(Originally published August 19th, 2015 on Examiner.com)
Early every Wednesday morning at Santa Monica Farmers Market, many of this region’s chefs buy fruits and vegetables directly from farmers for dishes on their respective restaurant’s menus. Here at this market and others throughout the region, chefs directly connect with farmers for locally grown produce. Thus these chefs know where and how that food was grown. Many of this regions chefs have similar connections with the local ranchers therefore chefs also understand how the pork, chicken, beef and other meats they source were raised. However, despite being a coastal community in close proximity to many productive fisheries, sourcing of local sustainable seafood in Los Angeles, for a variety of reasons, is a much more difficult and disconnected endeavor.
In an effort to provide that fisherman to plate connection for chefs with greater transparency for restaurant patrons and other consumers, Captain Ben Hyman of Wild Local Seafood Co. started to sell fish directly to both chefs and the public at the Wednesday and Saturday Santa Monica Farmers Market and the Sunday Mars Vista Farmers Market last year in March of 2014. All of the seafood that Captain Ben sells is certified local and wild plus seasonally and sustainably caught. Here at these markets, Ben has connected with LA chefs including Union’s Bruce Kalman, Hatchet Hall’s Brian Dunsmoor, Rustic Canyon’s Jeremy Fox and Melisse’s Josiah Citrin to name just a few. Thus these chefs can be completely confident about the origins and sustainability of the seafood they are serving in their restaurants to their guests. According to Captain Ben, a big part of Wild Local Seafood Company’s mission is to entice, aggravate, and motivate local chefs to use these local seafood products. As Ben emphasized, “traditionally a chef in Italy or France living down by the Ocean didn’t have a truck pull up and sell him frozen basa from Vietnam. A chef in Italy saw the fish, and knew his fisherman like he also got in touch with the fruit, and knew the guy who grew it. He met the rancher who actually knew what the cattle ate.”
Ben and his team have also been interfacing with consumers to help educate them about the ecological and health benefits of eating locally caught wild seafood. His team includes environmental studies students via an internship program Ben has cultivated with a number of schools. Over the last two years Ben has had interns from UCLA, USC as well as almost thirty students from UCSB his Alma matter. By working for Ben’s company, students get a firsthand experience working for an ecologically minded for-profit business that gives these students a taste of the real world.
Prior to going to UCSB and graduating with a Certificate of Basic Education to teach in the state, Ben started working on fishing boats when he was sixteen. Born and raised ten minutes from the ocean, Ben has lived about the same proximity from the ocean his entire life. By the time he was out of high school, fishing was a job that he continued to pursue while in college. After graduating from UCSB, instead of pursuing a teaching career Ben went back to fishing full time where he worked on a number of boats and fished for nearly twenty different species of fish. Prior to creating his company, every experience he had working as a fisherman was on a hook and line boat. Now these fishing boats are referred to as a sustainable vessels. So this meant no gill netting or trawling. Ben has always fished in a sustainable way ensuring a future for the different species he has caught and is catching. So ultimately Captain Ben was able to blend together all that he learned from his time spent in marine biology, history, and econ classes with all the real world experiences he acquired fishing to create his Wild Local Seafood Company.
As Ben explained, “the Wild Local Seafood Company isn’t just about supporting me and the way I fish but it is basically about promoting local fisherman and local fisheries so that we don’t import non-sustainable goods. This is what’s happened over the last two decades with shrimp, basa, and salmon. Now even tuna are in the pins. We’ve found a way to homogenize these things so that we can farm raise them, turn them into a commodity, and even trade them on the stock market. Look at shrimp, you can trade them plus produce them so you can get them year round with the costs down. Well we got products here in this state which we should be using that are better for the environment, and local fisherman.”
