We Speak Fish Blog Image
Mar 02

Shad, Heirlooms, and Heritage

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims


During the colonial period, most boats used in North Carolina came from other places. After the Civil War, demand for fish boomed. Fishermen could sell everything they could catch. By the late 1860's, Tar Heel craftsmen were churning out workboats. Between 1865 and 1930 they built more than 1,000 sloops and schooners. The Outer Banks has numerous shallow water sounds and inlets. Shipbuilding was for the shipyards at deepwater ports in other states. North Carolina craftsmen built small boats for their own use. Fishermen needed boats that could carry bigger loads without sitting deeper in the water.

In the 1870's, Roanoke Island boat builder George Washington Creef developed a new boat. It had a round bottom, a wide center to hold large catches and a tapered bow for smooth sailing. Its design helped fishermen maneuver around the nets they used each spring to catch migrating shad. It quickly became known as the Shad Boat. In 1987, the Shad Boat was declared the official State Historical Boat of North Carolina.In 2003, Connecticut designated American Shad (Alosa sapidissma) as the official state fish, in part because "it has great historical significance in that it provided food for Native Americans and colonists."

Growing up in Florida, I never thought about shad. In fact I never even heard of shad. It was grouper, snapper, pompano and other saltwater fish. At one time the Orlando Sentinel used to sponsor shad derbies. A popular spot along the St. John's River near Lake Monroe is called Shad Alley. At one time Florida had a thriving commercial shad fishery. The 1995 ban on gillnets pretty much eliminated the commercial freshwater fishery. The saltwater directed fishery was closed in 2005. The peak period was more than 100 years ago, 1888-1908, with the peak year being 1908. That year Florida recorded shad landings of 2,833,000 individual fish. Most were shipped to the Fulton Market in New York.

I suppose it is the simple things in life that bring me joy. I love tomatoes. Several summers, as a kid growing up in that middle America subdivision tract house with its ubiquitous concrete driveway and carport, we had a small backyard garden, just a few steps away from the clothesline. I'd check the tomato vines every day, looking for first sign of tomatoes. I'd watch them grow until they ripened on the vine. Can't pick this one yet—it's still too green. I remember biting into whole tomatoes, full of juice and flavor, just like you'd bite into an apple. After that, those grocery store tomatoes just didn't do anything for me. That changed a few years ago when I discovered farmer's markets and heirloom tomatoes. Gosh! I love heirloom tomatoes. But I wondered… they come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and colors… so, what makes a tomato an heirloom?

As American agriculture has become increasingly characterized by large monoculture factory farm operations, we have lost much of the ownership of foods typically grown by family gardeners and small farmers. An heirloom tomato is generally considered to be a variety that has been passed down through several generations of a family because of its particular valued characteristics. One key characteristic is they are all open-pollinated. Some may even be "mystery heirlooms," varieties that are a product of natural cross-pollination of other heirloom varieties.

Fellow fishmonger Dave Simmons (see one of last week's shad recipes) and I were talking about heirloom tomatoes and heritage foods — Berkshire heritage pork, heritage beef, heritage turkeys. Heritage and heirloom are terms used to describe varieties of animals and crops that have unique genetic traits, were grown or raised many years ago, and are typically produced in a sustainable manner. Dave suggested that perhaps the seafood industry should identify heritage fish and shellfish, adding that perhaps these are species that can benefit from nurturing and respect.

We started with American shad, what the fish writer John McPhee calls The Founding Fish. Dave suggested American sturgeon since the rivers on our Atlantic coast used to be filled with American sturgeon. I've thought of three more. First, the Olympia oyster, the native oyster of the Pacific cost from Alaska to Mexico. It nearly disappeared from San Francisco Bay following overharvest during the California Gold rush. My friend Linda Hunter of the Watershed Project is leading restoration efforts here. They are also ongoing restorations in Puget Sound and Netarts Bay, Oregon. Next, I nominate a salmon — the Elwha River hogs that disappeared after the dams were built. Now that the dams are being removed, maybe, just maybe those big seventy-five pound kings might miraculously return. Lastly, I nominate an active salmon fishery — the Lummi Island reef net fishery. This ancient traditional fishing method is being preserved by the fishermen of Lummi Island.

Now it's your turn. Yes, your turn! Put on your thinking caps. What fish, shellfish, crustacean or fishery do you nominate for status as an heirloom or heritage fish for North America? Come on, you must be able to think of at least one. Email me your nominations: dale@cleanfish.com. Tell me why it deserves recognition as a heritage/heirloom species. Every nomination will be posted on our blog and Facebook page!

Feb 24

Shad and the Civil War

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

Civil War Shad

"When the Lord made shad,
The Devil was mad
For it seemed such a feast of delight
So, to poison the scheme,
He jumped into the stream
And stuck in the bones out of spite."

-- an old fisherman's poem

In his 1901 periodical Seen and Heard, Philadelphia newspaperman Louis Megargee published this shad recipe: "There's only one way to cook a shad. Take her squirming out of the water, run with her to an open fire, clean her quickly, nail her on a thick hickory board, stand her in front of a fire of a fierce blaze and continually baste her with the finest gilt-edge butter until she is golden brown in color. That is the whole story; nothing remains but the eating."

My fishmongering friend Dave Simmons shares another, tongue-in-cheek shad recipe: "Nail the shad to a plank. Cake it with wet mud. Roast it over an open fire. When the mud is fully dry and cracked remove the planked shad from the fire. Knock off all the mud. Throw away the shad and eat the plank!" Dr. Lavett Smith, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City x-rayed a shad. He reported it to have 769 bones. "That's a ballpark figure," he said. "They probably have between 750-800 bones, depending on what you count as bone. The problem with shad is that they have intermuscular bones." According to one Native American legend the shad was originally an unhappy porcupine who asked the Great Spirit Manitou to recreate it in another form. Manitou obliged by turning it inside out and hurling it into the river. New York's Grand Central Oyster Bar began serving shad and shad roe this year on February 9th. It came from Georgia. It's expected to be on the menu through the end of April. The shad fillet entree is $27.97. Shad roe or the combo are both $29.95. All are served with the customary stuffed tomato and crispy bacon.

Last week I mentioned the role of shad in American history as food for the Colonial Army during the American Revolution, and the often-overlooked fact that our Founding Father, George Washington was a fishmongering shad tradesman. American shad also played a somewhat bizarre role in the American Civil War. Better men than me have written about war. Political situations arise where war becomes a necessary evil — World War Two, immediately comes to mind. Suffice to say, in brutal situations men do brutal things. The men in the trenches have an entirely different perspective than the politicians and the generals. My cousin Bogie came close to losing his sanity in the Korean War. He never knew what for. Doesn't matter, anymore. The poet Robert Service gives a soldier's perspective with these lines: "I'll give you back your medals if you give me back my legs." That says it all for me. My great-grandfather Jasper Sims gave his life defending the Confederacy. A soldier in the 15th Alabama Infantry, he died September 17, 1862 at the Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg. He was twenty-five.

Any schoolboy can name the major battles of the Civil War — Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Antietam. What about the Battle of Five Forks? Contrary to popular misconception, the Battle of Five Forks does not refer to a dining room argument over the last piece of fried chicken on the platter. No, this was one of the last battles just before the end of the war. American shad played a pivotal role in the battle and to ending the Civil War. Union forces led by General Philip Sheridan were pushing south and west against the Confederate Army, with the intent of forcing Robert E. Lee out of Petersburg, VA. Confederate General George Pickett was forced to fall back to Five Forks just before dawn on April 1, 1865. There was a lull in the fighting. Confederate General Thomas Rosser had just been given some freshly caught shad. He decided to host a shad bake luncheon, inviting General Pickett as well as Lee's son, and leader of the cavalry General Fitzhugh Lee. The entire confederate high command was secretly at lunch, two miles from the battle lines when the Union forces attacked. They were out of touch until it was too late to do anything but retreat. By the time Pickett got back, over half his troops had been shot or captured. Ultimately, Lee was forced to evacuate both Petersburg and Richmond. Eight days later, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. If the northern victory at Five Forks had taken longer, the southern forces could have melted into the Appalachian Mountains continuing the fight with guerrilla warfare tactics.

There you have it. The true story of how shad and a shad barbeque helped end the Civil War. Makes you wonder if General Pickett had a bone caught in his throat…

Feb 17

As American As Apple Pie

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

American Shad

There's this iconic fish. It's American as apple pie. Born in freshwater, it migrates down river to the sea, spending most of its life in the saltwater. In its lifetime it may travel as much as 12,000 miles. When it's ready to spawn it leaves the ocean, returning to the same river from which it came. The stocks of this fish have declined dramatically. The construction of dams blocked access to many of its historical spawning grounds. Overfishing and pollution from lumber and mining interests contributed to its decline. Untreated sewage and runoff from farms also contributed to this fish declining in population. Native Americans taught settlers from Europe and their progeny how to cook this fish on wood planks over an open fire.

Although this describes a fish that has been called white salmon and poor man's salmon, I'm not writing about that iconic fish. Rather, this fish is Alosa sapidissima, more commonly known as American shad.

American shad range along the Atlantic coast as far south as the St Johns river in Florida, north into Nova Scotia. At one time American shad supported robust commercial fisheries throughout its Atlantic habitat. Most of the coastal states have had to ban the commercial shad fishery. The recreational fishery is strictly catch and release. Today, Georgia and the Carolinas support a small commercial shad fishery. American shad were transferred to the west coast. The largest shad run today in North America is on the Columbia River.

On December 19, 1777, the Continental Army led by General George Washington staggered into Valley Forge, PA, near the banks of the Schuylkill River. They were a motley bunch; hungry, weary and poorly equipped. Many were barefoot, without boots or shoes. Typhoid, typhus, influenza, and dysentery all erupted within the camp. Of the approximately 12,000 brave soldiers, close to 2,000 died that winter in Valley Forge. One story, often told, is that barrels of salted shad helped sustain the army through that winter. That story however, is more fiction than fact. But George Washington, leader of the Continental Army, first signer of the U.S. Constitution, first President of the United States has another title and with it, a connection to American shad, and a connection to you and me. It's not a particularly glorious title. It doesn't garner badges, medals, or invitations to dine with heads of state. In fact, it's not really a title. I stretched that a little to pique your curiosity. George Washington was a fishmonger! That's right. The Father of our country was a fishmonger. Stand tall my fishmongering brethren, we're walking in the footsteps of George Washington.

