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How does commercial fishing work?


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Since I'm a few weeks away from starting fishing for the season, and since my internet access is paid for by people like you who buy fish, I thought I would offer to field questions about the mechanics of commercial fishing and the start of the process of getting fish out of the water and to your fish market.

I've been doing an enormous amount of late-night reading on eGullet and other food-oriented forums, and I've become very aware that there's a real lack of knowledge about what exactly happens in commercial fisheries, and a lot of misconceptions about how different species are caught, processed, and managed.

All of my fishing experience is in Alaska. I know a lot about a few fisheries here, a little about the rest of our fisheries, and have at least a rudimentary grasp of issues facing American fisheries outside Alaska.

Let's call it boat-to-table. Any questions at all, from what the work day is like to a deckhand's view of fisheries management to how fish is taken care of on the boat to how it's sold off the boat, I'll do what I can to answer.

If I can't answer, I'll feed you a line of reasonable-sounding bullshit. Because I'm a fisherman. It's part of the job.

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What species do you target? Is everything frozen on-boat, or do you have other forms of on boat processing. How long is your average trip? Longline, net, bandit/reel? A fleet boat for a processor or an independent selling to a wholesaler? Fisheries are quite different in AK than in my neck of the woods (Gulf of Mex).

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Adding on to HungryC's questions...

It would be great if you gave a brief summary of what you fished for (salmon?) and the chain of events/processes from your boat(s) to the restaurant(s) or market(s) or wholesaler(s) you supply in your case. One could then ask more questions based on the backbone of what you describe and how it may differ in other cases? Also how the chain works "in general" in Alaska?

For starters, I'll ask about the ratios of fish that are just "iced" and that are actually frozen and whether iced fish are later frozen and whether they occur on your boat(s) [both ways?] or are frozen later [where?]. Sans guts or with guts? [species specific?] Any tuna catches? [Alaska is within the ranges for tuna] if so, how do you process them? Taniguchi method? Is this method (for sashimi-grade tuna) applied to other species you catch, or to other species other folks (not you) catch?

Whew, that's a lot already...

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What species do you target? Is everything frozen on-boat, or do you have other forms of on boat processing. How long is your average trip? Longline, net, bandit/reel? A fleet boat for a processor or an independent selling to a wholesaler? Fisheries are quite different in AK than in my neck of the woods (Gulf of Mex).

Most of my time has been spent longlining halibut and some black cod. My other main gig these days is scalloping. I've done salmon, both seine and gillnet and pot fished for cod. But longlining's my favorite. Halibut boats are all independent and vary wildly in size. The big processor-dominated fisheries are salmon (though the fleet is almost entirely made up of independent boats), pollock (where in many cases the processing happens on the boat), and (to a lesser extent) crab.

Every species is handled differently, but the only ones that are generally frozen on the boat are pollock, some cod, and scallops on all the boats other than the one I work on. Basically the big dragger fisheries.

Trip length varies a lot depending on the fishery, the boat, and the market. Halibut trips probably average three or four days of actual fishing. Shorter if the fishing's good, longer if it isn't. Nobody likes delivering more than six-day-old fish (well, some people do, but the buyers know who they are and adjust their prices accordingly). Salmon seiners can stay out a long time, because they deliver to tenders that bring supplies to the boats and fish to the processors. Catcher/processor trawlers only have to go home to deliver and refuel.

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I live inland and buy a lot of frozen sides of wild Alaskan sockeye. Some brands are labeled with a designation of the specific area in which the salmon was caught, others are not (I forget the exact language but it's rather technical, not just "Copper River" or whatever. More like "section 18, block 42."). Are both equally legit? Why the difference?

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Adding on to HungryC's questions...

It would be great if you gave a brief summary of what you fished for (salmon?) and the chain of events/processes from your boat(s) to the restaurant(s) or market(s) or wholesaler(s) you supply in your case. One could then ask more questions based on the backbone of what you describe and how it may differ in other cases? Also how the chain works "in general" in Alaska?

