Sea to Table
Sustainable, fresh, local seafood is the coastal take on the farm-to-table movement
Stephanie Mutz holds a master’s degree in marine ecology. But unlike most of her peers, Mutz does not spend her days working for nonprofits, conducting research or teaching marine preservation. As California’s only female urchin diver, she spends them underwater, gathering sea urchins, or uni. Not for study, but for food.
A typical day sees her steering her 20-foot aluminum boat anywhere from a few miles to 60 miles offshore, to a secluded reef or one of the Channel Islands, then stretching on a wetsuit, grabbing a rake and bag, and diving overboard. She breathes from a hookah – a five-horsepower Honda engine that feeds her compressed air through a long hose and scuba regulator – and dives 20 to 70 feet below to collect urchins by hand, one at a time. Carefully. Purposefully.
“All urchins are not created equal. Urchins differ depending on what they’re eating. So when I first get down there, I open up a few and get a good representation of the reef. If the few I open look really good, I’ll continue picking. I’ll move down the line and check every once in a while to make sure of the quality,” says Mutz, who grew up in Newport Beach, surfing and free diving for dinner with her dad. She’s comfortable in the kelp forests, among the sea lions and leopard sharks as she hauls in 500 to 1,000 urchins a week, far less than any commercial venture. “I catch less, but I don’t necessarily work less,” says Mutz, with a laugh.
Mutz’s urchins go from her boat directly to customers’ tables. In fact, sometimes there’s not even a table involved – it’s boat to mouth – since Mutz sells her urchins for $5 apiece to customers at the Dory Fleet Market at the Newport Pier every weekend. Alongside her, other Dory Fleet fishermen sell everything from red snapper, lobster and channel cod to sea trout, octopus and white sea bass, all fresh from the sea hunt. Mutz and her Dory brethren also sell to some of the finest restaurants in Orange County and Los Angeles.
Like the farm-to-table trend that started years ago as a backlash to Big Ag’s dependence on non-organic farming methods, mass food production and long-distance transportation, the Dory Fleet’s sea-to-table approach relies on customers and chefs wanting to know exactly where and how their fish was obtained.
“They’re waking up to the reality of processed foods and also starting to think about where their food comes from, and from how far away,” says Orange County Register food critic Brad A. Johnson.
He said some local restaurants are at the forefront of the sea-to-table concept. In Orange County, Bluewater Grill is a great follower of the sea-to-table concept. L.A.’s Providence has, he says, taken the concept further than anyone on the West Coast.
Still, while visiting the local farmers market is now routine for growing numbers, and restaurants proudly list the pedigrees of their ingredients on their menus, when it comes to sea-to-table dining, things aren’t as easy.
For starters, it’s seafood, which means it’s in the sea, a place that man wasn’t exactly designed to navigate easily. So pulling out urchins or finding and catching wild snapper is a lot harder than pulling up a carrot or raising a cow (apologies to hardworking farmers). And like organic, responsible farming, it’s harder if you want to fish sustainably.
Mutz knows she could probably get more urchins faster using a less selective approach and make more money by selling to large distributors. But she says that would be shortsighted, as a biologist, a businessperson and a fisherman.
“In the Dory Fleet we catch what we need and we leave the rest out there until we need it next. We make sure our product is being utilized and not wasted. If that resource is gone, we’re out of a job,” says Mutz.
When Mutz speaks about these issues, her voice is charged with the energy of someone who was once deep into fishery politics. And she was. But, she says, during grad school she needed money and got work as a deckhand on an urchin boat. Soon, she found she preferred fishing to politics. “I fished more and went to less meetings,” she says. She also realized she was the change she wanted to see. Bringing the farm-to-table model to the sea necessarily means more sustainable fishing practices.
“Having that direct contact with the customer and community, sharing recipes and sharing personal experiences – to me it seems more meaningful,” she says.
Unfortunately, that sentiment is being stifled and outpaced by commercialization. Mutz is one of the dwindling numbers of fishermen who still harvest seafood from local waters and sell it directly to local chefs and customers. No factory boats. No middlemen. No surprises. And, says Mutz, it’s only getting more difficult. While other countries skirt regulations or don’t even impose, California is one of the most heavily regulated fisheries in the world.
Mutz says the Dory Fleet fishermen grumbled when regulations began getting stiffer a decade or so ago, but now embrace them. They’ve seen fish stocks rebound and become healthier than they’ve been in a long time. Still, she says, it’s not easy to be a small-boat fisherman in today’s fast-paced, convenience-addicted world.
That’s part of the reason the Dory Fleet has shrunk from 28 fishermen in the 1980s to just 10 today. “Local seafood is hard to find. You have to seek it out,” Mutz says. In fact, she says, the Dory Fleet’s biggest competition is not local fishermen, but imported seafood. Because of the lack of regulations and because it’s often caught or harvested in a more efficient, but much less-sustainable, way, it’s cheaper. For many consumers, price and convenience trump freshness.
In fact, 90 percent of U.S. seafood is imported, usually from countries with less-regulated and more poorly managed fisheries, according to Oceana, the world’s largest ocean protection organization. But that’s not just a problem for local fisherman; it’s a problem for seafood lovers.
In many instances, the fish that ends up in the market or the restaurant is not just less fresh, it’s not even the fish it’s purported to be, says Johnson. “A lot of times, even the chefs are duped by fraudulent fish sellers, especially if the restaurant doesn’t have huge purchasing power and relies on big purveyors,” he says.
