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Blog Archive for March 2011

Mar 21

Much Ado About Tuna

By Mike Mitchell

Tuna sandwich, tuna melt, tuna casserole, tuna and corn chowder, tuna dip, tuna and white bean salad, tuna pasta. If you’re like most ordinary consumers, chances are you have at least one can of tuna in your pantry, ready to be transformed into a quick meal such as these. But have you taken a close look at the can? If so, you’d notice the ubiquitous “dolphin-safe” label prominently featured on 98% of canned tuna sold in the United States. Even your cat is Flipper’s friend, as numerous cat foods also market themselves as dolphin-safe. Cute, intelligent, and playful, everyone loves dolphins so this is a good thing right? Well, what does dolphin-safe tuna even mean?

Fad Photo   tuna FAD illustration

Purse seining, the primary method of catching tuna for canning, involves using nets a mile long and 800 feet deep. When fishermen locate a school of tuna, they release skiffs that encircle the school and then “purse” or draw the bottom of the net together, hauling the frantic fish onto the boat in a Gulliver-sized knapsack. Locating the schools is undoubtedly the most challenging aspect of tuna fishing. In the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean, fishermen discovered some 60 years ago that adult yellowfin tuna tend to travel below pods of dolphins. Scientists are still unsure why this phenomenon occurs, but this behavior has only been documented in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Because dolphins need to resurface for air, pods of dolphins make for exceptional “tuna beacons” and fishermen began tracking herds of dolphins in the 1950s in search for their valuable travel buddies. Once dolphins are sighted, fishermen chase the herd and then encircle them with their stadium-sized nets. The nets are then pursed and hauled into the boat, tuna and dolphins alike. An estimated 6 million dolphins have been killed by this fishing method over the past 50 years, the largest marine mammal kill in history. By comparison, the total number of all whales killed during commercial whaling in the 20th century was around 2 million. 

In 1986 the Earth Island Institute set to end this slaughter through the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP). Through a series of consumer boycotts and PR campaigns, the Earth Island Institute eventually pressured the tuna industry to adopt “dolphin-safe” practices. In 1990, StarKist, Bumble Bee, and Chicken of the Sea, the largest tuna companies in the world, voluntarily agreed to only sell dolphin-safe tuna. To be considered dolphin-safe, fishermen cannot chase, encircle or net dolphins and ships greater than 400 tons must have an observer onboard at all times. By the mid 1990s, the dolphin-safe fever had caught on, and today canned tuna in the world’s largest tuna markets - U.S., Europe, Canada and Australia - is almost exclusively dolphin-safe. At first glance, these dolphin-safe standards seem to be quite successful – since their inception, dolphin deaths in the Eastern Pacific have fallen from 130,000 per year to around 1,000. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t a fairy tale ending to the dolphin-safe story. Instead, it appears that the conservation efforts opened an entirely different can of worms (and tuna). Without their chosen method of fishing, fishermen in the Eastern Tropical Pacific began to exploit another inexplicable behavior of tuna and other pelagic fish – open-ocean animals tend to aggregate around any floating solid object. These floating objects are so effective at aggregating tuna that fishermen create their own floating objects, coined fish aggregating devices (FADs). Often crude constructions of no more than a wood frame with tentacles of mesh dangling below, FADs can aggregate up to 250 tons of fish beneath them. Using this method, fishermen deploy their sonar and GPS-equipped contraptions at sea and monitor the incoming data for location and volume of fish underneath. Once the FAD aggregates sufficient fish, fishermen move in with their nets, indiscriminately capturing any creature swimming beneath their rudimentary open-ocean resort. As a result, setting on FADs creates catastrophic by-catch, including endangered sharks and turtles, juvenile tuna and other predatory fish like mahi-mahi – but no dolphins. In fact, for every dolphin saved, the Environmental Justice Foundation calculated that close to 26,000 juvenile tuna, 27 sharks and rays, and hundreds of other fish are killed and often discarded as by-catch. As outlined in Charles Clover’s The End of the Line , “They’re catching fish that haven’t had time to reproduce. From a disaster for dolphins, we have progressed to a whole ecosystem disaster.” 