Ben continued, “I once heard the industry standard of seafood is that there is no standard, and I am here to change that. I’m here to try and get chefs to use products that are better for the environment, and better for local fishermen. I’ll tell you what, sometimes it takes a little more energy coming to a farmer’s market, but if they’re in a restaurant where their gross or nightly sales are equaling a certain number and they are putting themselves across as a certain type of business, I feel they should be going out of their way or, at least, sending a sous or one of the guys in the kitchen to source sustainably harvested local seafood .”
Both extremely passionate and aware, Captain Ben answers every question posed to him with enough energy and content to write a book or two. In the next part of this profile, a lot of this content regarding the environment, the impact of fish farming and many other issues is discussed in more detail.
“Even though the United States controls more ocean than any country on earth, more than 85% of our seafood comes from abroad.” Paul Greenberg
Every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday mornings at the Santa Monica and Mar Vista farmers markets, Captain Ben Hyman with his team of employees and interns from Wild Local Seafood Co. sell locally caught fish from ice filled coolers. Some fish names are familiar and some more unusual. All this seafood is sold in fillets or other pre-packaged portions. Chefs also come early or during the day to pick up their pre-ordered whole fish. These can be quite large like a forty pound sea bass or king salmon. Like with a whole animal, Chefs fully utilize a whole fish including the head, and bones for fish stocks since full utilization brings their food costs down.
On the days when Ben isn’t out fishing and is manning the stand himself, he’s constantly answering questions from chefs and customers alike. Ben’s lengthy explanations often focus on the benefits of eating locally sourced fish especially in regards to sustainability, the environment and traceability.
For example, in response to a question regarding sustainable fishing off the coasts of California, Ben stated, “Luckily in the State of California, gill netting and trawling is highly regulated. So we have a state where NOAA, the governing body makes a sustainability plan for each of the fish where we as fisherman are not allowed to harvest or even take any fish if it is not seen as sustainable. So fisheries in the State of California are much more progressive and better than the archaic ways people fish abroad.”
Ben continued, “in California, as far as fisheries go, they are very well monitored by the PFMC which is the Pacific Fishery Management Council and NOAA who are watching what is going on. They’re closing fisheries. They’re opening fisheries. Trying to make sure that everyone is doing their part to make sure there is a future for these fish.”
Seafood is seasonal so what Ben has available fresh at his stand varies according to what he’s permitted to catch. Ben noted, “If something isn’t good, you shouldn’t eat it. You shouldn’t come down here to the farmer’s market looking for the most perfect peach on earth in the middle of December. That should be the same way people feel about fish, but they don’t see that way since there is a homogenized product that they can get year round seven days a week.”
Especially due to periods of breeding, wild fish are only available to be fished sustain-ably during certain periods of the year. Whereas many farmed fish have had their biological cycles altered or hormones applied so as to breed continuously throughout the year and thus be always available. Author Paul Greenberg in his books, Four Fish and American Catch, chronicles the development of fish farming also known as aquaculture. In Four Fish, Greenberg details the history of salmon, European Sea Bass, tilapia, and tra (pangasius catfish) fish farming as well as its consequences. In American Catch, he does the same with shrimp farming in Southeast Asia. Additionally In a New York Times essay, A Catfish by any other name, Greenberg also discusses Pangasius catfish farming at length.
Fish farming is a broad topic that isn’t black and white. As Greenberg points out in his books, there are a wide range of ways to fish farm ranging from very bad to very good with certain species (barramundi, kampaichi and shellfish) making a lot more ecological sense to farm than others like tuna and other large carnivorous fish, in part, due to feed conversion ratios meaning how many pounds of feed are required to produce one pound of fish. The higher up the food chain, the less efficient the feed conversion ratios typically are. Tuna may take twenty pounds of feed to produce one pound of fish we can consume. There are a number of other factors that come into play when assessing how bad or good any particular fish farm is especially in regards to the environment particularly on the impact upon wild fish of the same species. In theory, fish farming should alleviate fishing pressure on many species wild of fish. Though in practice fish farming often creates a more simplified system of management that directly competes with and replaces wild fish in their native ecosystems.
