Fisherman Profile: Ernie Koepf

Text and photographs by Zoe Loftus-Farren.

 

Image by Zoe Loftus-Farren

Image by Zoe Loftus-Farren

It’s Friday afternoon at Fisherman’s Wharf, and Ernie Koepf has just docked his boat after a week on the water.

Right now it’s herring season, which peaks during January and February when the herring are spawning in the San Francisco Bay. Commercial fishing is permitted from 5pm Sunday to noon on Friday, which means that aside from their daily trip to unload the catch, the crew spends all week on Ernie’s boat, the Ursula B.

This is Ernie’s 35th year fishing herring, but if you ask him whether he always wanted to be a fisherman, his answer is an emphatic “no.” His parents tried to convince him to become a fish buyer instead, and for a few years he tried odd jobs while honing his guitar playing skills.

Image by Zoe Loftus-Farren

Image by Zoe Loftus-Farren

But by the age of 19, Ernie had taken out a loan for $5,000 and bought his first boat. And other than a five-year stint as a harbor patrolman, he’s been fishing ever since.

This year, he has two young crew-members, Rebecca Resibick and Chase Todd. Rebecca comes from a fishing family herself, and has been on boats since she was an infant. Chase, on the other hand, comes from a construction background, and the past few weeks have been his first experience as a deckhand.

Three weeks into their first season together, Ernie, Rebecca and Chase had nothing but nice things to say about each other – a good thing, given that they share tight living quarters day in and day out on the open water. “I didn’t want a mismatched crew,” says Ernie, “and it has worked out great. They are great shipmates. We’ve had a lot of fun.”

They may have fun, but it’s still hard work. “If you are actively pursuing herring, you are setting, pulling, and moving the gear; setting, pulling and moving,” Ernie explains. “And that process can go on until, all of a sudden, it starts to get light out and you realize its daylight.” The crew rarely gets to sleep through the night, instead stealing naps when there is a lull in the work. “It’s a lot of hard, physical labor,” adds Rebecca.

This season started with a bang on January 2st. “We had a lot of fish in the first week,” exclaims Ernie. “I mean tons, and tons, and tons!” And a lot of fish meant only four hours of sleep in the first two days of fishing.

Ernie stresses that their fishing methods are sustainable. Commercial fishing of herring is capped at five percent of the total estimated biomass, meaning that 95 percent of the herring remains at sea. And Ernie’s crew uses nets designed only to catch to older, larger fish, leaving younger fish unscathed.

Ernie also tries to sell his fish locally when possible, and made his second sale to Siren Fish Co. last week. “I really believe in sending this fish to fresh market for local consumption,” says Ernie.

 

California’s drought has meant the Ursula B is traveling further to find fish. In past years, Ernie found all the fish he needed near the docks and close by in places like Sausalito. This year, the lack of rain means less fresh water filtering into the Bay, so the water is saltier than usual. “Due to a lack of fresh water in the estuary, the fish are seeking the extreme ends of the Bay,” says Ernie.

Though cold, rough, and foggy days are common on the Bay, the crew all seems to find meaning in the work. “It is a noble pursuit,” Ernie says. “It’s timeless. It’s still pulling fish one at a time with a hook in the case of salmon. It’s still getting herring with nets. This is how it’s been. It’s a tradition.”

Ernie's Hat

Image by Zoe Loftus-Farren

 Wondering how Ernie likes his herring? Smoked!

“It’s really a good fish. The way that I like it is I smoke it. What you do is you head and gut the fish, and then you butterfly it. You get two of those that are butterflied, you put them back-to-back, tie them with string around the tail, and hang them in your little smoker. Smoke them for about four hours. Salt-cure and marinate them prior, and put them in your little smoker.”

Black Gill Rockfish aka Sebastes melanostomus

This week the Davis drop will be getting black gill rockfish, caught by hook-and-line and landed in Ft. Bragg. Finally. I have been trying to get hook-and-line rockfish for a VERY long time. 14 months or so. Victory!