For starters, I'll ask about the ratios of fish that are just "iced" and that are actually frozen and whether iced fish are later frozen and whether they occur on your boat(s) [both ways?] or are frozen later [where?]. Sans guts or with guts? [species specific?] Any tuna catches? [Alaska is within the ranges for tuna] if so, how do you process them? Taniguchi method? Is this method (for sashimi-grade tuna) applied to other species you catch, or to other species other folks (not you) catch?

Whew, that's a lot already...

I've heard of tuna being caught here, but there's not an actual tuna fishery. With climate change, though, who knows?

How the fish are handled obviously varies depending on catch method, species, and market. Salmon seiners scoop them up, dump them into the hold which is filled with either regular water or Refrigerated Sea Water(RSW), and then deliver them, usually the same day, to tenders who run them back to the plant. Seining is the big volume way to catch salmon, and supplies pretty much all the pinks for canning and a fair amount of the reds. Most of the canned reds come from Bristol Bay, though, and those are all gillnetted. Gillnetters going for volume don't generally bleed their fish; gillnetters who supply the higher-end fresh markets do. Trollers ("line-caught" on white-tablecloth menus) bleed and ice their fish. I *think* some of them gut, too, but don't quote me on that. Trolling is a tiny fishery and only happens in Southeast.

Halibut are bled, then gutted and iced. They are always delivered fresh. Processors decide whether to sell them fresh or freeze them. Processors are where the real sorting happens with halibut- some boats have a reputation for nice fish, get a higher price, and are used to supply the fresh market; some boats have a reputation for not-so-nice fish and their stuff goes into the back of the freezer. Black cod are almost always headed and gutted, though if you deliver them within 72 hours you can leave them in the round. Since black cod grounds can take 72 hours just to get to, this isn't that common. Those are the only two species that are regularly gutted on the boat. The boat I work on guts our rockfish and ling cod, too, but that's bycatch and most people don't do it. It gets us a slightly higher price, so we make an extra three bucks a trip or something.

Is taniguchi the one where they stick a wire down the spinal cord? I've never seen anybody do that, and I imagine I'd get a lot of blank stares if I asked about it.

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I live inland and buy a lot of frozen sides of wild Alaskan sockeye. Some brands are labeled with a designation of the specific area in which the salmon was caught, others are not (I forget the exact language but it's rather technical, not just "Copper River" or whatever. More like "section 18, block 42."). Are both equally legit? Why the difference?

I'm not sure about the "section 18" thing, but branded salmon is definitely picking up steam, mostly because fishermen in other areas see the prices the Copper River guys get and want to get in on the action. A lot of this is dealt with at the processor stage, but the way these programs usually work is that the branding organization comes up with handling standards that boats that want in have to conform to. That's different than how a specific company, like Icicle or Peter Pan or whoever, might label their products.

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A very naive question about scallops - what happens to the roe/coral and why are they only rarely sold in the shell? In France they are always alive when you buy them. I don't understand why this is not the norm in the US.

This is easier to answer for Alaskan scallops than for east coast scallops. It would be extremely difficult and expensive to keep scallops alive on the boat, at the plant, on the airplane, and at the market. It's a very long chain. I don't know if any of the east coast boats do any live deliveries.

I suspect the reason why live scallops aren't more common in the States is related to the reasons why pork chops outsell offal here by a large margin.

I don't know how large French scallops are, but the size of these means there's an intimidating amount of guts you'd have to swallow.

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A very naive question about scallops - what happens to the roe/coral and why are they only rarely sold in the shell? In France they are always alive when you buy them. I don't understand why this is not the norm in the US.

This is easier to answer for Alaskan scallops than for east coast scallops. It would be extremely difficult and expensive to keep scallops alive on the boat, at the plant, on the airplane, and at the market. It's a very long chain. I don't know if any of the east coast boats do any live deliveries.