Again this adverse impact is due in large part to feed. Captain Ben notes, “In pens down in Ensenada, which is only a hundred miles from here in Los Angeles, they take the bait or forage fish from the surrounding ecosystem – the squid, sardines, mackerel- and feed them to those fish in the pens. This leaves wild fish with less to eat. They’re basically shifting around an ecosystem in an unnatural way.” So a wild food system is being basically replaced by a domesticated food system. A similar scenario occurs in Southeast Asia with shrimp farming, where bait or forage fish are taken out of the local waters, ground up and fed as fishmeal to shrimp in ponds on land. (As a sidebar, as The Guardian reported, a lot of this bait fishing for shrimp in Thailand is being done with slave labor). Fishmeal is also being used to feed livestock and as fertilizer. Even though a lot of fishmeal is derived from fish offal generated when processing and “trash” fish caught as by catch, the ocean is being depleted of a lot of fish lower down the food chain like menhaden, a filter feeding fish that plays a critical role in marine ecosystems.
In response to this problem, there are other fish farms raising fish that have lower feed conversion ratios or whose feed can be supplemented with feed derived from vegetable crops. For example, Pacifico Aquaculture raises penned White Sea bass and other finfish off the coast of Ensenada, Mexico on a diet consisting of feed and oil derived from soy. While this does alleviate the pressure on foraged fish for feed while creating protein, it essentially produces a fish that is very different from other wild White Sea bass swimming in the region since what you eat is what you eat ate. So rather than getting fish rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, the consumer gets one that has higher levels of Omega 6 fatty acids. High ratios of Omega 6 fatty acids to Omega 3 fatty acids as some research has shown may cause serious health issues. Consequently there has been other fish farms that have looked to use farmed macro-algae (seaweed) and micro algae (phytoplankton) as an alternative feed source since these are the sources of the long chained Omega 3 fatty acids that accumulate in fish after fish eat them.
Soy as a source of protein also has other issues even if concerns regarding GMO varieties of soy are unjustified. Huge expanses of land in both North and South America, as well as other parts of the world, are planted in soy, not to feed people, but to feed farm livestock primarily pigs and chickens living in confined facilities (CAFO’s) in the United States, the European Union and China. Though cattle often gets all the blame, Chinese demand for soy is one of the primary reasons for deforestation in South America. Land outside the Amazon region once used for ranching has been converted to either soy or sugar cane (for ethanol) production displacing cattle ranches. Land cleared in the Amazon also is used for soy crops after it is cleared for timber until it is no longer fertile and then this land is used for cattle. Thus creating even more demand for soy for an ever growing farmed fish aquaculture industry puts even greater pressure on land that has better uses.
One potential solution to this problem of inappropriate land use for a source of livestock and farmed fish protein (on the not too distant horizon) is insect farming. Insect farming doesn’t require the expanses of land plus food waste can be a source of feed for the black soldier flies and other insects. One company leading the way on insect farming is Enviroflight based in Ohio. In a phone conversation with Cheryl Preyer (the person in charge of business development at Enviroflight), she noted that the company currently is trying to get AAFCO approvals before scaling up production. Until they get these approvals from this organization that oversees animal feed, Enviroflight is only doing limited production. Therefore they have no economies of scale so from a cost perspective, they’re not cost competitive with soy products or fish meal products. However when they do get these approvals (which may take another year), and scale up (with partners already in place to increase production) their prices will be competitive with soy derived feeds and fish meal made from fish offal/waste. However like with soy and other land based vegetable products, insect feed product provides the necessary protein but not the Omega 3’s. So micro/macro algae feed would still also be necessary to feed the farmed fish.