There is lots of helpful geeky information out there on the many many species of rockfish that are available in our local fisheries. This species identifying guide from NOAA is fun and the black gill rockfish can be found on page 17.

There are at least 70 varieties of rockfish that populate the waters between Washington and Baja California. Due to the high number of varieties and conflicting info on fishery health, navigating rockfish sustainability can be tricky. Many of the usual best resources are too vague to be useful in making decisions about specific varieties of rockfish. They have to be that vague to be useful in a restaurant or at a fish counter. You will probably never know the specific variety of rockfish that you are buying at a fish counter or a restaurant.

These fish were caught by hook-and-line, so they are unanimously rated a good choice by all of the rating systems that I could find. The first step in narrowing down sustainability for fish that is not so clearcut is determining the method of catch. We are all good there. This gets muddier and harder to navigate when we look to the second issue, population health. The tricky part with rockfish is figuring out exactly which species you are dealing with. This usually takes some digging, unless you have access to the fish and game tag, which I do. These fish are Sebastes melanostomus, and while they are not black rockfish, which are widely considered to have the healthiest population levels, they are not a variety that has any specific concerns in regard to overfishing. There are some varieties of rockfish that are known to have depressed populations, and this is not one of them.

So, while I cannot find a specific source that says that this fish is a big old GREEN in terms of sustainability, I think that supporting a small fishing operation that is using a preferred fishing method trumps any lingering small concerns that might exist about fishery health. The black gill rock fish population is healthy AND the fishing method does not result in a high level of bycatch. This is a fish we can feel good about, and I am so glad that we finally get to have it.

Squid Links

Well, more category tags than links. There have been some slight changes to the Siren website. I added a recipe forum where you can all share your ideas and creations. I have also added category tags to all of the posts. So, I have tagged this post with all of the categories that apply to the other squid posts. If you want a summary of all things squid, click on the “Squid” category. If you want to see squid recipes, click on the “squid recipes” category and you will see them all. If you want source information, click on “Know your source.” Care instructions? Got it!

I hope that these changes make life a little bit easier for all of us!

Crayfish!

 

This week we have crayfish from the Sacramento River. These lively little critters are caught with traps on the delta during the hot summer months, and they are caught in the rice fields during the fall. I avoided sourcing from the rice fields due to pollution concerns. Rice farming usually includes the use of some pretty nasty pesticides.

Your crayfish will arrive ALIVE. Very much so. We once had a 200 pound box of live crayfish delivered to our plant. No one secured the top of the box and the next day the little guys had wandered into every corner of our 10000 square foot facility. You might want to avoid this in your refrigerator.

You will get your share in a plastic bag with holes in it. I recommend putting this bag in a large bowl of ice in your refrigerator, covered with a wet towel. Crayfish need air and moisture to stay alive, much like our little oyster friends. Helpful eating instructions can be found here.

DO NOT eat crayfish that are dead prior to cooking. Crayfish that are alive will have curved tails, if they are dead the tail will straighten. Even after cooking, DO NOT eat crayfish with straight tails. A straight tail after cooking means the crayfish was dead before it was cooked. Dead crayfish go bad quickly and will make you sick.

Know Your Source: Oysters from Point Reyes Oyster Co. with Anna’s Go-to Mignonette

It’s oyster week, partly because the ocean was too rough for the little boats to make it out, but mostly because our locally farmed oysters are daaaaaaaaaamn fine. Friends, I am here to tell you that aquaculture can be good! When I talk about sourcing aquacultured shellfish, I am often greeted by a look of oh-em-gee-what-sort-of-chemicals-are-going-to-be-in-that-FRANKENOYSTER terror. Aquaculture has earned its bad reputation. There are some dirty fish farms out there that devastate the surrounding environment and produce a product that is similar in taste and chemical make-up to a rubber tire.

We all need to learn to find and eat responsibly farmed fish. More than half of the seafood consumed in the world is aquacultured and the industry is constantly making advances that lead to better tasting fish and less negative environmental impact. Some farms are already doing great things.