But the deeper we go into the dolphin-safe matter, the fishier it becomes. Ever wonder why most canned tuna doesn’t name the species of tuna involved and instead uses ambiguous phrases like “light” tuna? Most tuna caught with FADs are skipjack tuna, small tuna with incredibly high reproductive rates and are generally not considered exploited, at times even referred to as the cockroaches of the sea. However, the less fecund yellowfin and the threatened bigeye (especially juveniles) are also found beneath these devices, and as a result often find their way into a can of light tuna. And you thought you could only satisfy your bigeye cravings at trendy sushi restaurants. 

Moreover, the extensive dolphin-safe greenwashing sends consumers a mixed message. Approximately 90% of tuna caught annually is already dolphin-safe, because the tuna-dolphin relationship only occurs in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. So tuna from the Indian Ocean, for example, is labeled as dolphin-safe, giving consumers the warm fuzzy feeling that they’re saving Flipper. However, the reality is that dolphin by-catch has never been an issue in the Indian Ocean and instead the dolphin-safe label diverts attention from the valid concerns surrounding fishing methods like setting on FADs. 

So should you stop eating tuna sandwiches? Many scientists argue that shutting down the industry would only move it elsewhere, and instead the more effective agent is your pockets. Spurring change by supporting sustainably-sourced tuna proves a bit idealistic however. Pole-and-line fishing, the least-bad method, has negligible by-catch but this method is prohibitively expensive and cannot supplant more scalable methods like purse seining. Some in the industry now profess “dolphin-safe” dolphin fishing methods, whereby fishermen surround herds of dolphins but then “back down” on the nets before hauling them in, creating a funnel for the dolphins to escape. This method has proven effective in minimizing dolphin collateral damage, but the process still unsettles many environmentalists because of the stress-related risks involved to the dolphins. 

Perhaps market forces have rung true that “in time the savage bull doth bear the yoke”, evidenced by Princes’s recent news that it will only purchase its tuna from sustainable sources. Princes, the largest canned tuna supplier in the UK, succumbed to advocacy campaigns and announced that by 2014 it will source tuna exclusively from pole-and-line fisheries and fleets that do not use FADs. This means that over half of the tuna sold in the world’s second largest canned tuna market will now be sustainably sourced, marking a significant step in the right direction for the tuna industry. Who knows, maybe tuna-safe tuna labels will even start popping up.

Dolphin-safe cat food: http://www.tallahasseepetstore.com/index.php/products?page=shop.product_details&flypage=flypage_new.tpl&product_id=129&category_id=5&manufacturer_id=27

Mar 19

The Sounds of Silence

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

Simon Garfunkel

Did you hear the sounds of silence this morning? Strange as it might seem, over the years, one of the small pleasures I've enjoyed as a fishmonger is getting out of bed in the early hours of the morning. It's still dark outside. The city is asleep and the din and is minimal. For me, this is often the only real quiet time I have each day. I cherish these moments as a time for thought and reflection — about myself, my family, CleanFish and of course, all the goings on of the world around me. This Friday morning I will have taken particular note of the sounds silence. Fifty-four years ago, on the morning of March 10, 1957, a once loud roaring noise that could be heard every minute of every day disappeared from this world. This was the sound of the Columbia River as the water surged over Celilo Falls in Oregon. The Columbia River Indian people knew Celilo Falls as Wy-am, which some say means "echo of falling water."

Celilo Falls is just east of the Cascade Mountains at the top end of what becomes the Columbia River Gorge, roughly 193 miles from Astoria and the mouth of the Columbia. For upwards of 15,000 years Celilo Falls was the major trading center for people living in the western part of North America. Great Plains Indians, Inuit from Alaska and Indians from what makes up the southwestern United States all gathered here to trade. Salmon was the core of all this activity. It is estimated that 15-20 million salmon swam past Celilo Falls every year. When the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through the area in 1805, they found "a great emporium . . . where all the neighboring nations assemble." It's estimated that as many as 5,000 people would gather at Celilo Falls to fish and trade. The 2000 Census registers a Native American population of 44 in the community of Celilo Village. On this day, each and every one of these men, women and children will take particular note of the sounds of silence. Fifty-four years ago when the massive steel and concrete gates of the Dalles Dam closed and choked back the waters of the Columbia, it took only six hours to submerge what was until then the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting we remove the Dalles Dam. It remains a key producer of hydroelectric power. At the same time however, I do support breaching the Ice Harbor, Lower Monument, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams on the lower part of the Snake River. Removing dams is not a foreign concept. Once a dam passes the 50 year mark it begins to degenerate: concrete walls degrade, earthworks erode and seep, spillway gates rust and lose tensile strength, and sediment clogs reservoirs. Between 2000 and 2006 alone, upwards of 200 dams have been torn down across America. On March 2, the conservation organization American Rivers reported a total of 16 dams were removed last year in the New England states and New York. Massachusetts led the group with the removal of five dams. Two dams on the Elwha River in Washington are scheduled to be torn down.

