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.”

Dover Sole

This is a week of firsts for Siren. We fulfilled our first orders placed through Good Eggs. Our shop can be found here. It was really exciting to watch the orders roll in. It will be interesting to see how that segment of Siren grows in the next couple of months. It is my hope that by this time next year we will be able to find “homes” for all of the fish caught by one or two boats.

The other first, and this is a big one, is our first load of fish caught by bottom trawling. This is a decision that I have been pondering since the beginning of Siren. Trawl nets have been controversial in the past due to the damage they can do to ocean habitats and the amount of bycatch that can end up in the net. I had been told from the beginning, by people who know a lot more than I do, that this was a complicated issue. They suggested that in order to truly support the fishery, I needed to buy some trawl-caught groundfish. This fish and this catch method is a HUGE part of the Bodega Bay and Ft. Bragg fisheries. I was pretty overwhelmed by all of the information out there on the subject and chose to avoid the whole thing entirely until I could think it all over and do more research. Well, I have pondered and researched. I feel like we are ready to take this step. Here goes!

We bought a load of Pacific Dover Sole (Microstomus pacificus) this week. The fish were landed in Bodega Bay and caught by longtime Siren buddy Keith Gilmore. Here is why I feel great about supporting this fisherman and buying this fish:

-The West Coast Groundfish Trawl Catch Share Program regulates bycatch to the most endangered fish population, and there are onboard observers who make sure that all bycatch is accounted for.

-Dover congregate in large schools this time of year and skilled fishermen are able to target these groups, minimizing bycatch.

-In and around Bodega Bay, trawlers are only permitted to drop their nets over sandy areas, which sustain minimal or no damage from the use of these nets. There have also been modifications to these nets that minimize the impact to the ocean floor. Dover sole hang out along the muddy bottoms of these permitted areas.

-While many sources list long-line and trap as other methods of catching Dover, I have never found anybody who catches them that way. It is inefficient and rarely done. I have even been laughed at when I suggest it.  Please see page 6 of this report. Yep, no non-trawl Dover after 2002.

-Dover sole populations are at healthy levels.

As of right now, this is the only species we will buy from a trawl net. Not all trawl caught fish are evil. Fishing with a trawl net is an important part of the livelihoods of many of the fisherman landing in Bodega Bay. I hope that you enjoy the fish and feel as good about eating it as I did about buying it. If you have any questions or comments about this new move, please email me at sirenseasa@gmail.com

 

 

Baby Siren Grows Up

When I started Siren I had no idea where it would lead or how it would grow. At the beginning of the six-week trial run, my two goals were to not lose a lot of money and to make sure all of the fish was sustainably sourced. It was a big experiment and in my typical fashion I just jumped at it with everything I had and hoped for the best. After that trial run I had broken even (Barely!) and I felt really happy with the fish that had been delivered and the people who had caught it. I began to allow myself to dream a little bigger and write down some little milestones. Well, eighteen months later and we have demolished all of those little milestones. We have 300 subscribers and that number grows by at least five people per week! Our fishermen get paid what the fish is actually worth. They get a living wage and their catch is treated with respect. It’s a great place to be.

I started thinking bigger this time last year while I was newly pregnant with my sweet baby Theo. I was in a constant state of seasickness when I went to Santa Barbara to speak at the Edible Institute on a panel made up of women in seafood. That panel was a wonderful experience. I loved sitting next to women who knew their stuff and hearing about the way their businesses work. The whole conference was inspiring, but inspiring in a big way that takes weeks, months, or years to fully digest. So here I am, writing this thing I have been thinking about writing for almost a year.

The talk that made me sit up and rethink all of this CSF stuff came from keynote speaker Nikki Henderson. If I tried to recount the whole talk I would probably butcher it, but she talked about her own journey with food and food justice from her childhood to her current work with the People’s Grocery. 

Part of her talk was so revolutionary to me that I couldn’t even process how it applied to my business until months later. I don’t have a food justice background or a degree is sustainable food systems. I am most qualified to be an opera singer and four years ago I found people who thought that I might be really good at keeping a fish plant in line. I am exceedingly lucky to have found this business and this community of fishermen, processors, and subscribers. Her idea was roughly this: You want to change a broken system? You want to help people in a real and lasting way? You have to be with the breakdown.

