North Carolina is poised to be at the epicenter of the local seafood movement. With 3,000 miles of shoreline and 3,000 square miles of open brackish water protected by 300 miles of barrier islands, North Carolina’s coastal ecosystem is nearly unparalleled. We have the second largest estuarine system in the contiguous U.S. which provides prime spawning and nesting grounds for a variety of wildlife, not limited to the 150-plus species of fin and shellfish found in our waters. Ninety percent of the commercial seafood caught here started or spent part of its life in an estuary system.
Our coastal ecosystem provides a home to a number of labs and scientists, like Jess Hawkins, a marine biologist and former administrator at the NC Division of Marine Fisheries who currently owns and operates Crystal Coast Ecotours. Several weeks ago we boarded his skiff The Lucky Dog, for a tour through the Bogue and Core Sounds of the Crystal Coast. Hawkins, who grew up on the water, devoted his career to studying, advocating for and enacting policy to protect the state’s coastal ecosystem and leveraging it as both an environmental and economic asset. With 2.3 million acres of estuaries, the convergence of the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current at Hatteras, our vast shoreline, maritime forests, barrier islands, creeks and marshes, Hawkins says,
Many North Carolinians have depended on these waters for their lives and livelihood. The seafood tradition in North Carolina holds one of our state’s most storied histories. The act of catching and eating seafood is important to us, and it always has been. We’ve been fishing and eating our catch since we’ve lived on this land. The record of our coast and its abundant marine life dates back to the earliest explorers’ accounts. In his New Voyage to Carolina (1674-1711), explorer John Lawson observed,
If you’ve lived here for very long, you’ve probably been fishing yourself; if you haven’t, your brother, sister, cousin, friend, or neighbor definitely has — and does. For many people, fishing is a momentary escape from everyday life. For some folks, fishing is the way of everyday life — for a few, the only way they’ve ever known — that puts food on their families’ tables. And for all of these folks and many more, eating fresh, local seafood is a harbinger of sun-soaked, laid-back days at the coast.
Built on a maritime tradition traced back to colonial America, commercial fishing is the bedrock of many eastern North Carolina communities historically, culturally and industrially. The industry is a way of life for thousands here and is a major economic driver in the state. In 2013, the commercial industry landed 22,003,442 pounds of finfish and whose total landings (including shellfish) were valued at $79.1 million dollars.
Coexisting with commercial fishermen are the state’s 736,703 licensed recreational fisherman who harvested 13,288,019 pounds of catch in 2013. Unlike commercial fishing, this estimate is based not on mandated reporting, but instead on telephone and on-site interviews, a method that brings into question its precision. It is possible the figure doesn’t represent the magnitude of actual catch landed by recreational fishermen.
Our seafood industry is at a critical juncture. Like any good drama, the state of seafood has passion, disagreement, politics, finger pointing and a lot of money being thrown around. It is controversial topic fraught with misunderstanding, misinformation, distrust, and bias.
It is a discussion of perception and reality, and a discussion that occurs in the broader context of seafood in America. According to NOAA, Americans consume 4.8 billion pounds of seafood a year, roughly 15.8 pounds per person. A number that is about half the global average of seafood consumption. But, perhaps most surprising, upwards of 90 percent of seafood consumed in America is imported after being caught, farm-raised, and/or processed in developing countries including China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ecuador. Despite our coast’s unique ecosystem, many restaurants hawking seafood specials are preparing fish that has been imported from afar because it’s cheaper and more easily accessible than local seafood, a phenomena unfolding across the country.
Comparatively, the United States Department of Agriculture reports that only 8 percent of beef consumed by Americans is imported. Approximately half of the seafood imported is farm-raised. While aquaculture in the U.S. is a highly regulated and safe source of food, foreign aquaculture is a different beast. Developing countries do not always adhere to American farming standards and employ the use of drugs banned here. In theory, the U.S. requires importers to adhere to the same strict standards, inspection is rare. In 2011, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that the FDA only inspects 2 percent of all imported seafood for contamination of drugs, microbes and heavy metals. The report also concluded that inspection methods are insufficient to identifying potential risk, only testing for drug residue of 13 drugs. In contrast, the European Union inspects 50 percent of imports and tests for 34 drugs.
