considered in the global market. Unfortunately, what this means is that if the currency exchange is better in Asia, they will likely buy most of our Dungeness Crab, or if the demand for salmon and king crab is greater in Japan than it is in America, they will buy most of Alaska'a catch, as they have for decades. Portland is not a big city, and it is not a coastal city. It is much easier to deliver large quantities of seafood to San Francisco or Seattle or Vancouver, and that is often what happens.

This problem is compounded by the ignorance of the consumer. If you go to the fish counter of Whole Foods or New Seasons, you will find far more seafood from the Atlantic than the Pacific Ocean, if they even bother to label its source. For all of these reasons, the question you should ask when buying "fresh fish" should be how well has it been handled in its fresh and highly perishable, highly vulnerable state. Is it better than that of seafood that has been frozen at the peak of its freshness, and delivered with no further handling damage to its final destination?

Back to our meeting with Rick. Rick is working with Provvista to be proactive about seafood. They are gathering quotes from restaurants to determine how much albacore they might buy this summer. Most of Rick's albacore is canned by his company, Sacred Sea. This is a high quality product, but we'd like to get more fish in the raw. Whether we can get it fresh or frozen, we are trying to find a way to keep the quality high, even when the supply is low. I have a feeling that the marketing stigma of frozen fish is going to change in the next few years, and where seafood is concerned, the handling of the product from the ocean to the kitchen will have to be better understood by the consumers.

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