Being with the breakdown isn’t pretty and it doesn’t always get you lots of attention and it probably won’t make you any money. You might have to eliminate parts of your business that earn money and attention to make room for parts that can help fix what is broken and might be less profitable or popular. That’s not to say that we don’t need to be profitable. If we lose money we go away, and then who are we helping? No one. We are striving to reach a careful balance and it’s a two-part problem. First you have to find the breakdown in what you want to change, and then you have to meet that problem exactly where it is. All of this bounced around in my head and I tried to think of where the breakdown is in the tiny little Siren corner of the seafood industry. This little corner is the part I know well enough to change.

The way I see it, for Siren to do the most good we need to address two areas of concern:

 1. Preaching to the choir. Earlier this year I saw this and I felt like they pointed at me and said my name. Our subscribers are wonderfully educated on issues surrounding seafood sustainability and eating locally, but what about people who aren’t subscribers? What about people who only know fish from their chain supermarket’s meat counter? I want to get shares into the hands of people who otherwise could not afford the service or know it exists. I know that this does not even begin to address the problems with our food system, but it is something that Siren can do now and refine and expand as we go. We will be partnering with food pantries near each of our drop locations to sponsor a family with a Full Fillet Share. They pick the family and we bring the fish. That family will get a share as long as they would like it. It’s that simple. We will be launching this on April 1st and hope to expand as Siren grows. This is our first small step into outreach and we hope to rope some other CSA’s and small producers into joining us.

2. Small fish in a big pond. The other issue I eternally contemplate is our support of small fishermen. In 2012, Siren purchased $50,000 worth of fish. That is not a small figure, but it is such a tiny number in the big picture of our local fishing industry. We are on track to spend $100,000 on fish in 2013, but that number is still one small order from a big buyer. I have always had this crazy thought that if I could buy and use everything from one or two boats that would actually make a big difference in their bottom line. If I pay 25% more per pound, but I only buy 1% of what that boat catches, that boat just got a tiny .25% raise. If I buy half of what a boat brings in and I pay 25% more, well that could make a real difference. So, we are adding new ways to get our seafood to you, and more uses for the seafood that we buy.

The SeaSA shares are not very flexible. I need a very steady quantity of fish, but a steady quantity of fish is not always going to be landed. Sometimes there will be 500 pounds available when I only need 400. What if I could find a use for that other 100 pounds? Siren Fish Co. has been created with the intention of producing products from fish bought from local small fishermen. Siren SeaSA will continue to bring the best local and seasonal fish to subscribers, while Siren Fish Co. will focus on hanging out in the smokehouse making use of those small surpluses. We will be rolling out smoked albacore and salmon (lox and hot smoked), as well as offering up some of the fish that we will overbuy during peak seasons and freeze for later use. We will also offer picked crabmeat during Dungeness crab season. It is all part of our grand plan to find more uses for the fish that we buy, enabling us to buy more and make a larger impact. Our processing partners at North Coast Fisheries consistently make the best smoked fish and provide us with impeccably stored seafood. We are very lucky to have formed this partnership.

Siren Fish Co. can be found on Good Eggs. We are excited to partner with them to offer delivery to your door of Siren Fish Co. items as well as Siren SeaSA shares. Check out our webstand at www.goodeggs.com/sirenfishco

If you have any suggestions on how Siren can be of help to your community, please contact me at sirenseasa@gmail.com. I am, as always, grateful to have contact with so many passionate and fascinating people. Thank you for helping us do some good!

 

Anna

 

 

Black Cod for Saturday Drops

Don’t forget to click on the black cod category below to see past recipes and information.

Your black cod will arrive to you with the skin on and the scales removed. MAKE THE SKIN CRISPY AND THEN EAT IT! Wait until after cooking to remove the pin bones. They are hard to get out of the raw fillet but will practically slide out after cooking.