When he returned home in 1783, after the Revolutionary War, Washington set out to improve his 8,000-acre plantation. Growing tobacco was labor intensive. He branched out into other crops, particularly wheat. But, he spent eight years (1789-1797) concentrating more on his Presidency than on Mount Vernon. In February 1798, he began a systematic review of the businesses and activity at Mount Vernon. In particular he was looking for alternate sources of revenue that were easier to maintain than managing the more than 300 slaves on the plantation. Please note, when he died, according to his will, the slaves were freed. Mt Vernon borders the Potomac River. Washington supplemented the food supply for the plantation by caching shad and herring during the annual spring migration. Shad, salted in barrels were kept year-round and distributed as rations to the slaves. As early as 1772, his Mt Vernon fishery was catching upwards of one million shad and herring combined. What fish weren't kept as rations were sold to local merchants. That year alone, the firm of Robert Adam & Company of Alexandria paid Washington 184 pound sterling for his shad. In 1797, with 165 pound sterling, selling shad was his second largest money maker, returning even more money than his distillery.

So, shad has played an important part in American history. And, as George Washington holds title to Founding Father, John McPhee's book about shad, published in 2002 is aptly titled The Founding Fish. The word sapadissima means delicious, or most savory. One poem exclaims, "When the Lord made shad, The Devil was mad, For it seemed such a feast of delight. So, to poison the scheme, He jumped in the stream, And stuck in the bones out of spite."

Oct 25

Odds and Ends

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

Odds And Ends

"Odds and ends, odds and ends, lost time cannot be found again" -- Bob Dylan

I thought it would make sense to circle back with some updates and commentary on some of the subjects I've addressed in previous columns.

Menhaden: When the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted on August 2nd to publicly release a plan to reduce the menhaden harvest the only "no" vote came from Virginia. The only menhaden processing plant on the Atlantic Coast is Omega Protein's, Reedville, Virginia facility. It is estimated that Omega's fleet accounts for 80% of the menhaden landings. Knowing the way politics work, I am confident that the $55,000 Omega Protein donated to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, the $160,000 they spread among VA state legislators, the $53,000 they handed out to the state's federal congressional representatives and the almost $3MM dollars they spent on lobbyists had no bearing or influence on those public servants! I am not a cynic! Prior to the September 26th ASMFC public hearing in Lewes, Delaware, regarding the menhaden fishery proposal, John Hughes, former Secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources posted a letter on Delaware Online, urging support for options that will lead to a recovery of the menhaden population. He wrote: "The harvest should be curtailed to allow a significant increase in spawning rates-the equivalent of at least 30% of the menhaden's historic reproductive capacity… I urge the public to support the long-term sustainability of this important little fish at the ASMFC public hearing..."

Dams Dams Dams: I've written about the Elwah Dam removal project several times. This is the largest dam removal project in our history. The second largest removal project is also underway. This is also in Washington state. The Portland, OR utility, PacifiCorp, owner of the 98-year old, 125-foot-high Condit Dam on the White Salmon River, decided to decommission the dam rather than pay to install fish ladders. Ultimately, lower Columbia River Chinook will regain access to 14 miles of habitat on the White Salmon and its tributaries, and mid-Columbia River steelhead will regain access to 33 miles of watershed habitat. Further south, on the Klamath River in Northern CA, The U.S. Dept. of the Interior is studying the projected impact of decommissioning four dams spread over 65 miles. These dams are also owned by PacificCorp, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc, owned by Warren Buffet. At one time the Klamath had one of the largest salmon runs on the west coast. This project will reopen more than 400 miles of upstream steelhead habitat. Projections are that commercial Chinook production could increase by as much as a whopping 81% and recreational ocean catch of Chinooks by 41%. Thank you Warren Buffet. Shall we celebrate with a frozen concoction in Margaritaville?

California Water Wars: Federal District Judge Oliver Wanger dismissed the lawsuit brought by the San Joaquin River Group Authority (SJRGA) which sought to shut down our 2011 California salmon season. The season's over now anyway, and was close to over when Judge Wagner handed down his ruling. This was the first salmon season for California in three years. The commercial season was a modest success, with roughly 70,000 fish landed commercially. Zeke Grader, Executive Director of the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) stated it best, "Now it will be the abundance of fish and how much sciencesays is safe to harvest -not litigation brought by water diverters-that will determine whether fishing men and women work." One more frozen concoction, please! Hold the maraschino cherry.

Alaska/Pacific halibut catch shares: NOAA has put any changes in the halibut catch share allocations on hold ... for now. This issue is a thorny hot potato. Our cousins in British Columbia are facing this same issue. In BC, the commercial sector receives 88% of the allocation. The recreational sector 12%. This year, with the reduced TAC, the recreational fishery reached its quota in August. Naturally, the recreational sector is unhappy. They want a bigger pie of the pie. Keep in mind, they are free to purchase additional quota from the commercial sector. This is not any different than what the commercial fishermen have done since the Canadian Individual Vessel Quota (IVQ) was introduced more than a decade ago. Our halibut fishery continues to face challenges. Things will probably get worse before they get better.

But chin up. Because things CAN get better.

Sep 30

Dam Removal: Only Part of the Solution

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims


The Elwha River flows northward from the Olympic Mountains in northwest Washington to the Strait of Juan de Fuca near the town of Port Angeles. The strait separates Washington from British Columbia. And indeed, the Elwha River dams are tumbling down. But, it's not going to happen overnight. This is the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. Elwha dam is 105 ft high. Glines Canyon dam is 210 ft high. Removal has to be a gradual process.There's a three-year timetable for completely removing the dams. If they're removed too quickly there could be a sudden flood not only of water, but also of the sediment that's been accumulating behind the dams for almost 100 years. One U.S. Geological Survey fact sheet reports "approximately 19 million cubic meters of sediment… enough to fill a football field to the height of eleven Empire State Buildings." The Empire State Building is 1453' 8" high. Multiply that by eleven and you've got a mound of muck three miles high. Ultimately, close to 50% of the sediment will get washed down the river. Vegetation will be planted over the rest, leaving it where it is.

Neither dam has fish ladders. Today, with the dams in place, salmon are not able to migrate more than five miles upriver. Once all is said and done, more than 70 miles of pristine spawning and rearing habitat in the Elwha watershed will be reopened. The salmon populations of all five Pacific species as well as steelhead are predicted to swell from 3,000 to nearly 400,000 fish annually. A key benefit to returning salmon is that the Elwha is the largest watershed in Olympic National Park. Once the habitat restoration is complete, it will not be marginalized by urban encroachment. In fact, because the Elwha is in a national park, dam removal will provide the opportunity to study salmon-wildlife interaction. Humans aren't the only species that like to eat salmon. More than 100 species of wildlife are known to eat salmon during one or more stages of the salmon's life cycle. Additionally, nutrients delivered upriver by migrating salmon permeate food webs near salmon-bearing rivers. Scientists view this as an opportunity to study the effects of salmon on wildlife diversity, abundance and distribution patterns.

Thus far, it sounds like we're removing the dams and letting nature take its course. Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. Removing the dams means salmon will once again return to the "usual and accustomed" fishing grounds of the Lower Elwah Kallam tribe. But, as with many things, there is controversy. No one really knows how long it will take runs of truly wild salmon to return to the Elwha watershed. Some estimates are for 40 to 60 years. Keep in mind, salmon have not been able to reach these "usual and accustomed" fishing areas for almost 100 years. The Tribe doesn't want to have to wait another half a century to resume their cultural tradition of fishing. A new $16 million hatchery was finished last year. We know hatchery salmon can have an impact on truly wild salmon. A positive aspect of the new hatchery is that wild fish will be trapped to supply the eggs for the hatchery. This is a good thing. But . . . there is an exception. The hatchery has also stocked Chambers Creek steelhead population. Chambers Creek is near Tacoma. This strain of steelhead is not native to the Elwha. The 2005 Updated Status Review of Threatened and Endangered Species stated that the Chambers Creek Hatchery winter steelhead have adversely affected diversity of wild steelhead populations through genetic introgression (the movement of a gene from one species into the gene pool of another).

Chambers Creek hatchery steelhead is a popular hatchery fish throughout the Pacific Northwest because it grows twice as fast as wild steelhead and returns early. In fact, it's a popular "stocking" fish in many areas of the country. You can go to fishing in Wisconsin for Chambers Creek hatchery steelhead year-round. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources stocks its Lake Michigan tributaries with three different hatchery steelhead: Chambers Creek steelhead, Skamania steelhead (also from Washington) and Ganaraska steelhead from Ontario. Ohhh… the irony of it all! Removing the dams to allow wild salmon to return. Then, potentially jeopardizing wild steelhead with hatchery fish that are known to compromise genetic diversity. The ultimate irony and sadness —there are no more wild Chambers Creek steelhead. They are extinct.

Sep 23

"And the walls came tumblin' down"

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

Klallam People Near Canoe

      Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,
      Jericho, Jericho
      Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,
      And the walls came tumblin' down!

I was thinking about the Elwha River dams the other day when this gospel song, recorded by the likes of Mahalia Jackson and Elvis Presley, popped into my head. This week marks the beginning of the actual physical removal of the two Elwha River dams in Washington. One key hope and goal of this act is to restore the runs of wild salmon. In this instance, indeed, the dams will come tumbling down. Connecting this song to the Elwha dams speaks to much more than simple concrete and mortar — There is a cultural and sociological connection too.