Though plenty of fish are not natural sources of Omega 3’s anyway. These often are the less fishy tasting white flake fish like cod, and Alaskan Pollock that end up as fish sticks, fish and chips, filet-o-fish sandwiches and imitation crab. Replacing these over fished fish with ones farmed on land like well managed tilapia or basa makes sense though being able to differentiate between well managed and poorly managed fisheries is very difficult especially when those fish farms are located in China or Vietnam where environmental controls are very lax. Certification helps reduce some of these concerns about trace-ability as do urban based re-circulating aquaculture systems in close proximity to restaurants and food hubs like those being developed by Dr. Yonathan Zohar in Baltimore where no waste goes back into the environment as a source of pollution and fish meal is replaced with vegetarian diets.
Regardless, reducing trawling of Pollock in Alaska also reduces loss of salmon which is often caught as by catch in the nets. Wild Salmon from Alaska or from the coast of California are loaded with Omega 3’s. Farmed salmon, on the other hand, as Paul Greenberg’s details in Four Fish not only have very different diets and no exercise, they have been also selectively bred to grow much faster. This selection has so altered the genetics that Greenberg refers to farmed salmon as a different species. Growth rates have been further expedited through transgenic manipulation though theseAquAdvantage GMO salmon have yet to make it to retail markets. Again the faster the fish reach maturity, the less feed they need over their life spans. But still from a flavor, texture, and fat perspective wild salmon and farmed salmon are two very different products.
Captain Ben added. “With wild halibut, it is the same thing. Farm raised halibut are very different than wild halibut. In the wild halibut are feeding upon squid, sardines and anchovies their entire lives where they swim. This is the way that their muscle structure is created. This can’t be mimicked in a tank or a pen.”
Captain Ben has a lot of other opinions on this issue of fish farming. In response to whether or not is it fallacy that farmed fishing is necessary to meet future demand, Ben responded, “You know as our population base grows, people lean to that belief, but I feel differently. As someone who hook and lines, sustain-ably fishes while regulated, I feel we could use a lot more of our fish globally which is sustain-ably caught. Plus we can have a better system than what is happening with our current status quo of macro level fish farming competing with micro sustainable fishing. So to answer that question, I foresee we need to change how we fish, how we see us eating fish, as well as how globally we perceive small fish and off species. At the same time if you’re willing to embrace farm raised fish, it would mean a completely different system for raising and growing those fish than what we have right now.”
Supplementing wild fish rather than farming them is another possible solution as Ben explained,
“We’ve seen a boom in fish as far as species like white sea bass which have had programs by Scripps Institution of Oceanography (UC San Diego) and HUBBS- SeaWorld Research Institute which have had breeding programs. Plus we have made it illegal to keep the adult fish as commercial fisherman from March 14th to June 16th when they’re in their gestation period. We’ve done the same things with our King Salmon where we have hatcheries that mix the hatchlings in with the wild fish. I see about one quarter of the wild fish we’ve caught were actually reared in a hatchery and went on, after a few months of age, out into the ocean and joined the natural population. So our ocean is alive, our ocean is robust. It just needs to be micro-managed and protected by fisherman like me. We need chefs to use more of the local product to make sure this wonderful system keeps going.”
Though via a correspondence with Paul Greenberg, there are issues with supplementation as well. Greenberg noted, “This is a very big topic and not one easily answered in a brief email. In the early days of stock supplementation people got the genetics all wrong. They didn’t supplement with river specific stocks but rather just sort of haphazardly put fish from one place into another. That’s how the West Coast got its now invasive striped bass. As we’ve gotten better with genetics, we’ve gotten better at stocking but I’d maintain that supplementation is never a substitute for healthy spawning grounds, many of which are located in fragile and sensitive estuarine environments. Protect estuaries and you’ll go a long way toward protecting seafood abundance.”
Greenberg in his second book American Catch discusses at length how changes in estuarine environments due to industrialization, population growth, agricultural run-off, oil development, and the building of damns have all adversely impacted the fragile habitats where forage fish, shrimp, oysters and larger fish breed. With oysters, Greenberg in his book, focused on the waterways around New York City where millions of oysters once lived. With shrimp, he focused on Louisiana and the bayou. Restoring these ecosystems as well as others on both the East and West Coasts is a much more difficult endeavor and greater challenge than creating fish pens floating in the sea. As Greenberg noted in his book, many interests from wealthy individuals with beach front property to various industries often impede efforts to restore coastal ecosystems. But getting beyond merely sustaining what we have to rebuilding what we’ve diminished or destroyed is key to having healthy oceans with an abundant source of seafood.
