In California: rod-and-reelers deliver their fish alive and kicking

With surgical precision, skipper John Alioto pushes as 14-gauge hypodermic needle through the skin of a rockfish that lays slapping its tail on the edge of a fiberglass “live-tank”. An inch into the fish, he strikes his target – a gas sack, or swim bladder, whose contents must be removed so the fish can survive in the tank. The gas wheezes through the syringe as Alioto gently massages the fish’s belly.

“These gopher cod are the easiest to |punch’; anywhere around the belly seems to work,” he says, tossing the 2-lb. fish into one of two 550-gal. tanks, each of which holds 400 lbs. of live fish. “Others, like bolinas, are more difficult. You’ve got to punch them two or three times to get all the gas out. Even then, they don’t survive too sell.”

Deflating gas sacks? Massaging fish tummies? Is that what’s become of California fisheries? You bet. In fact, 50 rod-and-reelers from five central California ports say the harvest and sale of live fish may be the wave of the future – a wave that drowns out some old fish-handling myths and cements another bond between American fishermen and quality-conscious Asian buyers.

It all started two years ago, when California fishermen expanded on alive-prawn fishery that was taking shape in San Pedro and San Diego. Acting on market inquiries, rod-and-reelers from Morro Bay to Oxnard began probing shallow-water rocky areas (20′ to 90′ deep), between Monterey and Point Conception and at southern California’s Channel Islands, in search of candidates for live-fish sales.

The fishery’s growing pains have been severe, as the work is tedious, time-consuming and, above all, chancey. Delivered live, rockfish earn fishermen $3/lb. to $3.50/lb. Delivered dead, they’re worth $1/lb.

Then there’s the task of satisfying finicky buyers who often pick through a load of live fish to see if each one makes the grade. On top of that, fishermen face the delicate problem of keeping the catch alive aboard ship and when transporting them (by boat or truck) to the brokers who supply Asian fish markets and restaurants near San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Still, the fishery is gathering steam. In fact, California’s live-fish production has reportedly tripled during the past 18 months, with up to 15,000 lbs. landed weekly.

“The whole idea is to eliminate shelf-life problems by eliminating the shelf,” says Alioto, who, with partner Vern Ferguson, operates the 32′ Francine R. out of Port San Luis. “For quality, live fish are as close to perfection as you can get. In the Far East they’ve been doing it this way for centuries, but to us, it’s a new fishery and a new challenge.”

Into the Tank

Rigors of the live-fish business are immediately clear as Alioto and his three-man crew drift in snappy, 4′ seas off Point Sal, 14 miles south of their home port. One of the harbor’s dozen live-fish skippers (several of whom drift nearby, in boats ranging from 18′ to 48′), Alioto has already repositioned the Francine R. three times in 20 minutes. He’s tracking rockfish schools, which, on his depth sounder, appear to meander among shallow reefs like bees warming from hollow to hollow.

Prime targets today are black-and-yellow rockfish, gopher rockfish and brown rockfish (otherwise known as China cod, gopher cod and bolinas, respectively). Landed by sport anglers for decades, these species and other live-fish targets, such as sheephead, are common throughout California and its Channel Islands. Some, like bolinas, also range into Oregon, and a Few live-fish favorites, such as cabezon, are found all the way to Alaska.

Alioto alternates between drifting and anchoring, setting the hook during flurries of good fishing. He and his crew each use a two-hook gangion with No. 6 J-hooks, a semi-stiff 5′ fiberglass fishing pole and a conventional reel with a 3:1 retrieve ratio. Attached to drop loops tied 12″ apart on a 25-lb.-test leader (the mainline is 30-lb.-test), the hooks are baited with small strips of squid.

A lead “torpedo” sinker (ranging from 3 oz. to 8 oz., depending on sea conditions), is attached to a snap at the end of the leader. Because they work over rocky bottom, most live-fish skippers expect to lose more than 50 sinkers on every three-day trip. Alioto, therefore, pours his own lead.