Many of the old spirituals came out of the pre-Civil War South, a time of slavery. These songs often had covert meanings. For example, going to heaven is the obvious meaning of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” But It also carried a coded message for black slaves escaping to the north through what was called the Underground Railroad, a loose network of routes and safe houses:

- The "chariot" is the Underground Railroad.
- "Swing low" refers to entering the slave-holding southern states
- "I looked over Jordan" refers to either the Mississippi or Ohio Rivers
- "Band of Angels" are the men and women who helped runaway slaves in their quest for freedom.
- "Carry me home" = Come take me to freedom" in the northern states or to Canada.

In fact, while there is no direct evidence, some people think this song refers specifically to the town of Ripley, Ohio and the Rankin House that sits high on a hill overlooking the Ohio River. John Rankin was a Presbyterian minister who devoted much of his life to the anti-slavery movement. It is estimated that between 1825 and 1860, Rankin and his wife provided food and shelter to more than 2000 runaway slaves. Today the Rankin House is a National Historic Landmark.

"And the walls came 'tumblin' down" is a reference to the dream and aspiration of casting off the chains of slavery. As such, "The Battle of Jericho" is a song of hope and inspiration.

Okay, let's jump from Ohio and the Antebellum South to the Pacific Northwest and the 1850s. Isaac Stevens was Governor of the Territory of Washington. From 1855-1856 he negotiated four treaties with the Northwest Tribes: The Treaty of Medicine Point, Treaty of Point No Point, Treaty of Neah Bay and The Treaty of Olympia. The Klallam Tribe lived along the Elwha River. They were signatories to the Point No Point Treaty, along with the Skokomish and Chimacum Tribes. In exchange for relinquishing their claims on the land, the tribes would retain their fishing, hunting and gathering rights, and they would receive: a reservation, $60K payable over five years, a free school for 20 years and 20 years access at no charge to a physician, a blacksmith, a carpenter and a farmer. The tribes ceded roughly 750,000 acres of land to the federal government.

The Klallam Tribe was surprised to learn the reservation described in the treaty would not be in their home area, the land of their ancestors. Instead, they would have to move to the bottom of Hood Canal on the Skokomish reservation. The Klallams remained in a village along the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca (between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula). They were forced to move from there as the town of Port Angeles sprang up. Some members of the tribe bought land, but were not able to secure titles because they were not considered U.S. citizens. The Indian Homestead Act of 1884 did allow tribal members to become landowners, but only a handful did because they were required to sever tribal ties.

Although the Point No Point treaty guarantees the Klallams the right to take fish at their "usual and accustomed" fishing grounds, in 1916 the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state controlled off-reservation fishing. This resulted in the arrest of tribal members when they tried to fish in the Elwha River. And, of course, the two dams that were built prevented the salmon from migrating through these "usual and accustomed" fishing grounds.

At the time the dams were built Washington State law required dams to be built with fish ladders. The companies that built the dams didn't bother to follow that particular provision in the law. Construction on the Elwha Dam began in 1910. Following the recommendation of Leslie Darwin, the state fish commissioner, Olympic Power circumvented the law by building a fish hatchery that was physically connected to the dam. Elwha Dam was declared an official state-sanctioned fish obstruction for the purpose of supplying the hatchery with eggs. Governor Ernest Lister liked the idea so much he persuaded the state legislature to endorse building hatcheries instead of providing for fish passages at new dams. The Elwha hatchery was finished in 1915. It was abandoned in 1922 because of a lack of returning broodstock. But a precedent had been set: Dams began to multiply and hatcheries became the core for the management of the state fisheries.

In 1974, Judge George Hugo Boldt of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington affirmed the rights of the tribes in Washington to continue to harvest salmon. The court held that when the four treaties were signed, transferring millions of acres of land in the Territory of Washington to the Federal Government, they reserved the right to continue fishing. The treaties did not grant fishing rights to the tribes. These rights belonged to the tribes before the treaties. Rather, the tribes agreed to share these rights with the territorial settlers.

The pages of history are filled with examples of one group of people treating badly others who are different from themselves. It took the Civil War for America to rid itself of slavery. It took the Boldt Decision to affirm the rights of the First Nations in Washington. In 1992, President George Bush, Sr. signed Public Law Number 102-495, the Elwha Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act. This included a provision authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to acquire and remove the two Elwha dams, should he find it necessary.

Nineteen years have passed, but finally the removal of the dams has begun. Concrete and mortar are tumbling down. May the walls of bigotry and prejudice come tumbling down too.

Aug 19

The Ol' One Two Punch

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims


"Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food." This quote is attributed to Hippocrates, the Greek physician and a contemporary of the philosopher Plato. He is considered to be the father of Western Medicine. The word diet comes from the Greek word dieta which actually means way of life. CleanFish is more than a company. CleanFish is an aspiration. CleanFish is part of a larger movement to regain control of our food supply, to reconnect consumers to the men and women who grow and/or catch (fisher people) the food we eat. I want to know how the food I eat is produced. I want to know if my tomatoes were treated with pesticides. I want to know if the poultry, livestock and farmed seafood I am offered have been treated with hormones or antibiotics and if these animals were raised and slaughtered as humanely as possible. This is both a cultural issue and a question of freedom of choice. If America's culture is reduced to strip malls, big box stores and fast food, we're in serious trouble. Freedom is far more than simply the right to choose between MacDonald's or Burger King. Remember, dieta means way of life.

In May, I had the great pleasure of visiting Cyprus. My host was Antonis (Tony) Kimonides, the founder and owner of Kimagro, the farm producing our branzini and dorade. Kimagro is much more than a fish farm for Tony. It is a labor of love.

When Tim o'Shea and I founded CleanFish, one of the commitments we made was a commitment to quality. We were committed to developing a portfolio of products that people would describe as "World Class!" We have that with Kimagro's dorade and branzini. We wanted CleanFish to offer these fish, but not simply for the sake of having them in stock. We wanted a producer that shares our values and our commitment to sustainability, stewardship and the environment and who produced fish that is best in its class. That is Tony and Kimagro.

One of the great boxing matches of all time was the September 12, 1923 heavyweight title fight at the Polo Grounds in New York. World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey successfully defended his title against Luis Firpo, the South American Heavyweight Champion called the Bull of the Pampas. As a fishmonger, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Luis Firpo. He attributed his great strength and success as a boxer to eating corvina! In fact, it has been said that Firpo had corvina sent everywhere he was scheduled to fight. Well, he should have had a second helping before stepping into the ring against the Manassa Mauler. Firpo was knocked cold in the second round. The fight lasted 3 minutes 57 seconds. It was a brutal slugfest. Dempsey knocked Firpo down seven times in the first round. Firpo was no shrinking violet either. He knocked Dempsey down twice, including one shot that knocked Dempsey through the ropes and out of the ring where he hit his head on the typewriter of a ringside journalist.

I almost got into a fistfight myself a couple of years ago while attending a sustainable seafood conference in San Francisco. Imagine two sixty-year-old men duking it out in the lobby of a Hyatt Hotel. That would certainly raise eyebrows, and probably evoke gales of laughter. I became engaged in a discussion with a salmon farmer who shall remain nameless. I offered to sign a contract if he would grow fish to my specifications, most particularly, without using antibiotics. This particular person proudly informed me that he had personally visited Loch Duart to see their operation, but in the same breath stated, “you can't raise salmon without using antibiotics, it simply couldn't be done!” Well, Loch Duart has never once needed to treat their fish with antibiotics in the history of their company. When I informed the gentlemen of this, he became slightly irate and reiterated that it could not be done. When I reminded him of his visit to Loch Duart and that he had seen their operation for himself, he became so irate, for a brief minute I thought he was going to punch me out. I quickly said my goodbyes and wished him all the best.

Kimagro and Loch Duart are both world-class operations. Similar to Loch Duart, in its 22 years of operation, Kimagro has never treated its fish with antibiotics — not so much as one gram. With both operations, it comes down to the animal husbandry practices, water quality and the farm sites. CleanFish is committed to transparency as to how producers operate. We are proud to showcase Kimagro and Loch Duart as premier operations. Like Luis Firpo, I too like corvina. But I'm happy that I won't have to start a new career as a boxer!