Paradoxically, despite the overwhelming quantity of imported seafood, American fishermen are forced to export one-third of domestically caught fish and shellfish to other countries. A certain percentage of which is reimported after being exported to developing countries for low-cost processing. Paul Greenberg, author of American Catch: The Fight for our Local Seafood, says, what he calls, the “Great Fish Swap” is partially a result of Americans favoring low-grade seafood that is cheap and easily accessible. In a 2014 interview with NPR, Greenberg said,
Last week, we took a trip to the coast – “Down East” to be precise – to meet a man whose livelihood depends on fishing. It was a cloudy, moody day that looked as if the bottom could fall out of the sky at a moment’s notice. As Highway 70 wound into Highway 12, the road was flanked on the right by the sound and by marshes on our left. We passed few cars. We ended at a landing, about half of a mile from what felt like the end of the earth, where Quality Seafood sits. There wasn’t much happening: a few boats sat in port; trawls were bundled neatly under collapsed outriggers; Bradley Styron and his son, who run the family-operated business, sat in the fish house sheltered from the gently falling rain. He greeted us with a reserved, but friendly, “hello,” spoken with a tinge of a fading high tide accent and invited us into his world.
Commercial fisherman and fish house operators, like Bradley Styron, right or wrong, often end up painted as the bad guys of the seafood industry. These are the folks who are subject to government regulation and intervention and are often, due to a lack of a centralized voice and financial resources, on the receiving end of the wishes of conservation and recreational fishing advocacy groups. After all, it is hard to ignore a photo of baby sea turtles in gill nets or a video depicting the destruction of our sound bottoms. Commercial fisherman often feel unheard and disregarded. For them, this isn’t a discussion of overfishing or who is right or wrong. It is about having a voice in creating fair and balanced policy that encompasses the viewpoints of all stakeholders.
Styron, like many commercial fishermen, wholesalers and retailers, believes regulation can and should occur. He supports, “regulations for the benefit of everybody and doing it with common sense and good judgement-something many of the people making the rules lack.” He believes “there is an opportunity for a strong recreational and strong commercial presence in this state.”
The absence of regulation on imported seafood concerns Bradley Styron who believes we are jeopardizing our lives. He passionately explains,
Aside from the possibility of grave public health risks, imports devalue locally caught seafood as a commodity. North Carolina fisherman can’t compete with developing world wages, and foreign supply and unwavering demand deflate seafood’s domestic value.
Simultaneously, the state of the coastal ecosystem hangs in the balance. Environmental degradation, real estate development, ecosystem alteration, pollution, fish population mismanagement and global warming threaten to disrupt, or further disrupt, the delicate nature of one of North Carolina’s greatest natural resources.
Consumers in North Carolina and beyond have become largely detached from wild-caught food from our waters. It doesn’t have to be this way. The shift to “slow-food” is happening in urban areas across the state where community gardens and farm-to-table restaurants are flourishing. The movement is even finding its way to rural areas, like Kinston (home to Vivian Howard’s restaurant, Chef & the Farmer), where eating what naturally grows and thrives in an area has been a way of life for centuries. Researchers throughout our university system are searching for solutions to make local food affordable for everyone here by examining the cultural, environmental, public health and economic impact of food in our state.
Amidst this landscape, there are several instances where the local seafood movement is already thriving. A growing number of consumers are demanding local seafood. Community Supported Fisheries (CSF), like the one offered by Locals Seafood of Raleigh, allow people to purchase a season’s worth of fish up front. Modeled after Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSA Boxes), CSF programs help commercial watermen draw higher prices and guarantees stable income, while ensuring that consumers receive high-quality, local, wild-caught and delicious seafood throughout the season at or near their doorstep. For $25 per week, customers in and around Raleigh can pick up 2 pounds of seafood at Local Seafood retail locations throughout the summer. Currently, the only other program like this in the state is Walking Fish of Durham.