From 2010 to 2012, Oceana conducted a massive seafood fraud study, taking 1,215 seafood samples from nearly 700 retail outlets. DNA testing found that 33 percent of the samples were mislabeled. Among the most commonly misidentfied were red snapper and tuna, both Dory Fleet staples. A full 87 percent of snapper and 59 percent of tuna turned out to be something other than what was on the label. As for red snapper, only seven of 120 samples turned out to be the fish.
Imagine the uproar if 87 percent of the beef sold turned out to be dog or horse. But fraudulent seafood goes almost unnoticed by the public.
After their study, Oceana suggested a much better tracking system, one that follows seafood “from boat to table.” Which, of course, is exactly what you get when you buy from the Dory Fleet. There you see the entire fish – the fishermen clean and filet it right in front of you – and it’s a good bet it was still swimming around when you went to sleep the night before. As for Mutz, she’ll crack open a fresh urchin for you and give you a good recipe to go with it.
The fact that seafood fraud is so routinely and so easily perpetrated speaks to the larger issue of consumers becoming further and further removed from the origins of their food. It’s a fact that led to the farm-to-table movement and one not lost on local fishermen like Hailey Pearson, part of the third generation of fishermen at Pearson’s Port.
Located in the Bayside Marina, almost literally under the PCH bridge, Pearson’s Port is California’s only floating seafood market. Even if you don’t like fish, visiting the shack, which looks as if it was relocated from a Louisiana bayou, is a worthwhile trip.
Known as the place to find the freshest of the fresh seafood, inside the splinter-strewn crooked walls are three iced cases that – depending on the season – hold fresh swordfish, sashimi-grade salmon, clams, snapper, tuna, ono, scallops and more and nine circulating chilled water tanks filled with the live seasonal catch of the 12 family-owned and -run boats the Pearsons manage from San Diego to Monterey. “The catch completely changes depending on weather, boats breaking down, and quite honestly, who drank what the night before,” says Pearson.
Hailey’s father, Tom, is still the primary crab, spot prawn and lobster fisherman, launching out of Dana Point Harbor. He took the business over from his father and mother, Roy and Viola. After serving in the Vietnam War, Roy was working for McDonnell Douglas. But, as time went by, the company started laying people off and Roy became a nervous wreck, expecting a pink slip at the end of each shift. So, one day, he quit to return to the sea, to be a fisherman like he had been before the war.
“He went out of Newport Harbor and got one lobster his first day,” Hailey says. Viola flagged down a car from what’s now the Pearson’s Port parking lot and sold it, cursing Roy’s name the whole time. That, apparently, sealed the fate of her and her offspring. Roy told her he thought she was pretty darn good at selling fish, so he was going to build her a market. “And here we are 45 years later,” Hailey says, laughing. Now, Tom fishes and his wife, Terese, sells.
Like her parents, Hailey grew up on a fishing boat. “Before we could walk we were on the boat with my dad strung to the fishing pole racks in our car seats. When I was young I was giving my sister bottles and playing with Barbies in the cabin,” she says.
It taught her valuable lessons. “Here, nothing goes to waste. If something is here over three days, we eat it ourselves or it goes into a bait bucket and is used to catch more fish,” she says. She hopes that when customers visit Pearson’s Port and see live lobster or crab and fresh sides of fish, they take a little of that understanding home with their dinner.
“People can see the animal live and whole before they buy it and it really gives them a connection back to where their food is coming from. It takes the veil down,” she says. “Many people don’t understand that food is a live resource. Especially seafood. It’s really the last protein that humans hunt on a large scale.”
She worries that the veil has shielded people from the dangers, both to themselves and to the environment, imposed by the industrialization of food, especially the large-scale commercial fishing industry.
Overfishing, habitat destruction and bycatch – catching, killing and discarding unwanted sea life because of indiscriminate fishing techniques such as trawling, gill nets, and longlines – has had devastating consequences. Since 1988, while the world population has increased, the global seafood catch has decreased by 18 percent. This is due to a bloated and sophisticated fishing fleet that is now 250 percent larger than is needed to fish sustainably.
That’s why Andrew Sharpless, the CEO of Oceana, believes that wild-caught fish is the answer. “Eat locally caught fish,” he suggests. “American fisheries tend to be better managed than other fisheries in the world. But, we import 90 percent of our seafood, so if you eat local, you are probably eating fish from a better-managed fishery than if you eat an imported fish,” says Sharpless.
Pearson says that, just like farmers markets, another benefit of eating sea-to-table is that you are supporting the local economy. “When you patronize here it doesn’t just support my family, but there are 12 families that are supported through just this business,” she says, referring to the dozen locally-owned and family-operated boats in the Pearson fleet.
Like the farm-to-table movement, going sea-to-table may require eating seasonally or trying species you might not normally order or buy, Johnson says. “The tricky thing is,” he says, “we all want to eat as locally as possible. But when it comes to seafood, some of the most delicious fish – the fattiest, most succulent fish – comes from much colder waters, much farther north or the extreme south.”
He points to popular choices such as Chilean sea bass. “Fish from our waters aren’t always the first choice of consumers, partly because of education and familiarity, but also because the local fish can be so much leaner and stronger in flavor, which makes them more difficult to cook if the chef isn’t properly trained in seafood,” he says.
Anyone who has visited a farmers market knows that part of the reason for going is the experience, the human interaction, and to find new foods and flavors for the table. That human-to-human exchange inspired Mutz to turn her back on a career in advocating for ocean preservation and one in which she actually practices it.
“This job is the most honest job I’ll ever have,” she says. “I’m providing a protein source to my community in a responsible way. Because when you buy from the fishermen, all you get is your fish and a good story.”