Rebaiting his hooks, the 49-year-old skipper pauses to assess his place in a fishery that features as its primary tools a two-hook gangion and a syringe. “It’s funny,” he says. “I’ve been in more commercial fisheries than you can name – from gillnetting barracuda to purse seining tuna – but sport fishing has always been my true love. I guess this is as close to sport fishing as you can get and still sell your catch.”

When the rod rattles, Alioto strikes back quickly, to keep the biting fish out of the rocks and to hook it in the lip, not the gut. “Gut-hooked fish rarely survive,” he notes, slowly winding in a gopher cod and swinging it aboard. With its gas sack punctured, the rockfish darts to the bottom of the tank, joining four of its near-motionless brethren, whose pectoral fins wave gentle signs of good health.

Before a fish has even splashed into the tank, however, its chance for survival has been elevated or reduced, depending on how it’s initially handled, says Dr. Milton Love, a rockfish expert at the University of California at Santa Barbara. And with loss rates exceeding 25% in some cases, proper onboard treatment becomes a task of paramount importance.

The survival drill begins with the gas bladder. “The bladder is a fish’s way of maintaining neutral buoyancy,” Love explains. “It fills with gas as they go deeper [and external pressure increases], and the gas filters back into the blood as they rise. If they’re suddenly dragged to the surface, gas that’s already in the bladder has no time to escape into the capillaries. It expands like crazy, and if not immediately released when the fish is landed, the fish dies.”

Though many in the live-fish fleet don’t do it, Love recommends de-gassing fish in the water. That means swinging the fish aboard and into the tank in a single motion, then pricking its swim bladder. Again, he says, it’s matter of increasing survivability. If a fish is handled out of water, it’s protective slime is more likely disturbed. “And if the slime is removed and the skin abraded, infection sets in immediately,” Love warns.

In addition, says Love, fishermen should avoid ripping fins or touching gills, for marketability reasons in the former case and survivability in the latter.

Even if fish make it to the tank unharmed, a host of other handling problems await. “Water temperature, water clarity and oxygen levels are most critical,” Alioto explains, yanking a needle from his shirt pocket like an engineer grabbing a pen. “If one of them is out of whack, fish die.”

For example, rockfish typically live in about 54 [degrees] F water. If temperatures in livetanks or transportation tanks exceed 64 [degrees] F, they’re gonners. To combat warmer surface temperatures, many live-fish boats feature refrigerated chill-tanks, Alioto says. Some skippers, he notes, simply throw ice in their tanks to keep temperatures down.

The fish also die if they’re placed in dirty water (a potential problem in harbor-based receivers) or in water that’s not circulated, oxygen-enhanced, or both. Aboard the Francine R., a 1.25″ water pump draws from the ocean and keeps the live-wells bubbling.

At port, an idling 3-h.p. gasoline motor driving a 3″ pump does the same. The two plumbing systems are interfaced, for ease of switching from one to the other.

“Just shut off the main engine, turn some valves and fire up the gas motor, that’s all it takes,” Alioto says. “Then you can go home and get some rest, and the fish will live.”

By contrast, some folks never leave their live fish unattended. “I’d never sleep,” confesses one skipper. “I always have my buyer meet me at the dock, even if I have to alert him way ahead of time by cellular phone.”

Complications

Some fish simply live better than others in captivity, and nobody knows why. Bolinas, for example, appear hearty at first, but often expire in three or four days. Sheephead, on the other hand, can last at least two weeks in a live-tank or restaurant aquarium. Sugar bass (kelp rockfish) are so fragile that Chinese buyers have an expression for them that translates as, “sure to die.”

Even if fish survive their onboard ordeal, that’s by no means money in the bank. In fact, matters get really tough when fishermen face buyers who want only certain types of fish, of certain sizes and even certain colors. “Our broker won’t take any vermillion rockfish or blue rockfish because they die too easily,” says Alioto. “And they won’t take gopher cod under 3/4 lb. or bolinas over 3 lbs.”