Shellfish mariculture (aquaculture in salt water) is especially clean, and the results are just as tasty and more consistent than wild creatures. In fact, I would say that maricultured shellfish is actually safer to consume than wild unless you REALLY know what you are doing when gathering it. You are probably not going to find oysters in a store or restaurant that were not farmed. Oysters and other bivalves actually clean the water, so the waters in and around oyster farms are consistently tested for chemical contaminants and the algae blooms that can cause red tide. A farm can only harvest if the water conditions are right. Locally, oyster farms are shut down for a couple of days after each rainfall to allow the oysters to expel any toxins that may have run down from the hills with the rain water.

This week we have two varieties of oysters from Point Reyes Oyster Company. Your oysters will be mixed together in the same bag, but they will be easy to tell apart. The Miyagi’s are triple the size of the Atlantic’s and their shells are very different. First up, the Point Reyes Miyagi.

The Miyagi’s have a gorgeous cream and purple shell with a nice deep cup.

They are cultured in floating bags that are placed in the top of the water column where algae is most dense. They are salty and not at all wimpy. These are great on the half shell with mignonette (see below) and they hold up well to grilling.

Next, we have petite and mild Atlantic oysters. You may be thinking, “How the hell are these Atlantic oysters local?” Well, Atlantic refers to the variety, or seed that the oyster was cultured from. They were grown right here in Point Reyes.

They are petite with cream and green tinged shells. They have a milder sweeter taste, but they are still plenty briny, as are all oysters that come from our corner of the world.

 

Notes on Safe Handling

Your oysters are alive, and they need to stay that way until you eat them. Keep them cold cold cold but not frozen. I usually put them in a colander with ice, and put a bowl under the colander to catch the water as the ice melts. Fresh water from melting ice can kill the oysters, so you have to give it a way to drain. I ensure maximum oyster survival by covering the whole thing with a wet paper towel. DO NOT put your oysters in a sealed plastic bag, the little fellas need to breathe. Here is a comprehensive guide to safe handling.

 

Shucking

Shucking can be intimidating for a novice, but with a little practice and a good shucking knife, you should be enjoying oysters on the half shell in no time. I am not an expert, but I put together this short little how to video last time Siren had oyster week. The oyster I am shucking IS one of the varieties that you are getting this week.

 

Mignonette!

I really don’t want you to mess with these oysters too much. I mean, there isn’t much better in this world than a super fresh oyster on the half shell with just the right amount of mignonette. So, to encourage raw slurping I will give you my super basic old standby mignonette. I like my mignonette simple.  I don’t add herbs or mess with fancy vinegar.  Don’t get me wrong, I never met a vinegar that I didn’t love, but when it comes to topping my oysters I prefer to use a good quality red wine vinegar.  Like I said, oysters are pretty perfect just the way they are.

1/2 cup good quality red wine vinegar

2 tbsp finely chopped shallots

1 tbsp coarsely ground black pepper

A good pinch of salt

Combine all of the ingredients.  Serve chilled over oysters on the half shell.

 

SALMON SEASON!

It’s finally here! The local salmon season can be elusive and the timing can be tricky. This year we will have one month on (May!) followed by one month off (June!) and then a possible three month period of glorious salmon fishing (July through September). The local salmon population is watched very closely and seasons are scheduled based on the observations made by NOAA and the Department of Fish and Game.

Your salmon will come to you with the pin bones in, the skin on, and the scales off.Make sure to keep it nice and cold. The best way to do that is to put it on ice in the coldest part of your refrigerator. I will be speaking with salmon fishermen this week and I will get some of that info up on the blog this week.