Beyond its CSF program, Locals Seafood provides fresh seafood to inland areas as far west as Asheville for retail and wholesale customers. Their seafood is traceable, processed in-house and ready for market quickly. Every Tuesday and Thursday, owners Ryan Speckman and Lin Peterson drive down to the coast to haul back the day’s catch to the Capital City in their refrigerated vehicles. Sourcing from Oak Island up to Oregon Inlet, they know (and publish on their website) the exact fisherman who pulled in a particular catch on a particular day. Locals Seafood regularly provides recipes online and at all retail locations that put their customers at ease in the kitchen with commonly underutilized species. Their speedy delivery and in-house processing allow their wholesale customers to serve fresh fish, sometimes as soon as the day after it was caught -- a feat for restaurants at a minimum of two hours inland.
One of these wholesale customers is Chef-proprietor Ricky Moore of Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham. After working in a variety of high-end fine dining restaurants across the globe, Moore moved his family back to his home state of North Carolina in 2009 and opened Saltbox in 2012. Moore grew up in New Bern, has roots to Down East and was raised on a variety of seafood, but especially fried panfish like spot, croaker and sea mullet. At his seafood stand on the outskirts of downtown Durham, he serves all these varieties and more, depending on what’s fresh. He takes risks and tries to influence his customers’ perceptions and palates, too. He explains,
In the face of competing interests and difficult legislation, the first step we can take as consumers is to buy local and buy often. Ask the restaurants you visit where the fish comes from. Buy fish you’ve never tried before. Cook it in a new way. Trying Locals Seafood’s mini-CSF for the summer and getting in the kitchen with one of Chef Ricky's recipes is a great place to start.
Chef Ricky's "Korean Pan Fried Whole NC Croakers"
4 medium-sized croakers, scaled, gutted, cleaned and rinse
3 Tbsp soju or rice wine
2 Tbsp crushed garlic
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
4 Tbsp flour
1.5 Tbsp glutinous rice powder*
1 Tbsp cornstarch
canola cooking oil
Combine soju, garlic and salt and pepper and sprinkle mixture onto both fish.
After about 15 minutes, mix flour, rice powder and cornstarch together in a large bowl.
Dip fish into the flour mixture, coating both sides evenly.
In a pan, add at least 1/8-inch of cooking oil and heat.
Pan-fry fish over medium-high heat until both sides are nicely browned. Add extra oil if necessary and depending on the size of the fish, it will take about 3-5 minutes per side to cook.
Remove from pan immediately and drain on paper towel.
*Glutinous rice powder (chapsal)
This rice powder might also say 'sweet rice powder' or 'sweet rice flour' or 'glutinous rice flour' on the package if you're buying it at an Asian grocery store. It's called 'glutinous' because it has a glue-like and sticky texture after you cook it, not because it has gluten in it. Chapsal is a gluten-free food.
Eating the Whole Fish
Nose-to-tail fish eating is healthy and reduces waste since you can eat everything- the skin, the head, the tail and the fins. Depending on how much oil you've used and the size of your croaker, the bones in this dish might be crispy enough to eat. If you haven't used a thick layer of oil, then you might have to remove the bones before eating.
One of the most delicious parts of a fish is on the back part of the head, which is lost if you fillet a fish.
Chef Ricky's Grilled Tilefish Collars
8 tilefish collars
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons real maple syrup
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons good, Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all the ingredients together in a plastic bag, seal and marinate at least 4 hours, or up to overnight. Grill or broil using medium high heat. You want them cooked through and you don’t want to burn up the yummy fins, the ends of which are a nutty, crunchy treat you will be shocked to learn you absolutely love! The meat in collars is fatty so it can withstand a little extra cooking.