Adds Andy Volaski, who fishes for live sheephead in the Channel Islands, “Meeting the market’s needs is nearly impossible sometimes. I know guys who caught big loads, but the market rejected the fish, claiming they were too large or too small. We also had a good market for live sculpin, but it fell apart when restaurant cooks said they were getting stuck by the fish’s poisonous spines.”

From the buyer’s perspective, however, market preference isn’t simply a matter of survivability or taste, explains John Ho, a major southern California live-fish broker. “It’s also a matter of portion size, aesthetics and tradition,” he says.

“Even names make a difference. China cod are popular for that reason. And sheephead are popular because they’re red – a color that represents power, femininity and good luck in Asian culture. Gopher cod just taste good, and they fit nicely on a dinner plate.”

Live-fish markets are small, and they fill easily during flat weather and good fishing, claim Volaski and Alioto’s partner, Vern Ferguson. “Still, I think there are plenty more markets out there, and they may well go beyond the Asian communities,” Ferguson says. “It’s just a matter of connecting up with them and establishing a steady flow of fish.”

Don Lee, a live-fish broker on Pier 33 in San Francisco, agrees. “Right now I sell to 43 restaurants in San Francisco that offer live fish, and the demand is growing.” In Los Angeles, more than 100 restaurants sell live fish, and brokers claim competition among the area’s four main distributors has grown “fiercely competitive” in the past year, a sign that demand is rising.

Heading Home

By 2:00 p.m., a steepening swell is about to hammer the final coffin nail in a slow day’s fishing aboard the Francine R. With 80 lbs. of live rockfish in his tank, Alioto begins the two-hour grind for home. “We have a tough time when swells stir up the bottom,” he says, shaking his head. “The fish either stop biting or move into deeper water, too deep to keep them alive even if we can catch them.”

On a good day, when the ocean is calm and the fish cooperate, a 300-lb. catch is not unusual, Alioto says, He returned from his last two-day trip with 675 lbs. of live fish, plus 250 lbs. of dead fish that either perished in the tanks or weren’t suited for the live-fish market. Not a bad payday, he says, for a bit of “sport fishing.”

Because it’s a low-volume, high-value endeavor, the live-fish racket has so far drawn little regulatory scrutiny. “In the short term, it’s not an issue,” says Jim Glock of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

“Eventually, for the purpose of trip limits and such, participants in the fishery might be lumped with fishermen who catch groundfish by trolling, set nets and vertical longlines. But even that scenario is far from certain, and any action at all is at least two years away,” Glock says.

Taking live fish on the road is a challenge

With the fishing day complete, the real work begins as California live-fish fishermen and their buyers link forces to keep the catch alive all the way to the consumer.

One fisherman in Port San Luis has built tanks on the harbor’s main pumping water through the containers from the ocean below. He keeps rockfish there until brokers pick them up. John Alioto and Vern Ferguson, however, truck their fish to buyers hundreds of miles away.

“We’re still ironing out the bugs, but we’ve developed a pretty good system for keeping the fish alive while we’re on the highway,” Ferguson says. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a chiller system, so we mostly travel at night to keep water temperatures down. Eventually, we may end up with refrigeration, too.”

Dockside, Alioto uses a 32-gal. garbage pail filled with water as an interim live-tank while hoisting his catch into tanks that are bolted to an 18′ trailer, which, in turn, is hitched to a dual-axle, 1-ton truck. Then it’s off to the fish broker’s plant, 200 miles north, in Half Moon Bay.

Seemingly unruffled by highway life, the rockfish sit almost motionless in the three plastic, agricultural chemical tanks. Though a far cry from life beneath the waves, the system appears easily able to sustain the fish for 12 hours – the time it takes Ferguson to makes his rounds and deliver his load.

The cylinder-shaped tanks are hooked in series, each holding 325 gals. of water and up to 250 lbs. of fish. In all, the tanks weigh nearly 4 tons when full.