Congressman Doc Hastings, R-WA and Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has vowed to do everything in his power to block removal of the 4 dams on the lower Snake River. Together, these dams provide less than 5% of the region's total hydropower supply. They provide no flood control benefits. Only Ice Harbor provides any water for agricultural irrigation (for only 36,000 acres), which could be replaced with modern pumps for a fraction of the cost. The only real benefit is a significant stretch of navigable water from Lewiston, ID. Instead of barging grain and trucking salmon smolt around the dams, let's leave the salmon in the water and put the grain on a train.

Wake up Doc! Columbia and Snake River salmon need our help. We need to be stewards of the bounty offered by Mother Nature, not feckless exploiters. "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls." Shh, quiet now, listen closely, do you hear it . . . the sounds of silence?

Mar 18

Friday Fish Review, No. 5

An unscientific, and often whimsical, collection of our favorite fishy finds of the week

Salmon Butter2

Mar 11

Friday Fish Review, No. 4

An unscientific, and often whimsical, collection of our favorite fishy finds of the week

Paiche 949774 Schiaffino

Mar 09

Talking Fish with our Poissonnier Karim Machi

By Mike Mitchell

Meet Karim Machi, CleanFish’s resident fishmonger and fish evangelist. Originally from France, Karim often dons a beret around the CleanFish office in stereotypical French charm. His road to sustainable fish was atypical however.

Karim With Cod Guitar

Karim majored in data processing in Paris before working for his brother-in-law’s fur shop. Here he developed his deft hands making high-end fur garments for designers like Christian Dior and Yves St. Laurent for 10 years before he met his wife, a San Francisco native, in Paris. She brought him across the pond to live in San Francisco shortly thereafter. Says Karim, “San Francisco has the essentials: great scenery and superb bread, so I was OK with the move.”

Soon after moving Karim connected with a couple friends of his wife that led to a fishmonger position at Yum Yum Fish in the Sunset district. Without any formal training, Karim trudged through the long hours and grueling, smelly work, learning from experience along the way. Thousands of fish and 18 years later, Karim is now one of the most skilled poissonniers in the business. For cleaning and preparing fish, he recommends having a chef knife and a classic fillet knife in your arsenal. Like a true artist he says, “the more you use them the more the blade is merely a promulgation of your hand.” And to become a skilled fishmonger yourself? Karim recommends practicing on whole chickens rather than the more pricey fish. Chickens provide great experience navigating your blade along bones and around joints, simplifying the transition to preparing your own fish. Karim provides a helpful demo on how to fillet a fish.

Growing up in France, Karim often ate the classic French meal of herring and warm potato salad. Originally a product of Napoleon’s retreating army, herring and warm potato salad has become a French bistro staple today. Upon arriving in the U.S. however, Karim discovered that his favorite dish was unavailable at most French bistros. Furthermore, the herring sold in the United States was often too salty or over smoked in order to increase the shelf life of the fish. Like a true Frenchman, sacrificing flavor merely for better profits is a culinary sin in Karim’s mind. When Karim began working for CleanFish a couple of years ago, he was pleased to discover J.C. David Smoked herring, now brought to North America by CleanFish, largely through Karim’s efforts. J.C. David is one of the last French smokehouses to smoke fish using only traditional methods. Located in Boulogne-sur-Mer, the center of French fishing, J.C. David brines the herring for a minimum of 21 days before delicately smoking the fish in wood-burning ovens. Apart from herring and warm potato salad, what’s Karim’s favorite herring fix? Karim’s culinary invention, the MS Sea Dog, consists of a fillet of J.C. David smoked herring (that is MSC-certified) in a hot dog bun with mayonnaise and sliced onions marinated in herring oil.

