Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims
A little more than a year ago while writing about American shad, I took a stab at identifying aquatic species fitting the description heritage seafood. In addition to shad (please recall. George Washington was a shad fisherman), I suggested San Francisco's native Olympia oyster meets the description. The reefnet salmon fishery off Washington's Lummi Island qualifies as heritage seafood - not so much the fish as the fishery and its centuries old way of harvesting. CleanFish offers Shooting Point oysters, grown in Virginia by Tom Gallivan. At the top of their website is the phrase "Hand Crafted Heirloom Oysters." My colleague, Aaron Henry, has offered up striped bass and American sturgeon as examples of heritage seafood. And what would all of those Friday night fish frys in the Great Lakes look like without yellow perch. Certainly a rich heritage there.
I buy heirloom vegetables, particularly heirloom tomatoes. I'm intrigued by the quirky shapes and different colors. I'll buy heritage pork. It's definitely tasty stuff. So, what exactly are heritage foods? With the development of industrial aqriculture, particuly after WWII, with livestock we came to focus on only a few breeds thar provided maximum production of meat or milk. Traditional breeds can become at risk for dying out. Heritage foods come from livestock and crops that are rare or endangered. Historically these animals provided much of the food in America - and across the world. If we lose them we lose a part of our heritage, our culture and ourselves.
One issue with farmed salmon is concern over reducing the gene pool if farmed salmon escape and breed with wild fish. In that regard, Loch Duart salmon deserves consideration as heritage seafood. While other farms in Scotland sourced eggs from Norway and Iceland, Loch Duart took a different approach. Loch Duart's original broodstock were sourced from multiple rivers in Scotland, including the Spey, the Laxford, the Thurso and the North Esk. A recent study comparing 70 genetic markers called SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphism) of wild Scottish salmon established there are no discernible differences between Loch Duart and wild Scottish salmon. The study was conducted by Rivers and Fisheries Trusts of Scotland (RAFTS), the Marine Freshwater Laboratory and the Fisheries Management and Ecology Group of Scotland.
In 1949 a research vessel discovered calicos (Argopecten gibbus) off the coast of North Carolina. In 1958 a small fishery sprang up in the Gulf along the eastern Florida Panhandle from Apalachicola to Mobile, but it declined in only one year. The North Carolina calico fishery began in 1959, with calicos being shucked by hand. By the 60's the fishery had expanded south into Florida. Some beds of calicos between St. Augustine and Ft. Pierce was as much as twenty miles wide. Beginning in 1980, when automatic steam shucking production was improved, production quickly escalated The fishery was centered around Port Canaveral where boats could go out for as little as twelve hours and return loaded with calicos. The proximity of the beds to the processing plants was critical in minimizing mortality and maintaining the quality. It was normal for as many as 80 boats to target calicos. At the peak of the fishery 25 docks from North Carolina to Florida off-loaded calicos, and as many as 200 boats were active in the fishery. By 1984 productiion peaked at 40+ MM lbs of scallops were harvested. The fishery declined sharply after that. Many boats began targeting rock shrimp. In 1981 and again in 1986 the SFMAC - South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council- rejected plans to manage the fishery. In 1993, the Gulf fishery declined even further. By 1996, there were no reported landings of calicos.
Although overfishing contributed heavily to the decline in calicos. Disease was even a larger factor. In December, 1988, scallopers began finding many dead and dying scallops. By the end of January 1989, in less than two months,neither the commercial boats or research vessels could find any scallops. The calicos did come back in 1990. But loss due to mass mortality continued. By the end February 1991 harvesting of calicos was suspended again. The culprit was a species of protozoan parasite known as an Ascetosporan.
By 1996 there were no reported landings of calicos. In 1999 federal authorities rejected a plan to manage the fishery. For all intents and purposes, calico scallops were gone. That was 17 years ago.
Today the landscape has changed. Or, perhaps I should say the seascape. Calicos have come back. But, most of those 25 docks that received them are gone. Real estate values saw many of them turned into marinas and condos. What few plants are left are no longer prepared to process calicos.They sold off the equipment years ago.
The lifespan of a calico scallop is two years. They begin spawning after only four months. Having been left alone for more than eight generations, calicos are coming back. A government research vessel recently discovered a large swath of calico beds about thirty miles south of Charlestion, SC. There is one processor in Georgia who has maintined his equipment these seventeen years. We won't see 200 boats harvesting calicos again. We won't see 80 boats. There are only three boats working the beds.The plant's maximum capacity is five boats. The probability for overfishing is gone.
CleanFish is proud to offer fresh, dry-pack, chemical free, domestic calico scallops again. Who knows? They might have the possibility of one day being regarded as a part of America's seafood heritage.
Now available from CleanFish: Fresh Laughing Bird Calico Scallops. Available now.