I suspect the reason why live scallops aren't more common in the States is related to the reasons why pork chops outsell offal here by a large margin.

I don't know how large French scallops are, but the size of these means there's an intimidating amount of guts you'd have to swallow.

Thanks for the answer, that makes sense. French scallops (coquilles Saint Jacques aka Pecten maximus) are about 4 to 5 inches in diameter (for the shell). What is the typical shell size for Alaskan scallops?

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I don't know how large French scallops are, but the size of these means there's an intimidating amount of guts you'd have to swallow.

Thanks for the answer, that makes sense. French scallops (coquilles Saint Jacques aka Pecten maximus) are about 4 to 5 inches in diameter (for the shell). What is the typical shell size for Alaskan scallops?

4-5 inches is on the small side. I'd say 7 inches or so is the average shell size, though some get much larger than that. The biggest I've seen have meats the size of your palm.

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I live inland and buy a lot of frozen sides of wild Alaskan sockeye. Some brands are labeled with a designation of the specific area in which the salmon was caught, others are not (I forget the exact language but it's rather technical, not just "Copper River" or whatever. More like "section 18, block 42."). Are both equally legit? Why the difference?

I'm not sure about the "section 18" thing, but branded salmon is definitely picking up steam, mostly because fishermen in other areas see the prices the Copper River guys get and want to get in on the action. A lot of this is dealt with at the processor stage, but the way these programs usually work is that the branding organization comes up with handling standards that boats that want in have to conform to. That's different than how a specific company, like Icicle or Peter Pan or whoever, might label their products.

Well, the thing I'm talking about (and I'm sorry I can't give a specific example as I don't have any on hand) doesn't seem to be used for marketing all--it's just a bit of technical info printed on the vacuum bag, very unobtrusive, and looks like the kind of info that would be there because it's legally required--except not all brands have it. But I take it from your answer that there are no labeling requirements other than country of origin?

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I have in the past read that a lot of the fish you buy (especially frozen) is mislabeled so what you think you are getting is not what you are actually getting. Can you give us any insight as to why that happens and how we can ensure that we are getting what we pay for?

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Well, the thing I'm talking about (and I'm sorry I can't give a specific example as I don't have any on hand) doesn't seem to be used for marketing all--it's just a bit of technical info printed on the vacuum bag, very unobtrusive, and looks like the kind of info that would be there because it's legally required--except not all brands have it. But I take it from your answer that there are no labeling requirements other than country of origin?

None that I am aware of. If it varies according to supplier, I assume it's some kind of processor-specific method of keeping track of... something? Other than the branded fish, the only people who really care where, exactly, fish come from are the various regulatory agencies charged with management.

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I have in the past read that a lot of the fish you buy (especially frozen) is mislabeled so what you think you are getting is not what you are actually getting. Can you give us any insight as to why that happens and how we can ensure that we are getting what we pay for?

It happens because some fish cost more than others. I've heard lots of stories of people buying "halibut" at upscale restaurants that was in fact cod. Halibut fetches 5-6 dollars a pound at the dock. Cod gets thirty or forty cents. Somebody between the boat and your belly is pocketing the difference. Most of the cases I know about are at the retail level. I'd bet that this kind of thing happens a lot more in fresh markets than frozen. Truth-in-labeling laws and rigorous enforcement are really the only way to deal with it, outside of trusting your source.

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I have in the past read that a lot of the fish you buy (especially frozen) is mislabeled so what you think you are getting is not what you are actually getting. Can you give us any insight as to why that happens and how we can ensure that we are getting what we pay for?

It happens because some fish cost more than others. I've heard lots of stories of people buying "halibut" at upscale restaurants that was in fact cod. Halibut fetches 5-6 dollars a pound at the dock. Cod gets thirty or forty cents. Somebody between the boat and your belly is pocketing the difference. Most of the cases I know about are at the retail level. I'd bet that this kind of thing happens a lot more in fresh markets than frozen. Truth-in-labeling laws and rigorous enforcement are really the only way to deal with it, outside of trusting your source.

