Local king is, or was, king

Until something precious is gone, we don’t always fully grasp just how precious it is. Years ago, when I cracked open the claws of a bright red lobster that’d been crawling on the bottom of Casco Bay just hours before, of course I knew it was something special. There’s nothing quite like a super-fresh seafood meal savored beside the ocean — in this case on a weathered picnic table right on the wharf, overlooking five little islands off the Maine coast, each topped with tall straight pine trees.

I knew it was precious and still it stings that that treat is no longer a short drive away (which is no fault of the lobsters). Central Pennsylvania, now my home, is a lovely place, full of forests, rolling hills and dark, swirling trout streams, but it certainly doesn’t have lobsters that fresh or that salty view. (And the calamari leaves much to be desired, but that’s another story.)

One of these days, I’ll get back up to Maine for another lobster meal like that. I trust the lobsters will be there. Maine lobsters are pretty abundant: Maine lobsterman landed a record 75.6 million pounds of lobster last year, but due to soft prices earned USD 23 million less than in 2008.

When it comes to enjoying and selling one of his favorite California fish, Aiden Coburn is not so lucky. Coburn is director of seafood quality and purchasing for The Fish Market Restaurants, with six California locations.

California salmon is his treasured meal, and that fishery has been closed for the last two years due to low numbers of fish. Nobody knows whether there will be a commercial fishery this spring and summer.

“Local king was king,” said Coburn. “It was the king of sales, the king of choice.”

The good news is that federal biologists predict the numbers of fall-run chinook salmon in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems this year will be six times that of last fall.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council is weighing the rules for this upcoming fishing season. All three options allow recreational fishing, while two options allow commercial fishing.

In California, the birthplace of the modern local-foods movement, the local fish aren’t all that abundant, so chefs and retailers often turn to imports, an irony detailed last December in the New York Times.

“I think the catastrophe of having lost our local salmon season for the last two years has really blotted out the sunshine of the local seafood catch,” said Coburn.

For him, “local” salmon is now salmon out of southern Oregon and Washington state. Fine fish — just not plucked right from Coburn’s own coastal culture, and that’s a great loss to fishing income, coastal communities and to restaurant sales. Since Pacific groundfish quotas are currently set so low, Coburn’s restaurants carry only three local fish out of 15 wild and farmed finfish items. They are rockfish, petrale sole and sablefish.

“When it’s local, it absolutely goes without saying it’s fresher and it has more appeal because people believe they are supporting their local fishermen,” explained Coburn. “I would give anything to see a lot more local product available to us so we could just use that perception in the mind of the seafood lover. ‘This is local, therefore it’s fresher.’ It’s a strong selling point.

“The fact is we just don’t have that luxury at the moment,” he said. “I wish to God we did.”

These last several weeks, I’ve used my space here to argue that buyers should do whatever they can to support “local” seafood. It bears repeating. Sure, imports offer the volume to make the whole supply equation work. I get that.

But U.S. fisheries offer the cultures of our own coasts, as well as the sales-boosting salty scenes and characters. They offer a promise of sustainability, as U.S. managers are mandated to end overfishing.

Let’s hope all hands are on deck to keep our abundant domestic fisheries, like Maine lobster, healthy and robust, and restore fisheries like the California salmon fishery.
I’m counting on more of those delectable seaside feasts.

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