Jul 15

A Walk Through The History of Pacific Salmon

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

History Of Pacific Salmon
click image to enlarge

1779 Captain James Cook, looking for the Northwest Passage, found the Columbia River and started the trade in beaver pelts. Trapping beaver was the first major change in salmon habitat on the west coast.
1811 John Jacob Astor established a fur trading post at Astoria. He went on to become the first multi-millionaire in the United States.
1818 The harvesting of Spring Chinook on the Columbia River begins.
1823 Astor's company begins exporting pickled salmon to London.
1828 The first saw mill was established at Mill Plain on the lower Columbia.
1843 The center for the fur industry moves north to Vancouver Island as the beaver population in the U.S. is depleted.
August 14, 1848 The Oregon Territory is created. The territorial constitution includes a provision for protecting salmon, including the requirement of fishways at all dams.
March 2, 1853 The Washington territory was created.
1855 Treaties between the United States and Columbia River Indian tribes is signed and the tribes retain and secure the right to fish in their usual and accustomed places.
1859 The first irrigation project is constructed in the Columbia Basin.
1866 Hume and Hapgood build the first salmon cannery on the Columbia River after having abandoned the Sacramento River in California.
1869 The transcontinental railway is completed, allowing for the transfer of salmon to the east coast.
1872 Chinook eggs (30,000) are taken from the McCloud hatchery in California and shipped live to the east coast in a failed attempt to revive salmon in the Susquehanna.
1874 The Payette River in Idaho produced a commercial sockeye catch of 30,000 lbs.
1875 U.S. Fish Commissioner, Spencer Baird, told the fishing industry that artificial propagation would eliminate the need to regulate harvest. It was believed that humans would assume control over salmon production with hatcheries in the same way agriculture controlled the production of plants and animals.
1877 There are three hatcheries on the West Coast: the McCloud hatchery in California and the Rogue River and Clackamas hatcheries in Oregon.
1878 The first hatchery is constructed in the Columbia Basin at Clear Creek by salmon canneries to increase salmon on the Columbia River.
1880 Sockeye salmon on the Payette River are commercially extinct.
1880 The number of salmon canneries on the Columbia peaks at 39.
1883 The harvest of Chinook salmon on the Columbia peaked. There were approximately 1,700 gill net boats. They landed 42,799,000 pounds of fish processing 600,000 cases of canned salmon (48# per cs.). Within 6 years the landings had dropped by almost 60%.
1889 Canneries begin processing sockeye and steelhead for the first time due to a decline in Chinook landings.
1890s In the Grande Ronde Valley logging accounted for 15-20 million board feet per year. Splash damming blocked salmon migration and destroyed spawning and rearing habitats.
1900 Gas engines were added to salmon boats leading to the creation of the ocean troll fishery.
1915 Purse seines are prohibited on the Columbia.
1928 There are 15 hatcheries operating in the Columbia Basin releasing 2 billion fry into the river.
1933 Owyhee Dam is built on the Owyhee River ending salmon and steelhead in the river and the only salmon run in the state of Nevada.
1944 In September the Hanford Plant in Washington begins producing plutonium.
1965 Summer Chinook fishing is closed on the Columbia to protect the stock.
1967 Hells Canyon Dam is completed and blocks about 80% of the fall Chinook spawning habitat in the Snake River.
1975 The Columbia River sockeye fishery is closed.
1976 The spring Chinook fishery on the Columbia is closed.
1979 Idaho closes its spring Chinook fishery.
1986 Coho salmon on the Snake River are declared extinct.
1991 Snake River sockeye are listed as an endangered species.
1992 Snake River spring, summer and fall Chinook are all listed as threatened under ESA.
1994 Ocean fish is banned for the first time off the cost of Washington and Northern Oregon.
1997 Native steelhead on the upper Columbia are listed as endangered under ESA.
1997 Native steelhead on the Snake River Basins are listed as endangered.
1998 Native steelhead in the lower Columbia are listed as threatened.
1999 Chum salmon in the lower Columbia River are listed as threatened.
1999 Fall Chinook in the lower Columbia River are listed as threatened.
1999 Spring Chinook on the Willamette above the falls and the Clackamas River are listed as threatened.
1999 Spring Chinook in the upper Columbia are listed as endangered.
1999 Winter steelhead in the Willamette above the falls are listed as threatened.
1999 Winter and summer steelhead in the middle Columbia are listed as threatened.
2004 The Bush administration proposes to remove 80% of the critical habitat designation for ESA-listed salmonids on the West Coast.
2005 Lower Columbia River Coho are listed as threatened.

Currently, five Pacific salmon runs are listed as endangered, 23 are listed as threatened and another three as a species of concern.

My, how time changes everything.

Jul 01

The Battle of the Herrings

Thoughts from the Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

Joan Of Herring

There have been many famous military battles. The Fall of Troy, Wellington's victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, the battles of Gettysburg and Antietam during the Civil War, and The Battle of The Bulge in WWII immediately come to mind. And of course, every schoolboy and any fishmonger worth his salt can recite the details of the most famous battle of them all — Battle of the Herrings. What's this you smirk? Oh yes, my friends. Were you sleeping that day in your high school history class? Yes indeed, this was a pivotal battle in the history of Europe. Okay, once more we'll jump into the WAYBAC machine with Sherman and Mr. Peabody for a brief historical adventure.

Set the dial for April 12, 1429. England and France have been at war off and on for 92 years. Edward III wasn't satisfied with simply being the King of England… he wanted to be King of France too. This led to a long series of altercations known collectively as The Hundred Years War. By the time 1429 rolled around Edward was dead and Henry VI was King of England. He also claimed the French throne. The French, of course, already had a king in Charles VII. There wasn't enough room for two fannies to sit on the throne, so the fighting continued.

The English led by the Duke of Suffolk lay siege to the town of Orleans, but they were running low on food and ammunition. Sir John Fastolf led a convoy with reinforcements to buttress the English troops. The convoy included 300 wagons carrying artillery, cannon balls, crossbow shafts and a lot of barrels of salted herring. Lent was approaching. At that time people did not eat any meat during Lent. Salted herring for the troops was the answer! Count Charles of Bourbon learned the convoy was approaching and set out to intercept them before they could reach Orleans. The battle raged. The English were heavily outnumbered. Fastolf had 1,000 men. The Bourbon count had more than 3,000 French troops plus another 300 Scots. It looked like a dark day for the English. They circled their wagons and rolled out the barrels of herring to form a barricade. The herring barrel barricade saved the English troops from certain defeat. They were able to use their superior archery skills to cut down the Scots and French. The English won the Battle of the Herrings… but, alas they lost the 100 Years War.

By the beginning of 1429, nearly all of northern France was under English control. Paris was in the hands of the English. A young peasant girl from the town of Domremy woke up one morning with the idea that God had given her a vision. She believed she had been called by God to help the French resist the English. Somehow she convinced the King of France that she was a prophetess sent by God. King Charles sent her to Orleans as part of a relief mission. This little peasant girl actually wrote a letter to the King of England demanding the English leave France writing: "I say to you in God's name, go home to your own country; if you do not do so, beware of the Maid, and of the damages you will suffer. Do not attempt to remain, for you have no rights in France from God, the King of Heaven, and the Son of the Virgin Mary. It is Charles, the rightful heir, to whom God has given France." We might say she was just a little headstrong.

It took her all of nine days to lead the French troops to victory over the English at Orleans. Later she was captured by English sympathizers, sold to the English, tried in an ecclesiastical court and burned at the stake when she was barely nineteen. That young French peasant girl was Joan of Arc.

So, the next time you sit down to enjoy the classic bistro dish, hareng pommes à l'huile (smoked herring with boiled potatoes) remember the words of A.J. McClane from his book The Encyclopedia of Fish Cookery: "to eat a herring is to savor history."

Jun 23

A Period of Consequences

Thoughts from the Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

Keep Calm & Carry On

The Protestant Reformation is considered to have begun when Martin Luther, the priest/monk publicly challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. A key part of his questioning and ultimate rejection of Catholicism was based on his rejection of what theologians call sacerdotalism, the religious belief that priests must be the intermediaries between God and man. Martin Luther argued that men could read the Bible for themselves rather than relying upon the priesthood as the sole arbiters and gatekeepers for divine knowledge. He was, of course excommunicated for this. What many people do not know is that for the remainder of his life he was often troubled by self doubt. If, after all, he was wrong, he and anyone else who agreed with him headed down the highway to Hell.

Dan Quayle was no John Kennedy, and I'm no Martin Luther. But he and I do have one thing in common— pangs of self-doubt. When the tone of my columns take on an apocalyptic tone — we're overfishing our oceans! we're destroying the rainforests! the icebergs are melting! — I wonder if I'm like Chicken Little who thinks the world is coming to an end because an acorn hit him on the head. I have this image in my head of me as a white bearded old man in a black robe standing on a street corner holding up a sign proclaiming: "the world is coming to an end!" Fortunately, at least for my own sanity, these moments of self-doubt are reasonably brief. Then I'm back on my soapbox pushing for change.

Folks, we are in the midst of the Anthropocene Age (human + new), and it is marked by The Great Acceleration. It really started after WWII when we started seeing a rapid increase in the human population characterized by rising consumerism, abundant cheap energy and increased global economic activity. It is also marked by things like the loss of habitat and ecosystem services, overfishing, loss of biodiversity and limits on freshwater. Consider the water issues in California. Do we divert water from Northern California so we can farm in the desert? The capital of Yemen regularly receives deliveries of fresh water by tanker truck. What happens when a big city starts to run out water? Something has to change. Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding says we must consume less. He puts it this way: "How many people lie on their death bed and say, 'I wish I had worked harder or built more shareholder value,' and how many say, 'I wish I had gone to more ballgames, read more books to my kids, taken more walks?' To do that, you need a growth model based on giving people more time to enjoy life, but with less stuff."

"Okay Dale," you say to me, "you've mentioned overfishing twice already here, but what point are you trying to make?" I confess, I don't have a blueprint. But I know we need to change. An article on seafood.com this week began like this: "Mass extinctions of species in the world's oceans are inevitable if current trends of overfishing, habitat loss, global warming and pollution continue, a panel of renowned marine scientists warned Tuesday." Although the U.S. has done a good job in improving our fisheries management practices to curb overfishing, the problems we face are global.

"Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences . . . We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now." --Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936

Jun 03

The Price of Freedom

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

Return Of 100 Pound Salmon

California Fish & Game biologist Doug Killam holds an 88-pound Pacific chinook salmon. It's hoped the removal of the Elwha Dam in Washington state could result in even bigger fish. (California Department of Fish and Game photo)

How in the world is it possible to illegally build two concrete dams, one 105 feet high, the other 210 feet high, and have them remain in operation for nearly a century (99 and 84 years respectively)? To answer this question, I consulted that oracle of wisdom: my genetically modified barn animal, the elephino.

On Wednesday of this week (June 1st) the wheels stopped turning at the Elwha Dam powerhouse. "We're going to let this river be wild again," said Amy Kober, a spokesperson for American Rivers, an advocacy group. The generators may be powering down, but the river is powering up. The Elwha River, cascading out of the mountains for 45 miles down the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, once teemed with all five species of Pacific salmon, including the fabled June run of Chinooks known as the June Hogs. These were king salmon weighing in at upwards of 100 pounds each. Two large concrete dams were constructed in the early 1900s. These dams were built without fish ladders, so only five miles of the river was left for returning salmon. It is estimated that prior to 1910, close to 400,000 salmon migrated up the Elwha every year. In 2005 there were only 5,000 salmon. With a 99% decline in the salmon population the June Hogs were little more than piglets.

Both the 105-foot Elwha Dam and the 210-foot Giles Canyon Dam eight miles upstream are being removed. The actual demolition will start this fall. This is the largest dam removal project undertaken in the United States. Forget about the water for a moment. There are more than 24 million cubic yards just of sediment trapped behind the dams in two man-made lakes/reservoirs, Lake Mills and Lake Adwell. That's enough to fill a football stadium two miles high.