Karim’s role at CleanFish meshes his adroit fish mongering with his passion for high-quality, sustainable seafood. In the mornings Karim often has his hands full of fish, preparing the day’s samples. He spends much of his other time contacting chefs and discussing sustainable alternatives to seafood menu items. For example, if a restaurant has generic, conventional salmon on the menu, Karim might recommend switching to the better-tasting, sustainable Loch Duart salmon. The crucial point, however, is that Karim will first check if the restaurant’s distributor already sells the sustainable alternatives, and if not, will recommend that the distributor begin selling the substitutes. This highlights CleanFish’s unique simultaneous top-down and bottom-up strategy.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle according to Karim is the general public’s lack of understanding of the quality-price tradeoff regarding seafood. Many foodies will pore over minute details for their imported olive oils or gourmet salts and eat free-range, sustainably raised chicken only. However, seafood is often commoditized and consumers are unwilling to pay more for better quality seafood. Karim’s changing this outlook, one seafood-lover at a time, and we’re glad to have such an evangelist here at CleanFish.

Mar 04

Friday Fish Review, No. 3

An unscientific, and often whimsical, collection of our favorite fishy finds of the week

Muy Fuerte Tongue

Mar 04

Our Founding Salmon

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

Profit Fishing

In the wild, Atlantic salmon ranged in North America from Connecticut and Long Island Sound north to Lake Ontario and Ungava Bay just below Baffin Island. Although it is very close to the open Atlantic, Ungava Bay is generally considered part of the Arctic Ocean because of the cold climate. Like the Bay of Fundy a little further south, Ungava Bay has some of the highest, or second highest, tidal ranges in the world, reaching as high as 56 feet in some spots during the spring. Along the coast of Europe, Atlantic salmon ranges from Russia's White Sea south to Portugal. Traveling to ocean feeding grounds, salmon from both sides of the Atlantic congregated in the waters off the coast of southwestern Greenland.

Benjamin Franklin described Atlantic salmon as "bits of silver pulled from the water." This certainly describes our Pacific salmon too. When European settlers began migrating to North America, they quickly took note of the abundance of salmon. In fact, five of the seven settlements in New England were located on salmon streams. By 1685, the population of New England had grown to more than 50,000 people and disputes over access to fishing locations is recorded in boundary disputes over property. Salmon were so plentiful, they were used for more than just food. Just like menhaden, herring and shad, salmon were used as fertilizer. Up until the early 1700s there wasn't much commercial activity with salmon. Most families salted casks of salmon for their own use. Commercially, salmon could barely garner even $0.01 per pound. As the colonies prospered, an explosive growth in small dams to power mills began to block salmon from their spawning grounds. As well, the impact of the change in land use in the New World contributed to a decline in salmon stocks. And, of course, as the stocks declined, the demand increased along with the value.

In 1709, the first of a long series of acts to protect salmon and other river fish was passed by the colonial legislature. It banned the construction of new milldams and other obstructions to fish passage. But the law exempted existing milldams, starting an ongoing pattern of ignoring existing impacts. Typically, when a new law was passed, rather than require dismantling of illegally constructed impoundments, they were simply grandfathered in.

As salmon fishing in New England declined, Yankee fishermen went north. Attempts by the British Crown to regulate Yankee fishermen contributed to the rising antagonism toward the British and fanned the flames for independence. In 1775, the British Parliament forbid New Englanders from fishing loyalist waters in the north. By the time the colonies erupted in revolution, the North America salmon fishery was catching up to a million fish a year. The British Navy ruled the sea. The British blockade during the war prevented external trade and disrupted ocean fishing. So, the pressure on river-based salmon fishing increased. Salmon were needed to feed not just the colonists, but also the Continental Army. In 1778, the Continental Congress signed a contract for 10,000 barrels of salmon and shad to feed the army. Smoked salmon was shipped from Maine to feed the troops. Salmon from Lake Champlain supplied the troops at Ticonderoga. In 1776, Benedict Arnold was still a general in the Continental Army. He was in a boat patrolling Lake Champlain and came upon a fisherman, William Gilliland, who presented Arnold with 75 salmon in return for having the ship's carpenter help him repair his traps. That same year, Gilliland alone provided the troops with 1,500 salmon.