In his first book, Four Fish, Greenberg also discussed at length the impact that thousands of damns built on rivers salmon need for breeding have had on depleting populations of salmon especially Atlantic Salmon (which are now all farmed fished and effectively extinct in the wild as a viable fish to catch). The movie The Breach details this impact of damns as well plus the greater impact upon all the other animals and plants in the entire ecosystem (including man) that rely and have relied upon salmon for nourishment. Additionally in California, salmon have been a causality of the ongoing drought since agricultural interests have diverted water from the Delta basin for crops and nuts trees thus resulting in shallower and warmer water temperatures that have adversely impacted mature fish coming back to spawn and hatched fish, smolts, attempting to get back to sea. This past year over ninety percent of the smolts died en-route back to the ocean.
With the ongoing drought, the plight of the salmon is such that Captain Ben lamented, “I’m sad to know the King Salmon fishery will close next year. They won’t let us go there since there is just too little rain for the juvenile smolts to make it up the river and get back out. So we need rain in the state. Like farmers need rain, fisherman need rain since California King Salmon need water in rivers to go back and spawn. You can imagine how important this really is.”
Like a lot of the seafood in the United States, wild salmon from Alaska is shipped abroad. A lot of it is frozen and shipped to China, processed, refrozen and shipped back to the United States. Most of what is sold as local squid has a similar fate. Squid is flash frozen and shipped to China and Southeast Asia to process, then refrozen and shipped back to the United States. (Paul Greenberg detailed this double freezing journey of squid in a July 2014 Op-ed piece in the LA Times entitled “The long journey of ‘local’ seafood to your plate”). According to Captain Ben, this has everything to do with cheap labor costs. What it costs to hire one person here for an hour, three people can be hired for a day in Asia. So the cheaper labor rates more than offset all the transportation costs. Though all that transportation creates a huge carbon footprint. In contrast, the squid Captain Ben sells at Wild Local Seafood is extremely fresh, never frozen, and direct from Ventura Harbor to the market so the carbon footprint is minimal.
When purchasing or procuring fish at a grocery market or from a purveyor, knowing how that fish was caught, and raised with so many variables involved isn’t always such an easy endeavor. The same species may be sustainable if caught on a hook and line but not sustainable when caught in a gill net. Depending upon how a fish was bred and what it was fed, wild and farmed raised varieties of the same fish are often two very different products in both flavor and texture. Knowing whether a fish or shrimp farm is ecologically sound is also difficult to tell especially when much of that farming is done abroad in countries without many environmental regulations.
Thus buying directly from fisherman like Captain Ben Hyman at the Wild Local Seafood Co. helps both chefs and consumers alike to navigate such murky waters. When one buys fish from Ben, one knows the origins of all the fish and seafood and that it was wild, sustainably caught, and had a natural diet. Ben’s seafood may cost more, but one shouldn’t compromise one’s own health or the health of the environment. Pay now or pay later figuratively and literally. Captain Ben also strongly believes that chefs need to walk the talk on sustainably through their purchasing and training. Chefs can use their front of house staff to help educate guests about seafood decisions much like Ben’s staff of employees and interns educate customers at the farmer markets. Such an approach at restaurants and farmers markets helps to change the system for the better and keeps money in local communities. So every dollar spent on procurement, on restaurant meals and at the market place helps determine the type of food system we want to have. Dollars spent on ecologically minded local fisherman like Captain Ben Hyman not only ensure sustainable fish populations, but such money may actually help rebuild fish populations by restoring degraded environments and the ecosystems fish need to reproduce and thrive. This is money well spent.