So, what about this government sanctioned illegal construction? At the time these dams were built, Washington state law required dams to be built with fish ladders. However, the companies building the dams didn't bother to follow that particular provision in the law. Construction on the Elwha Dam began in 1910. The very next year, the county game warden expressed alarm that no fish were appearing above the dam site and that spawners were congregating below the dam, unable to reach the historical salmon spawning areas. Following the recommendation of Leslie Darwin, the state fish commissioner, Olympic Power and Development Company circumvented the law by building a fish hatchery that was physically connected to the dam. The dam was declared an official state-sanctioned fish obstruction for the purpose of supplying the hatchery with eggs. In an agreement with the state of Washington signed in August 1914, Olympic Power donated the land and $2,500 for the state to build a hatchery.

Washington Governor Ernest Lister liked the idea so much he persuaded the state legislature to endorse building hatcheries instead of providing for fish passages at new dams. The Ehwha hatchery was finished in 1915. It was abandoned in 1922 because of a lack of returning brood stock. But, a precedent had been set. Dams began to multiply and hatcheries became the core for the management of the state fisheries.

The push to remove these dams officially began May 15, 1986, when the Seattle Audubon Society, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, and Olympic Park Associates formally requested removal of these dams at a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) meeting. It has taken 25 years to wind its way through the halls of government bureaucracy, legislative red tape and pork-barrel politics. But, it has happened. The cost to remove these dams is pegged at around $324MM.

They say freedom doesn't come cheap.

Apr 01

Ever hear the one about the emperor, the fish, and the tin can? (No joke!)

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

Napoleon's Salmon

If I tell you there's a connection to the decline of wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest and Napoleon Bonaparte will you think I'm delusional? When I go on to tell you there's also a connection to the restoration of salmon stocks with two 19th century peasant French fishermen, will you think, "Dale's really out in left field this time?" Both things are true — about salmon, not about left field! Let me connect the dots.

It's the late 1700's. The French Revolution has ended. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette have had their heads chopped off. Napoleon is a Brigadier General, hell-bent on conquering Europe. But, he's got a major problem. How do you feed all those soldiers? Not only that, even if you have the food, how do you transport it over great distances without it spoiling. "I know what to do," thinks Napoleon, "I'll run a contest." And that's exactly what he did. He offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could figure out a way to preserve food over long distances. Nicolas Appert, a chef, confectioner and distiller in the town of Chalons-sur-Marne took up the challenge. Europeans already knew how to preserve food — drying, smoking, fermenting, pickling or soaking in brine. But, none of this preserved the taste or was 100% certain. Food still spoiled.

It took 14 years of experimentation, but Nicolas claimed the prize. He discovered that the decomposition of food like soups, fruits, jams, and stews can be prevented by sealing them inside a bottle or jar and immersing the sealed container in boiling water for several hours. He had to exclude all air and hold the jar tightly closed with cork, wire and sealing wax. He used his prize money to set up a bottling factory that kept the French soldiers supplied with food. Across the channel in England, improvements quickly followed Nicolas' invention. In 1810 Peter Durand took out a patent to use metal containers (glass broke too often). He covered iron cans with a thin plating of tin, and invented the "tin can." Fast forward to 1864 California. Andrew Hapgood and brothers George and William Hume establish the first salmon cannery on the Pacific coast in the town of Washington on the Sacramento River. Salmon runs on the Sacramento were already in trouble because of the gold rush. Hydraulic mining dumped huge amounts of sediment into rivers throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains. The process pumps river water into a hydraulic cannon that shoots a blast of water into ancient gravel (spawning grounds). The sediment blasts free and passes downstream. The gold stays with the miners. River after river filled in with sand and gravel. By the 1870s, some streams were buried under more than 100 feet of debris. By the early 1880s, as many as 21 canneries operated on the Sacramento River packing as many as 200,000 cases a year of canned salmon. The standard pack is 48/1# per case. California stopped canning salmon in 1933. Hapgood and the Humes read the writing on the wall early. They abandoned California after three years and established the first cannery on the Columbia River in 1867. Within 10 years, canning on the Columbia River grew from 4,000 to 450,000 cases a year. By 1883 the Columbia canneries were packing 640,000 cases — that’s 30+ million pounds of salmon. There was gold in salmon too. Hapgood, the Humes and many others became millionaires. Ten years later the volume had dropped by 30%.

Salmon hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest were built to make up for the decline in wild salmon. Around 1763-1764, Stephan Ludwig Jacobi in Germany figured out how to propagate salmon and trout by artificially fertilizing the eggs with milt taken from male fish, but this was very limited. More than 82 years later, two peasant French fishermen, Joseph Remy and Antoine Gehin, observed salmon and trout spawning. With the support of French scientists, the first publically-owned hatchery was built by France in 1852 in the town of Huninque. At its peak, this hatchery supplied 20 million eggs and salmon fry to all parts of France and much of Europe. Eureka!! I've connected the dots. Viva la France!

On a final note, today is April 1st — April Fools Day. In France it's called Poisson d'Avril. In Italy, Il Pesce d'Aprile — April's Fish. This comes from pasting a paper cutout of a fish on someone else's back. It started in France around changes in the calendar. In the Middle Ages, New Year's Day was celebrated on the 25th of March, often with weeklong celebrations ending on April 1st. When the switch was made to January 1st, those slow to make the transition were the April Fools!!

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 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. 

Feb 11

The Once & Future Salmon

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

Among my most prized possessions is a series of six color lithographs (circa 1856) of Atlantic salmon native to the Atlantic Coast. What has always struck me about these antique prints are the salmon themselves. All Atlantic salmon are the same species, Salmo salar. Yet, each fish is distinctively different from the others. When I first bought these some thirty years ago, I marveled at these visual differences. I've come to understand this as a reflection of the bio-diversity within a single species. 


Once upon a time along the Eastern Seaboard, Atlantic salmon could be found from Long Island Sound to over a thousand miles north almost to Hudson's Bay and inland to Niagara Falls. Every spring, rivers and streams from northern Labrador to the Connecticut river were home to schools of migrating and spawning salmon. Minimum estimates of these historic salmon runs prior to European colonization place the population of North American Atlantic salmon from 5 to 12 million fish. Some authorities describe the pre-contact salmon runs in the eastern United States as comparable to those in the Pacific Northwest. The Mi'kmaq peoples living along the Restigouche River in New Brunswick adopted salmon as a tribal symbol, adorning their canoes, clothing and bodies with images of salmon.

For at least 2,000 years, the Beothuk peoples are thought to have inhabited the island we know today as Newfoundland. In 1829, the last known Beothuk native, Shanawdithit, died of tuberculosis at age 26. Like other aboriginal peoples of North America, the Beothuk were slowly driven inland by the growing number of settlers from Europe. But, unlike others, they had nowhere to go. They were on an island. The Beothuk people traditionally buried dried or smoked salmon along with their dead. There are artifacts dating to 4,000 B.C. that indicate a reliance on salmon in some areas of the Eastern Seaboard for thousands of years.

Similar to the history of salmon in Europe, most of the salmon on the Eastern Seaboard have disappeared. Every year, upwards of 100,000 salmon would return to spawn in Maine's Penobscot River. That ended in the early 20th century when in 1910 three dams were built to generate power. Last year the Penobscot counted only 1,316 returning salmon. Last December the Penobscot River Restoration Trust bought the dams. They plan to remove two and build a fish by-pass around the third. Last week I mentioned a lawsuit filed in the Pacific Northwest. Conservation and fishing groups led by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations filed a lawsuit against the EPA, alleging the agency is failing to follow federal law in the way it registers pesticides.

Atlantic salmon in Maine were listed as an Endangered Species in 2009. Groups from Maine have taken an unprecedented step. Friends of Merrymeeting Bay and Environment Maine have filed lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Portland claiming dam owners are violating the federal Endangered Species Act by not providing salmon with a safe channel of passage around the dams. The group said in a statement that the dam owners have declined "simple protection measures — such as installing effective devices to divert salmon from the turbines — that have been adopted elsewhere."

Hydro-electric power is important and valuable. Yet in establishing salmon policies, we do need to consider the 4Hs — hydro, habitat, hatcheries and harvest. Most certainly there will not be a commercial Atlantic salmon fishery in the U.S. in my lifetime (I'm 63). But we can work toward rebuilding stocks and promoting a viable recreational fishery.

In the play Julius Caesar, Mark Antony speaking at Caesar's funeral says: "The evil that men do live after them, the good is often interred with their bones." Every single member of the Beothuk peoples has been interred. They are extinct. Some populations of wild salmon are extinct. Others are endangered. We must maintain a place in our world for salmon. It is their world too. What is the legacy we will leave for future generations? A legacy of extinction or one of regeneration? 

Jan 28

Time for the Triple Bottom Line

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

How do we balance the needs of a growing human population with the rest of nature? If I knew the answer to that, I'd go into the religion business. One thing seems clear to me — looking only at a financial bottom line is no longer sufficient. There are three types of capital: financial, natural and social. We need to bring a positive return in all categories, hence, a triple bottom line. 

Celilo Falls

I have long held that all the criticism leveled at farmed salmon can be distilled into the fact that natural capital, the environment, has been viewed as a resource to be exploited rather than as an asset to be nurtured. The large industrial producers of farmed salmon have externalized the environmental costs of growing their fish. If those costs were internalized, cheap farmed salmon would no longer be cheap. That's one of the reasons I respect companies like Loch Duart that accept those costs upfront with lower stocking densities and an annual fallowing practice that leaves sites vacant for a full year.

The issues we face today in the Pacific Northwest with our wild salmon are essentially the result of human indifference. Changes in the landscape — whether it be land development, dams and water diversion, industrial activity like aluminum factories, or simply overfishing — have failed to make allowances for the needs of viable wild salmon populations.

Three things have been weighing on me recently. I will address each of these at length in future columns. Today, I'll share a snapshot. The first is Celilo Falls on the Columbia River. The other two are proposed mining projects in Alaska.