As peace was being negotiated between the British and the Colonists, John Adams (first U.S. Vice-President & second President) told his British negotiating counterparts that peace was not possible without a guarantee of American access to the fisheries of Newfoundland. The British needed to give U.S. citizens the rights to fish in “bays and creeks of all . . . of His Britannic Majesty's dominions in America.” Fishing and salmon was becoming big business. Salmon exports from the remaining colonies reached more than 4 million pounds by 1814.

An invaluable source has been David Montgomery's book: THE KING OF FISH: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon. I recommend it for further reading. 

Mar 01

What does “Color-Added” really mean in Farmed Salmon?

By Mike Mitchell

We’ve all heard that farmed salmon is “dyed” and without the dye, farmed salmon would be an off-white color, not the vibrant reddish orange of most salmon. But what’s the real story behind this?


Astaxanthin is the cartenoid responsible for salmon’s reddish hue. This fat-soluble pigment is only manufactured by plants and algae and works its way into salmon through diet, including krill and shrimp. Astaxanthin is also responsible for the pigmentation of crustaceans like crabs and lobsters and even flamingos! In fact, without a steady supply of astaxanthin through their diets, wild Pacific salmon are also off-white instead of red-orange. The ivory king salmon and marbled salmon are actually wild salmon with genetic defects that prevent their bodies from affixing astaxanthin. About 1 in 100 wild king salmon are ivory, with their own distinct flavor and texture. Ivory salmon have a silkier, buttery flavor and often command higher prices than typical salmon.

In addition to the red-orange pigmentation, astaxanthin provides vital health benefits to salmon. Astaxanthin has 100-500 times the anti-oxidant capacity of vitamin E and prevents peroxidation or degradation of fat cells, which is crucial in protecting cold-water species like salmon. Astaxanthin also helps with fertilization, cellular respiration and immune system functions.

Because of its strong antioxidant properties, astaxanthin is commonly used as a nutritional supplement for humans. The irony is that astaxanthin capsules are sold at many of the same stores that frown upon farmed salmon specifically because of its color-added stipulation! At a recent visit to a San Francisco high-end food store, the fishmonger told me he only sells wild salmon because no one was buying the color-added farmed salmon. Additionally, he didn’t even know how color was actually added to the salmon. However, at the same store, multiple varieties of astaxanthin supplements were being sold. For humans, astaxanthin provides potent anti-inflammatory benefits and is crucial for people with cardiovascular diseases, cancer and arthritis. Astaxanthin has even been proven to prevent the formation of cataracts. In fact, on a recent Dr. Oz episode, astaxanthin was touted as “The Number 1 supplement you’ve never heard of that you should be taking.”

Since farmed salmon are not fed steady diets of krill and shrimp, synthetic astaxanthin is added to their feed. Synthetic astaxanthin was created in the 1950s as a substitute for harvesting vast amounts of wild krill. At the time, the inventors applied for FDA approval as a color additive instead of a nutritional supplement which today has created the controversial “color-added” topic, although farmed salmon need astaxanthin to be healthy. This issue has been the go-to complaint for opponents of farmed salmon, although the “dyes” that opponents refer to are the same substances found in wild salmon.

Today scientists are working on natural alternatives to synthetic astaxanthin. Phaffia yeast has been proven to be a reliable source of astaxanthin, but is prohibitively costly. Additionally, astaxanthin can be manufactured from shrimp processing waste. Though an innovative use of waste products, the yield is quite low – 12,000 lbs of shrimp shells yields only 6-8 gallons of astaxanthin oil. A recent development, Panaferd, is quickly becoming the most viable alternative to synthetic astaxanthin. Made from soil-dwelling bacteria that naturally contain astaxanthin, Panaferd is now being used at Loch Duart farms. Says managing director Nick Joy: “We believe that this is the closest thing that we can find to what a salmon would naturally encounter in the wild, and we herald this as an important step forward.”

So next time you hear someone disparaging farmed salmon as dyed, remember that color-added should really be “health-supplement added.” Astaxanthin is added to salmon feed to replicate the krill that wild salmon eat, not specifically to add color to the fish. Salmon need astaxanthin to be healthy, and so do you. 





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