A 3-h.p. gasoline motor drives a pump circulating tank water at a rate of 60 to 70 gals. per minute. The suction side of the pump is rigged to also draw from external air or from an oxygen bottle, replenishing the water’s life-giving gasses when necessary.

In addition, the system is plumbed to draw from the ocean at places like the pier in Half Moon Bay, in case a buyer is detained and fish must linger in the tanks. “We’ve got valves going every which way on this thing,” says Ferguson with a laugh. “We’re prepared for a lot of different situations.

“It’s been quite a study in trial-and-error,” he continues. “For example, the first time we attempted this, 40% of the fish died. They kept getting stuck between PVC water pipes and the inner walls of the tank. Once we fixed that, we reduced mortality to 15%.”

Eventually, Alioto and Ferguson hope to truck 2,000 lbs. of rockfish per week from three boats. In that case, they say, the system will surely be refrigerated

Although it may be more convenient to have buyers drive their pickup vans to the dock, distributing your own live fish can have its benefits, Ferguson says, Not least among them, he notes, is the prospect of earning $5/lb. for the catch delivered to a restaurant’s door.

A Chinese restaurant hit

Three days after they were plucked from the sea, some of John Alioto’s catch is milling about in a 100-gal. restaurant aquarium in Goleta, Calif. Rockfish languish near the bottom while sheephead circle the tank slowly, studying those who study them.

The eatery (the Ming Dynasty) is owned by John Ho, president of the Chinese Chefs Association of California and the latest of his family’s long line of gourmet cooks. His father, in fact, prepared meals for Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese ruler overthrown by Mao Tse Tung in 1949.

With partner Nels Fredrickson, Ho also brokers live fish to Los Angeles and San Francisco-area distributors. Behind his restaurant, huge, chilled saltwater tanks bubble and froth, sustaining over 1,000 lbs. of delivery-ready “prime live.”

“There is no better quality than a fish that’s dressed just before you eat it,” says Ho, who claims that blindfolded he can tell the difference between a fresh-killed fish and one that’s been iced for even a day. “People consider the concept strange until they taste it,” he insist, “but they always rave about it when they’re finished.”

And thanks to rave reviews, Ho sells 100 lbs. of fresh-killed rockfish and sheephead per week in his restaurant at $20 a plate – $5 above the price for a standard fresh-fish meal.

“Once Caucaisans turn on to this, demand will go through the roof,: predicts Fredrickson. “It’s only a matter of time.”

Add Ho, “Since gillnets are on their way out in California [legislated out by voter initiative last year], there will be demand for new fisheries. Live fish might be a good one.”

Stepping to the aquarium toting a small net, Ho asks a customer which fish he wishes to eat. Not sure, the patron requests a closer look. Ho dips the net into the tank, then, without touching the fish, escorts them one-by-one along the glass, like a Paris fashion show.

“That one, I’ll take that tone,” the customer says, pointing to a 2-lb. cabezon. Nodding, Ho scoops the live fish into a plastic bucket, then disappears into the kitchen, where he dispatches it with a single expert below.

Eight minutes later, Ho reappears, carrying the steam-cooked cabezon on a large platter. Curled around itself like a snake, the fish’s body and head are still intact, the latter resting atop the former. Shrimp and vegetables also grace the plate.

The cabezon’s meat is brown and glistening and still attached to the bone, feathering gracefully away from the spine in spots, where the heat of cooking has literally popped it like popcorn. The meat’s texture is firm but not chewy, and its taste as delicate and refined as a fish can offer.

Joining the meal, Ho and Fredrickson dig in. They don’t go for the backbone fillets, however. They both grab for a pectoral fin beneath the fish, flipping it over in the process. Off come the fins, each bearing a 2″-square of steaming white meat. “The best part,” say Ho, smiling and toasting with a cabezon fin high in the air.

Leave a Reply