Celilo Falls is just east of the Cascade Mountains, roughly 200 miles upstream from the mouth of the Columbia. When the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through the area in 1805, they found "a great emporium . . . where all the neighboring nations assemble." It has been described as the Niagara of the West. Historians have also described Celilo Falls as "The Wall Street of the West." For 15,000 years, native peoples came to Celilo to fish and to trade. Artifacts from the original site of the village show evidence of people coming from as far away as the Great Plains, the Southwestern United States, and Alaska to fish and to trade. It is estimated that 15-20 million salmon swam past Celilo Falls every year. On March 10, 1957, the Dalles Dam began operations, choking off the water. Within six hours, Celilo Falls was drowned in a reservoir known today as Lake Celilo. It took only six hours to submerge what until then was the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America.

There are two proposed mining projects that must be looked at in regards to their potential impact on salmon. Underlying the Kenai Peninsula from Hope to Homer is coal. The Chuitna coal mine project hopes to strip over one billion tons of coal for export to Asia from 32 square miles of the Chuitna Watershed over 25 years. If permitted, it will be the first time in Alaska history that a company could mine through a salmon stream. The plan literally calls for digging up and removing 11 miles of the river. Another project near Bristol Bay would create an open-pit mine — possibly up to two miles wide and 1,700 feet deep. It is estimated that beneath the ground are 40 million tons of copper and 107 million ounces of gold. Proponents of the project insist it won't impact Bristol Bay salmon. According to his widow, former Alaska governor Jay Hammond said this of the Pebble mine project: "The only worse place to put a mine would be my living room."

I'll grant that all of these projects represent change. You decide if they represent progress. 

Jan 14

For The Love of Chinook

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

The Klamath River is the northernmost river in California. At one time, The Klamath and its tributaries, including the Trinity and Shasta rivers, was the third most productive salmon river system in the U.S.—just behind the Columbia and the Sacramento. Today, primarily due to water diversion for agriculture and blockage by dams for hydroelectric power, the salmon runs on the Klamath are less than 10% of their historic size. 


The native Yuroks continue a gill-net river fishery for king salmon every year, usually starting around the last week of August. This is the only place in California where using a gill net to catch salmon is still allowed. The size of these beautiful Klamath fall run Chinooks ranges from 14-22 lbs. Klamath River Coho are listed as a threatened species under the Federal Endangered Species Act. A 1995 report commissioned by the legislatures of California and Oregon directly stated "diversion of water is potentially one of the most serious factors adversely affecting salmon in western Oregon and northern California." However, the federally-funded Klamath Irrigation Project diverts most of the water from the Upper Klamath Basin in Oregon for irrigation. The Central Valley Project diverts water from the Trinity to irrigate the Sacramento Valley. Water from the Lost, the Scott, and the Shasta rivers is diverted for irrigation.

The status of the lower Klamath as one of the last free-flowing rivers in California and the use of its water has been debated for years between environmentalists, government agencies, and hydro-electric / agricultural interests. In the 1960s, one project proposed to divert the entire Klamath River to central and southern California. I put that in the "exactly how stupid can you be" category. Thank God! That project was defeated.

The Klamath Hydroelectric Project (KHP) is comprised of six dams that extend from Iron Gate Dam to the Link River dam at the outlet of Upper Klamath Lake. Two have fish ladders, four do not. All of the lower Klamath Basin Native Tribes have called for the removal of at least four of the six KPH dams to restore fish passage. In 2006, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recommended removing the lower four dams. That same year, PacificCorp challenged the NMFS mandatory condition that they build fish ladders at Iron Gate Reservoir as a condition of renewing their permit to operate. Thankfully, an administrative law judge ruled in favor of NMFS. As a subtext to all of this, Iron Gate reservoir acts as a primary incubator for toxic algae blooms. In 2002, despite the fact that Klamath area tribes have treaty rights that predate the settlement of farmers, then U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, provided full water delivery rights to farmers during a drought. That year, the Klamath River system had the largest fish kill ever recorded. Low water flow and high water temperatures resulted in gill rot disease that killed at least 33,000 salmon in September 2002. The report of this by U.S. Fish and Wildlife states that the official fish kill estimate of 34,056 fish is low and could very well be only half the actual loss.

Whether the KPH dams remain depends on whether the Oregon PUC allow PacificCorp to saddle rate payers with the expenses. After two years of intensive closed-door negotiations among farmers, Indian tribes, fishermen, conservation groups, and government agencies, an agreement was signed on February 18, 2009, to work on a comprehensive settlement of Klamath water usage. The proposal advocates the removal of four dams: Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2 and the John C. Boyle Dam. If approved, we can be sure that the lowly taxpayer will join utility rate-payers to shoulder the financial burden.

A panel was formed to advise the Secretary of the Interior on the potential removal of the four dams. The panel met in Eureka, California this week to investigate how a project of this scale might benefit king salmon on the Klamath River. The panel will determine how salmon would respond to dam removal and habitat restoration. Like most things in government, these wheels will turn slowly. A final decision won't be made until 2012. And the actual project, assuming it goes forward, would probably not begin until 2020. Dennis Lynch of the U.S. Geological survey is the program manager for this project. Because of the poor condition of the Klamath’s ecosystem he has said, "I don't think we have the luxury of not making a decision." The panel's report is due at the end of the month.

Hundreds of miles of spawning habitat would be open to fall and spring Chinook if the dams are removed. I don't think we need to call in the rocket scientists to figure this one out.  

Jan 10

Ready for Retirement

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

Ka Boom!

Once upon a time, the Columbia River was the largest salmon-producing river in the world, with salmon runs ranging from 11 million to 16 million fish every year. Today, the Columbia produces around 2.5 million fish, and most of those are hatchery fish. Wild king salmon runs on the Columbia and its tributaries are less than 2% of their historic numbers. There are 27 huge dams on the main stems of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. In addition, there is somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,900 other smaller dams, many of which are obsolete — and only 4% of which actually produce hydroelectric power.

In April of 2010, the Army Corp of Engineers issued a plan outlining the steps to evaluate the potential of breaching one or more dams on the Lower Snake River if necessary to ensure survival of endangered wild salmon and steelhead. Take note — the Corps did not come out in favor of breaching any dams. Rather, they reluctantly agreed to outline the steps needed to consider breaching. This is at once a baby step and a huge leap forward. In 1994, then Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, first officially proposed breaching the Ice Harbor, Lower Monument, Little Goose and Lower granite dams on the lower Snake River. It comes as no surprise that the Corp of Engineers has continually opposed the idea of breaching since it was first offered up for consideration. They're in the business of building dams.

The 2009 Adaptive Management Implementation Plan (in support of the salmon recovery plan mandated by the Endangered Species Act) includes a contingency plan for removing the dams. Republican congressman from Washington, Doc Hastings, stated that even the possibility of dam removal should never have been included. Make no mistake, there is a well-funded effort to vilify and discredit those who support removing dams. What we overlook in this is that while all that concrete looks solid and foreboding, dams are not permanent fixtures. The have a specific lifespan. Like the Baby Boomers, many dams are reaching retirement age.

Dams are built to provide four benefits: hydroelectric power, flood control, irrigation water, and river navigation. Here's how the four dams on the lower Snake River measure up today:

1. Hydropower: Surprise! These 4 dams combined provide approximately 4.13% of the region's total hydroelectric power. 
2. Flood Control: Surprise! these four dams provide no flood control benefits
3. Irrigation: Of the four, only Ice Harbor supplies irrigation water for farming, a total of 36,000 acres. This same water could be supplied using modern water pumps at a fraction of the cost. 
4. Navigation: These four dams do provide a significant stretch of navigable water from Lewiston, Idaho, primarily for transporting grain. But this transport is heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars. I'm in favor of private enterprise paying its own way. Moreover, the Army Corp of Engineers spends roughly $150 million every year maintaining these programs and barging fish around the dams. Leave the fish in the water. Put the grain on a railroad. Take the dams out of water. 

A couple of years ago, I was speaking at a sustainable seafood dinner at the Dragon Fly Restaurant in Truckee by Lake Tahoe. A woman in the audience asked me if I supported breaching the four dams. While living in Boise, Idaho in 2000, I had the opportunity to go to one of the dams. I replied, "I wish I'd brought the dynamite with me!"

Dec 31

Those Damn Dams

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

Grand Coulee Dam Columbia River101548

When considering wild salmon we must consider the 4Hs — hydroelectric power, hatcheries, habitat and harvest. Since 1991 sixteen distinct salmon runs from the Columbia River and its tributaries have been listed under the Endangered Species Act. What does it say about us if one of the most prosperous regions in the richest country on Earth cannot accommodate its own icon species? Civilization and salmon do not need to be mutually exclusive, but we must examine the effects of our actions and what changes we can and must make to protect this cultural, environmental and economic resource.

A great place to start is the Columbia River. At 1,243 miles, the Columbia is the fourth largest river in the U.S., has the greatest flow of any North American river draining into the Pacific and a drainage basin roughly the size of France. It's largest tributary is the Snake River. We’ve been constructing dams on the Columbia and its tributaries for the purposes of power generation, navigation, irrigation and flood control since the early 20th century. Today, a dam-impounded reservoir lies along nearly every U.S. mile of the once free-flowing river, and much of the Canadian stretch is also impounded. For decades, we produced plutonium for nuclear weapons at the Hanford, Washington site, which is now the most contaminated nuclear site in the U.S. All of these developments have had an impact on the environment — industrial pollution, habitat degradation, and barriers for migrating salmon.

In 1994, then Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt (now Chairman of the Board of the World Wildlife Fund) first proposed removing several Pacific Northwest dams precisely because of their impact on salmon spawning. This month the last scheduled round of legal briefs has been filed in the long-running battle over making the Columbia River Basin's federal hydroelectric dams safer for endangered salmon. Before Lewis and Clark came west, it is estimated that the annual salmon runs on the Columbia ranged from 11 million to 16 million fish. Today it is only a fraction of that. There has long been a push to remove four dams on the Lower Snake River — Ice Harbor, Lower Monument, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams. That debate continues.