Related to this, my wife and I were in a fish restaurant several years ago in the North End of Boston and asked, as we are wont to do, the provenence of the salmon they carried. The waiter went into the kitchen, asked the chef, and came back to inform us that it was "Farmed Alaskan Salmon." This would have been interesting if true, as salmon farming is illegal in Alaska. He disappeared pretty quickly, before we had even processed what he had said, but my wife's parents asked about the rather astonished looks on our faces. We clued them in and my mother-in-law sweetly informed the waiter the next time he passed that clearly somebody was making things up. He went back into the kitchen and returned to let us know that the chef had been mistaken and the salmon was farmed Nova Scotia salmon.

The point being that "Wild Alaskan" salmon is, in fact, a redundancy, and if anyone ever tries to tell you that your fish is farmed and Alaskan, they are at the very least confused.

If you still want the salmon dish at that point, you should get a discount. But I'd order something else, probably from somewhere else.

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This would have been interesting if true, as salmon farming is illegal in Alaska. .

Then again, there is such a thing as farmed British Columbia salmon.

Yep. That's the source of the Atlantic salmon that every year find their way into the nets of the Pacific fleet. So it's at least mathematically possible that this restaurant wound up with a wild-caught-Alaskan, farmed-British Columbian salmon. But I'd still bet on them bullshitting their customers.

BTW, I apologize for missing your post earlier in the thread. I haven't spent much time in Southeast, but I know Petersburg lands a lot of salmon and Dungeness crab, and they are, as a heavily Norwegian town, also big into halibut fishing. The halibut fishery was dominated by Norwegians for a long time, and a significant number of guys in the Seattle fleet are still Norwegians. There are usually a lot of boats in Alaskan ports showing Petersburg as their home port.

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Long roper,

Curious, I checked upthread but didn't see where you fish in AK. Bristol Bay?

Saturday I thawed and cooked a most delicious filet of Chinook acquired last fall at a Philadelphia farmers market. It's sold by a small quality middleman here (Otolith) who acquires direct from boats in SE Alaska. Only troll-caught fish.

The Chinook I bought was from the September harvest out of Sitka and was right up there with the finest salmon I've ever eaten.

When quality caught, handled, frozen and shipped/stored, frozen is better than most of the "fresh" fish you can find.

Bob Libkind aka "rlibkind"

Robert's Market Report

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.....

Saturday I thawed and cooked a most delicious filet of Chinook acquired last fall at a Philadelphia farmers market. It's sold by a small quality middleman here (Otolith) who acquires direct from boats in SE Alaska. Only troll-caught fish.

The Chinook I bought was from the September harvest out of Sitka and was right up there with the finest salmon I've ever eaten.

When quality caught, handled, frozen and shipped/stored, frozen is better than most of the "fresh" fish you can find.

Longroper, just curious, are you familiar with this couple and their operations? https://www.wildalaskasalmonandseafood.com/

I still have some of their salmon in my freezer, and they just had their "last session" at the Bloomington (IN) Farmers' Market the past weekend.

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.....

Saturday I thawed and cooked a most delicious filet of Chinook acquired last fall at a Philadelphia farmers market. It's sold by a small quality middleman here (Otolith) who acquires direct from boats in SE Alaska. Only troll-caught fish.

The Chinook I bought was from the September harvest out of Sitka and was right up there with the finest salmon I've ever eaten.

When quality caught, handled, frozen and shipped/stored, frozen is better than most of the "fresh" fish you can find.

Longroper, just curious, are you familiar with this couple and their operations? https://www.wildalaskasalmonandseafood.com/

I still have some of their salmon in my freezer, and they just had their "last session" at the Bloomington (IN) Farmers' Market the past weekend.

The above link only works for me when I get rid of the "s" after http.

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