Here are some salmon links:

Seared Wild Salmon with Grilled Bread Salad and Parsley Anchovy Aioli

Seared Salmon with Shallot and Green Onion Relish

Salmon freezing and pin bone removal instructions

North Coast Salmon Fishery Information

Recipe ideas from Siren subscribers

 

 

Fresh Picked Dungeness Crabmeat

This week we have fresh picked Dungeness crabmeat. The local crab season is winding down, and this will definitely be the last of the crab from Siren until November. SALMON SEASON STARTS NEXT WEEK! The meat is picked by hand and will come packaged in a 10 oz. or 20 oz. tray. It is always a good idea to pick through the meat to remove any shell fragments that might have made it into the final pack.

The trays are perfect for freezing, and the meat will keep for up to 6 months in the freezer. The best way to store the tray of crabmeat without freezing is in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Storing them on ice in the refrigerator is even better. The meat should stay fresh for three to four days.

My favorite way to use fresh crabmeat is to toss a couple of handfuls into scrambled eggs. YES. It is especially great if you take that crabby scrambled egg mixture and put it on a croissant.

Crab Links

Crab Season Information

Spaghettini with Dungeness Crabmeat and Jalapeños

Oysters from Tomales Bay Oyster Co.

This is great oyster weather. Woohoo! Grab a shucking knife and a couple of friends and head outdoors. Whether you intend to eat them raw, or grill them, these little guys from Tomales Bay Oyster Co. will not disappoint. I tried to get my hands on their incredibly tasty Golden Nugget oysters, but alas, it was not to be. Your share will be half smalls and half extra smalls. I like my oysters tiny, so I tend to lean towards the extra smalls even for grilling. Why all of this grill talk when I have made it clear that oysters are best when they haven’t been messed with? Because I am growing a tiny fishmonger and I am not allowed to eat raw oysters. No alcohol? Okay fine. No soft cheese? Wellll fine again. NO RAW OYSTERS?! Gah. Torture.

So, I did not get to try one of these little beauties out, but I did shuck a couple and they look gorgeous. I also had some fish plant friends give them a try. They got high marks.

You can find care instructions and my mignonette recipe here.

 

Know Your Source: Dungeness Crab Fishery

It’s finally Dungeness crab season. As usual, there was a bit of season-delaying drama to start things out, but a price has been set and the fishermen are busy. Things were tense here during negotiations, but it seems like the two week opening delay allowed the crabs to fatten up a bit. The crabs that have been arriving at the plant where I spend most of my days have been big, beautiful, and delicious. I got to spend a lovely sunny afternoon at Spud Point Marina in Bodega Bay this week, and it was so interesting to see how the unloading dock functions.

Almost every boat in the marina was loaded with crab pots. Fishermen will go out and set their pots with the intention of returning in a couple of days to bring in the full traps. Pots have been heavy and full. It is a great sign. The meat yield will typically increase as the weather grows colder and the season progresses. We are in for a great crab season.

The Paisano Brothers dock.

The crabs are unloaded at various docks around the marina. Our little fellas will be offloaded at the Paisano Brothers dock. The dock is run by Richie Franceschi, a man with over 40 years on boats and on the docks.

Richie filling out Fish and Game paperwork in his office at the Paisano Brothers dock.

The boats pull up to the dock where Richie and his crew will inspect the crabs and weigh them. As soon as the weight and condition of the load is recorded, a Department of Fish and Game landing tag is filled out and filed.

Offloading the Donna Mia

Big guys about to be weighed.

The crabs are held in common holding tanks after they are offloaded and logged. This makes it impossible to trace a specific crab back to a specific boat, but the method of catch is the same for all Dungeness crab that are landed. So, we need not worry too much about traceability back to the boat. Knowing that the pots are pulled from a fishery that is open and safe is the most important consideration.

Our crabs will be trucked to North Coast Fisheries in Santa Rosa where they will be cooked in large open baskets. Huge tanks of boiling salted water and giant vats of ice water are full of crab baskets 20 hours a day during crab season. I am the Quality Control Manager who paces around this madhouse making sure that the paperwork is compliant and the cooked crabs are tasty. They are.

Live crab. Waiting to be cooked.

Sorting by size before cooking.

 

 

Swordfish and Black Cod!