There is hope for turning the situation around. Up until a century ago, the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula had salmon runs approaching 400,000 fish annually. These weren't ordinary salmon. They were known as June Hogs — 100 pound salmon that, when turned on end were taller than a man. Two dams were built, one in 1913 the other in 1927. The spawning grounds were blocked, leaving less than five miles of river for the salmon to spawn. Today, fewer that 3,000 fish return to the Elwha. That's about to change. In April of this year the federal government requested bids to remove the dams. This project has been 18 years in the making and began in 1992 when Congress approved the Elwha River Restoration Act.

There were several attempts to strip funding of the Elwah restoration project. Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) unsuccessfully sought to link that project to a promise that the four dams on the Snake River would never be breached to aid salmon runs on the Columbia. We know Senator Gorton. His company's television ads sings "trust the Gloucester fisherman" while promoting tilapia. Yes, we know him as Senator Snake Gorton.

Dams have played a role in decimating wild Atlantic salmon as well. There was a time when Maine's Penobscot River was thought to be the most important salmon river in the U.S., holding 90% of all the Atlantic salmon in the country. Every year upwards of 100,000 Atlantic salmon would return to spawn in the Penobscot. That era ended in the early 20th century when in 1910 three dams were built to generate power. This year only 1,316 salmon were counted as returning to the Penobscot. Last week the Penobscot River Restoration Trust bought the dams for $24MM. They plan to remove two, Great Works and Veazle, and build a fish by-pass around the dam at Howland. The Trust has set a target of a minimum spawning run of 12,000 fish as well as indeterminate numbers of 10 other species including herring, shad, sturgeon and striped bass. Power generation on the river will not be affected.

The fate of salmon is in our hands. Civilization and salmon can co-exist. California went two years, 2008 & 2009, with no commercial salmon season, and the 2010 season was very short. But, we have encouraging news. Record numbers of salmon have made the fall run up the Eel River to the Van Arsdale dam near Potter Valley. As of last week 2,314 had been counted, making this the largest run since at least 1945. River restoration efforts aimed at improving habitat have played a key role in this improvement. These are hatchery counts. Counts on the Sacramento River system are incomplete and counts at non-hatchery locations are not finished. We're keeping our fingers crossed.

Dec 24

Menhaden III: Call Me Fishmeal

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

Menhaden Jack Of All Trades135438

The menhaden fishery is an industrial fishery by design. When Moby Dick was published in 1851, industrial methods were being developed simultaneously in Maine, Connecticut and New York for extracting oil from menhaden. On August 27th, 1859 the first commercially viable (petroleum) oil well began gushing at Titusville, PA. During the Civil War, 46 whaling ships were either captured or destroyed by the Confederate fleet. Another 40 whalers were bought by the federal government and sunk in an attempt to block Confederate ports. Whaling as an American industry was over. In the 1850s and 1860s Penobscot Bay in Maine and Peconic Bay & Gardiner’s Bay in New York were prime menhaden fisheries. There were twenty menhaden factories around Gardiner's Bay alone. In December 1866, a Long Island menhaden industrialist sent one of his ships into Chesapeake Bay in pursuit of menhaden. In 1867 Elijah Reed from Maine, moved his reduction machinery and two schooners and set up shop on the Chesapeake in Reedville, VA, which today continues to be, by volume, our third largest port. Using steamships rigged with purse seines, these fleets were quickly decimating the inshore populations of menhaden.

The history of the menhaden industry is one of boom and bust, bankruptcy and consolidation. The peak year for Atlantic menhaden was 1956, with landings of 712 thousand metric tons. By 1967, this has shrunk to 193 thousand tons, a decline of 73%. The familiar pattern of overfishing, population crash and industry consolidation, seen first in Maine in 1879, later in the rest of New England, and then the mid-Atlantic states at the end of the 19th century, has repeated itself along the entire Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. At one time there were 50 menhaden companies in Reedville. Today, the only menhaden company in Reedville is headquartered in Houston, TX. This company, the Zapata Corp. was founded in 1953 by, among others, George H.W. Bush. He sold his stake in 1966. In the early 1990s, real estate mogul Malcolm Glazer took control of Zapata and gave it a new name, Omega Protein. Today there are only three companies left. Two of these are very small. The other, Omega Protein, dominates the menhaden activity to such a degree that they are a borderline monopoly.

Here's the real kicker. Since 1998 the real landing figures stopped being public information. The Department of Commerce has ruled them confidential under "the rule of three." What is the rule of three? If a fishery consists of three or fewer companies, landing figures must be kept confidential, because otherwise each company could figure out what the other companies landings are. In essence, we have the privatization of a public resource. Today all but two of the fifteen states on the Eastern seaboard, Virginia and South Carolina, have banned the menhaden reduction industry from state waters.

Schools of menhaden don't recognize state boundaries. In Chesapeake Bay, Omega Protein sets up shop in Virginia targeting menhaden that would otherwise swim into Maryland waters. The menhaden come to eat the phytoplankton which are responsible for lethal algae blooms. Instead, huge numbers are taken out of the water to make industrial commodities. Make no mistake. This clearly impacts the health of the Chesapeake and the diet of all those wonderful fish like striped bass that depend on menhaden.

We don't need menhaden to make linoleum, or paint or lipstick. We don't need to feed menhaden to chickens and pigs. Biologist and ornithologist Paul Spitzer describes menhaden as "the absolute keystone species for the health of the entire Atlantic ecosystem." Paraphrasing the opening words of the narrator of Moby Dick, "Call me fishmeal."

Source material: The Most Important Fish In The Sea by H. Bruce Franklin

Dec 10

Menhaden: Part II

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

As I wrap my head around ecological systems and the interdependence of species, I am reminded of an observation voiced by that great philosopher Woody Allen, who describes the universe as a giant restaurant where one organism feeds on another. When I'm dead and in the ground, I fully expect my body to become a breakfast buffet for bacteria. This brings me back to menhaden "the most important fish in the sea.”

Menhaden play two crucial roles in marine ecology. They eat and in turn they are eaten. The coastal waters of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico — the estuaries, bays and wetlands — have a natural abundance of algae and other phytoplankton. Left unchecked, this bonanza of growth can block sunlight, reduce oxygen and promote algae blooms. From Maine to Florida, around the keys through the Gulf Coast to Mexico, immense schools of filter feeding menhaden remove algae, cellulose from rotting vegetation and other tiny bits of particulate matter floating in the water that are largely either indigestible or even toxic to other marine life. Menhaden help maintain a clean, sun-drenched, oxygenated environment that promotes bio-diversity. In turn, menhaden are a primary food source for many, many other fish.

At one time schools of menhaden could be found that stretched as long as forty miles. The naturalist Gilbert Bay built a diving bell so he could observe marine life in the Chesapeake Bay. This is his description of a school of menhaden: ". . . these hordes of menhaden underwater is a never-to-be-forgotten sight. I have been completely surrounded. . . Nearly always they are in a state of confusion. The slightest motion will cause them to break into terror-stricken flight . . . hysteria is communicated from one individual to another until the entire mass is transformed into a blurred deluge of frenzied fish.

New Bedford began as a whaling town. Whales were targeted for whale oil to provide lubricants and illumination. Reedville, Va, started as a menhaden town. Menhaden were targeted for their fish oil to provide lubricants and illumination, with the side benefit of turning the carcasses into fertilizer. Although this fishery is part of the fishing industry, it has never been a direct contributor to the seafood industry because menhaden have never been considered a food fish. The entire purpose of the menhaden industry is industrial. We have been using them as cheap industrial commodities. Menhaden oil was cheaper than whale oil. As fertilizer they were cheaper than guano. The whole purpose of the menhaden industry has been simply to make money, without consideration, acknowledgment or understanding of the dual role menhaden play: cleaning the water as well as being a primary food source for so many other fish.

Early in the 20th century as the petroleum industry exploded, the menhaden industry appeared to be headed for the dustbin. That's when Uncle Sam stepped in. In 1918, the Bureau of Fisheries of the U.S. Department of Commerce, in conjunction with the Bureau of Chemistry and the Bureau of Animal Industry of the USDA, put on their thinking caps and opened the government wallet to find ways of converting menhaden into feed for chickens and pigs.

One over-riding concern in aquaculture is the food conversion ratio and the appropriate use of the fishmeal and fish oil. So, why do we continue to feed menhaden derived fishmeal and fish oil to land animals?

I'm scratching my head over this one.

Source material: The Most Important Fish In The Sea by H. Bruce Franklin

Dec 02

The Most Important Fish (hint — it’s not in your cooler)

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims


Based on ex-vessel prices the U.S. port with the highest catch value is New Bedford, MA (scallops). It's held the top spot for 10 consecutive years. For 21 consecutive years Unalaska/Dutch Harbor (Bristol Bay salmon) has held the top spot by weight. New Bedford ranks 7th in volume and Unalasksa/Dutch Harbor ranks 2nd in dollar value.

Very interesting in the rankings by weight are the ports that hold spots #2 and #3., Venice, LA and Reedville, VA (by dollar value they rank #7 & #33). Reedville in many respects is the mystery port. When was the last time you or anyone you know bought fish out of Reedville? Probably never.

Let's go back to the first Thanksgiving in 1621, which was organized to celebrate the Pilgrim's successful corn harvest. When Squanto, the Native American, taught the Pilgrim's how to grow corn, he revealed his trade, or should I say tribal, secret. When you plant your seeds, include fish for fertilizer.

One single fish accounts for almost all of the landings in Reedville and Venice. That fish is menhaden. The name menhaden comes from the Narragansett Indian word munnawhatteaug, which literally means “fertilizer” or “that which manures.” One of the more popular current names for menhaden in New England and the gulf coast is "pogy" which comes from pauhagen another Native American word for fertilizer.

Menhaden play an important role in the food chain. They are a major part of the diet of our Eastern and Gulf fish including tuna, cod, haddock, halibut, bluefish, weakfish, striped bass, swordfish, king mackerel, summer flounder and red drum. The 19th century, ichthyologist G. Brown Goode declared that when we dine on Atlantic saltwater fish we are in fact eating “nothing but menhaden.”

Menhaden have an important role in the seafood industry. In the past, National Geographic and LIFE headlined menhaden as “Uncle Sam's Top Commercial Fishery” and “The Biggest Ocean Harvest.” Since the mid 1860's to the present, menhaden has been our country's largest fishery. For many years and decades the annual landings of menhaden have been greater that the commercial catch of all other finfish combined! And where does it all go? The bulk is used in feed for pigs and chickens, cosmetics, lubricants and to fish meal and fish oil supplements. Think about that the next time you see “heart-healthy” orange juice in the grocery store.

Menhaden also play a key role in the ocean's ecology. Menhaden are in the Clupeidae family, which includes herring, sardines and shad. Most Clupeidae eat zooplankton, the tiny, tiny animals that drift around in the water. Menhaden consume phytoplankton. They are filter feeders, eating algae, clarifying the water so that sunlight can penetrate. This in turn encourages the growth of aquatic plants that release dissolved oxygen while also harboring a lot of fish and shellfish.

Studying the filtering capability of Menhaden, marine biologist Sara Gottlieb, compares their ecological function to the human liver: “Just as your body needs its liver to filter out toxins, ecosystems also need natural filers.” Overfishing menhaden “is just like removing your liver.” It is no wonder that the title of H. Bruce Franklin's book about menhaden is The Most Important Fish In The Sea.

Source material: The Most Important Fish In The Sea by H. Bruce Franklin

Nov 24

Giving Thanks & Honoring Tradition

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

The last two weeks I've written about Gloucester, MA, America's oldest fishing port. Most of you, unless you're asleep at the wheel, are familiar with the 1997 book by Mark Kurlansky, "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World." I also recommend another of his books published in 2008, " The Last Fish Tale." This utterly delightful little book tells the history of Gloucester.


This is Thanksgiving week. To put Gloucester into perspective, consider this timeline. The Mayflower first set sail from Plymouth, England in July of 1620 with a sister ship the Speedwell. They turned around twice, returning to port because the Speedwell was leaking. Finally on September 6, the Mayflower set out alone across the Atlantic. It dropped anchor 66 days later on November 11th, just inside the tip of Cape Cod in what is now know as Provincetown Harbor. The next day was a Sunday and the Pilgrims remained onboard ship for prayer and worship. They assembled a small boat and actually set foot on land on November 13th. In the small boat, they made three expeditions exploring the coastline. Having selected a site for their settlement, the Mayflower sailed across Cape Cod Bay and dropped anchor at what we now call Plymouth Rock on December 16, 1620.

A Native American, Squanto, knew how to cultivate corn, extract sap from trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. In November 1621, after the Pilgrims' first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast to give thanks. This was our first Thanksgiving. And yes, the feast included seafood -- both fish and lobster. It was a short two years after that, in 1623, that Gloucester was first settled.

Howard Blackburn is close to being a mythical figure in the history of Gloucester. In 1883, he and a companion were caught in a winter storm off Newfoundland. His dorymate froze to death while Howard lost all of his fingers and most of his toes to frostbite. He returned to Gloucester a hero. Later, yearning for adventure, he twice sailed single-handed across the Atlantic. Another time, he rowed from Gloucester to Florida with the oars of his boat strapped to his wrists. He died in 1932. Today, the Blackburn Challenge is held annually. It's a 2+ mile open water race circumnavigating Cape Ann. This year was the 25th running of Blackburn's Challenge.

CleanFish uses its seat on the auction to source day boat hook & line fish. We also work with two boats that bring us their daily catch. To honor the fishermen and Gloucester as America's oldest fishing port, CleanFish will offer these fish under the name "Blackburn's". In our own small way, we hope this keeps the story alive and maintains our connection to history. In the last year, I've seen an ad on television for Gorton's. Founded in Gloucester in 1849, Gorton's has been an integral and important part of the Gloucester seafood tradition for many, many years. Their televison ad ends with the familiar jingle "trust thee Gloucester fisherman". I have great respect for Gorton's as a company. But, that television ad was troubling to me because the fish they were promoting was tilapia. I happen to like tilapia. CleanFish sells blue tilapia from Peru that is raised without using methyl-testosterone. But I'm scratching my head over this one. I just don't recall any tilapia landings in Gloucester. I guess those landings occurred somewhere south of Gloucester.

We, on the other hand, have day-boat cod landed in Gloucester itself. You can expect a fair amount of Blackburn's haddock and cod come January. It will be landed by Gloucester and Cape fishermen — men following the tradition of hundreds of years past. That's my promise. We have much to be thankful for.

Nov 18

From Gloucester, With Love

Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

Last week while waxing poetic about the fisherman's memorial in Gloucester and Leonard Craske's statue The Man at the Wheel, I mentioned in passing, that CleanFish holds a seat at the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction. I thought some might like a glimpse into how the auction works and how CleanFish participates in that activity. You can learn more here.

    Mass Cod Producer 4

The Gloucester fleet is comprised of trawlers, longliners, and gillnetters ranging in size from 30ft up to 90ft. Additionally, the GSDA provides pickup and delivery service from other designated ports around Cape Cod, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island. Founded by the Ciulla family in 1997, all product sold thru the auction is displayed in a 15,000 sq ft refrigerated display room. The auction has the ability to offload up to three boats at one time. All landings are separated by size, weighed and iced in totes. Each tote is given its own lot number outlining the vessel, landing date, species, size and weight, providing complete traceability. The auction also maintains a list of the boats and the gear they use. With that knowledge, a buyer can select fish from boats using specific gear.

Identifying those boats in the fleet as longliners, can be misleading. Longlines are classified by where they are placed in the water column. Longline boats that fish for highly migratory species like swordfish, tuna and mahi may run crews with 7-10 deckhands. They set out lines 5-10 miles in length. They may fish from 15 miles to 200+ miles out in the open sea. They may spend 15-30 days at sea per trip, leaving the longlines in the water for extended periods of time. Longlines targeting pelagic fish are typically set near the surface leaving them prone to the incidental catching and killing of sea birds and turtles. Demersal longline fishing targets fish that dwell near the bottom (uh groundfish!). These do not pose any threat to sea birds or turtles. Our Carolina wreckfish is a demersal longline fishery. The Alaska halibut and black cod fisheries are also largely demersal longlines. The hook and line boats out of Gloucester are technically classified as longliners because fishing on or near the bottom in deep water requires a long line. It's as simple as that.

CleanFish buys only from the smaller inshore hook and line day boats. Auctions are held Monday-Friday starting at 6:00 AM. Bidding takes place online. Every day we receive a list from the auction of every boat that has landed and what was off-loaded for sale at the auction that morning. Frank Parisi is our man on the ground at the auction. Frank is a native of Gloucester and a former fisherman. Both his father and grandfather, an Italian immigrant, were Gloucester fishermen as well. Frank's day starts at 4:30 AM with a cup of coffee and a copy of the auction report. With knowledge of the boats and their gear and having grown up with many of the fisherman, Franks goes to the auction floor to grade and select fish for CleanFish. He's back in our office by 6:00 AM and starts bidding on the different lots he has selected. I am proud to call Frank both colleague and friend.

Once the auction is done, a post-auction report is published. This lists by species and size, the total weight sold and provides three prices for each species sold. Keep in mind the fish are sold in lots. They post the lowest price paid, the highest price paid and the average price. An example of a landing sheet and post auction report are veiwable here. If you buy Atlantic cod and haddock, CleanFish can be your eyes and ears at the auction. Just let us know.

Nov 11

Here's To Our Heros Of The Sea

Thoughts From Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims

Man At Wheel

CleanFish has offices in San Francisco and Gloucester. I'm based in San Francisco and make periodic trips out East. Our Gloucester office is on the shore of beautiful Gloucester Bay. Through large picture windows, we have a stunning view of the bay that would cost a small fortune in San Francisco. Having an office in Gloucester made it an easy decision for CleanFish to take a seat on the Gloucester auction. For me, this represents more than simply the ability to buy fish... It gives us a direct connection to history. Founded by fishermen in 1623, it is America's oldest, continually active fishing port.

I remember my first visit to Gloucester. I stayed at a small bed and breakfast inn within walking distance of our office. Looking out the windows of the Inn, Gloucester Bay reveals itself. Directly across from the Inn is a memorial honoring the Gloucester fishermen who lost their lives at sea. The centerpiece of the memorial is a statue of a man standing at the wheel of a ship. The statue bears the inscription: "They that go down to the sea in ships 1623-1923." The sculptor was Keonard Craske, and it was dedicated on August 23,1925.

The statue is surrounded on three sides by a series of large plaques. The first tells the story of Gloucester fishing. The other plaques list, by year, the name every single Gloucester fisherman lost at sea. A ceremony is held each August to commemorate the new names added to the memorial. As you might expect, after 387 years, that list is long. The crew members depicted in the George Clooney movie The Perfect Storm are listed under 1991. For me, the most powerful and heartbreaking words on the first plaque read "these courageous men have been known by names other than fisherman. They are father, brother, husband, son." Surrounded by the gray misty fog on an early March morning, and reading these words for the first time, I am not embarrassed to tell you, I wept. These words bring it all back home to me.

We sit in our offices, at our desks, in front of computers, buying and selling millions of dollars of fish. We're not selling insurance. We're not selling pork belly futures. We offer something very real, very tangible, and often, something for which another living, breathing person has risked both life and limb to bring us. I often tell people that, for me, the fish business is the phenomenological solution to the existential dilemma. When I reach into that box, brush away the ice and pull out that fish by its gill plate I am firmly grounded in reality. That fish, swimming yesterday, today is food. Nothing is more real than that—life giving itself so that we may live. And, in that sense every meal is a Eucharist.

Bless the fish in the ocean. Bless the fishermen who bring us this sacred bounty. May we be deserving of this blessing. In turn, let us be stewards of our oceans, rivers, lakes and streams. By doing that, we honor those who came before us and those who will follow.




Sign up for our monthly newsletter with updates, events & special offers