 

Hey! The weather cooperated and I got to bring in two kinds of fish! Sourcing was actually a joy. These last couple of weeks it has been a series of increasingly depressing phone calls followed by lots of pacing and cursing. Well, most things I do involve some cursing. I DO work with fishermen.

This mixed share deal is pretty exciting and I am so glad that it worked out. These shares also made the packing process take FOUR TIMES longer than it normally does. Ugh. In fact, I just finished up about 30 minutes ago. There was approximately triple the normal amount of cursing involved in packing these orders, but that was mostly due to my fingers going numb in the cold fish plant. Do you feel sorry for me yet? You shouldn’t. I was having fun and hanging out with my fish plant buddies. It was actually one of those times when I realize that I am strangely equipped to do what I do. I laugh and curse at my numb fingers trying to close zip lock bags. Packing fish can be FUN!

I had grand blogging plans that are being simplified out of necessity. Fishmongering is an activity that is best approached with at least 6 hours of sleep. Trust me friends, no one wants to see my grumpy face. This will be a MEGAPOST that will match the MEGACOOLER that you will take home tomorrow.

Black Cod

Well, we are really talking sablefish here, but the accepted and widely used market name for this fish is black cod. No matter what you call it, it’s goooooooood. Your fish will come to you with the skin on and the pin bones in. The skin is on because you should make it salty and crispy and then you must eat it. It’s delicious. The pin bones are in because the fish gets mushy in transit without them. Pin bones are easy to remove. A good video tutorial on how to do that can be found here. I would like to add that it is helpful to place the fillet on top of a bowl skin side down. That makes the pin bones easier to identify.

Our black cod comes from the handsomest man in Ft. Bragg. I talked about him here. Any one that is new to Siren and did not try Mike Lee’s excellent Hacked Sous Vide Black Cod recipe should do that this week. You will not be sorry. If you would like some additional inspiration, please check out everything that Siren subscribers did with their last black cod share.

Swordfish

This is our first go at swordfish. Quite frankly, it will be a rarely sourced item for Siren. Swordfish are at the top of the food chain and they live for quite a long time. Those two characteristics can lead to high mercury levels. While it is not advisable to eat swordfish every day, it is a great occasional addition to your diet. This fish is gorgeous, brought in on Thursday in Monterey. I did not see a single worm in the entire fish. Most wild fish have some sort of parasite in them. Most parasites are not visible to the naked eye, but the worms that are commonly found in swordfish are quite visible. As with all wild fish, you must cook or freeze it before eating to be certain that you have killed all of the parasites. I know that everything I just wrote sounds like a really good reason to NOT eat swordfish, but trust me, you want to eat this.

 

Swordfish with Lemon Dill Vinaigrette

This recipe was suggested to me by Bruce Cole of Edible San Francisco. I made a few adjustments this week as I was trying it out and here we have the finished product. I like it so much that I made it twice! BONUS: It’s cold outside and turning on your broiler warms up your kitchen very quickly. BONUS 2: This is a really good recipe if you want to finish off your produce CSA box. Night one I had my swordfish on an arugula salad, and night two I had it roasted sweet potatoes. There will be enough vinaigrette to dress whichever vegetable you decide to pair with the fish.

 

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons lemon zest

2 teaspoons table salt

a pinch of granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard

1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper

8 oz. swordfish, cut into two 1/2 inch thick steaks (I just sliced mine in half horizontally with a VERY sharp knife.)

 

1. Preheat your broiler. Place the lemon juice, lemon zest, salt, sugar, dijon mustard, and dill into a bowl and whisk until combined. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking continuously until it is completely incorporated. Season with ground pepper (I used A LOT.).

2. Broil the swordfish steaks over high heat, placing them as close to the heat source as possible until they are cooked through. This should take about 6 minutes. Turn the steaks once halfway through cooking. Transfer the fish to a platter and poke several holes in the steaks with a fork so that the vinaigrette can seep in. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the fish. Reserve some vinaigrette to dress you salad or vegetables.

 

Enjoy!