Shiny Little Pacific Herring

Thursday and Saturday drops will be getting shiny little Pacific herring. These guys pack amazing flavor and hold up beautifully to pickling and smoking. We are in the process of developing a smoked herring to send out in the future, but it is turning into a long process. Figuring out how to smoke a new fish is ALWAYS a long process. Developing smoked fish recipes is a whole other topic, a long and complicated discussion of which will be merited at some point. In the meantime, just let me say that I am not a thrower of fits, but the smokehouse has reduced me to toddler style tantrums on more than a few occasions.

You will be getting whole herring, partly because I couldn’t convince a processor to clean them for any price, and partly because they are spawning and many fish will be filled with delicious roe and milt. The milt is delicious floured and pan-fried. I really recommend that you give it a try on some toast. If herring sexy stuff grosses you out, don’t read this.

Here is a basic step-by-step on how to gut the fish. This is VERY similar to dealing with sardines, except the head snapping method that I prefer for sardines DOES NOT really work here. I tried it so that you don’t have to. It was a bloody mess.

1. Scale the fish. You can use the back of a knife, but I prefer using my thumb under running water in the sink. The scales are very soft and come off easily.

2. Using kitchen shears, cut along the belly from the anal opening to the head. Kitchen shears make it easier to open the belly without slicing into the milt or roe.

3. Pull out the innards, reserve the milt if you would like to eat it.

If you want to broil or grill them whole, you can stop right here. If you are pickling, and therefore filleting, you will want to go to step 4.

4. Cut into the side of the fish behind the gill until you hit the the spine. Turn the knife toward the back of the fish and cut along the spine until you cut through the skin near the tail and remove the fillet.

There are, of course, many other ways to go about this. There is a great guide to filleting herring here.

 

Black cod!

Thursday drops will have trap caught black cod from Bodega Bay. Click on the black cod category at the bottom of the page to see past black cod recipes and tips!

Dungeness Crab Frittata

Just a quick little note of appreciation for all of the ever wonderful Siren subscribers, who have been so patient while I grew, birthed, and settled in with a giant baby. THANKS!

Isn’t he something? I have been enjoying my time cuddled up with sweet Theo, getting the hang of this whole mama thing and keeping Siren chugging forward. One of the unexpected side effects of my pregnancy and postpartum journey was an aversion to the smell and taste of seafood. Did I mention that Theo’s sensitive tummy meant NO DAIRY for me as well? Total bummer, right? I just now got past all of it. Last night I cooked with crab and I loved it. All of the yummy seafood smells that I used to love now appeal to me, and I am so excited to get back into the kitchen to play.

Here is my first step back in. A simple crab and wild mushroom frittata that HAS CHEESE in it! My triumphant return to the world of eating dairy!

Dungeness Crab Frittata

1 cup diced mushrooms (I used wild trumpet mushrooms, but you can use whatever is available, wild or not.)

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

6 eggs

1/4 cup milk

1/4 cup grated cheese (I used Pt. Reyes Toma, but I think you could use just about anything.)

The meat from 1 or 2 Dungeness crabs, picked over for rogue bits of shell (A half share has 2 crabs. I used one for this recipe, but feel free to load up on crab.)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Saute mushrooms in olive oil until they are just soft. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and set aside.

3. In a large bowl, beat together eggs and milk.

4. Heat a large oven safe skillet on the stove over medium heat. Add a tablespoon of olive oil when the pan is hot. Heat the oil and add the beaten eggs and cream.

5. Sprinkle the cheese, crab, and mushrooms into the skillet. Allow the Frittata to set for 3-5 minutes on the stove. Transfer to the preheated oven and allow to bake for 10-15 minutes until puffy and lightly golden.

6. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes before turning out on a plate. Top with a few grinds of pepper.

I served it up with this salad from good ol’ Martha.

 

 

 

King Salmon Lox for Thursday and Saturday Drops

Thursday and Saturday drops will be getting our wild salmon lox! Wild local salmon sides are brined for 24 hours and cold smoked for 24 hours. The salmon sides are then sliced by hand and portioned. This process is labor-intensive but well worth it. I hope you will enjoy your lox! I wouldn’t do anything particularly fancy with it, it’s too good just the way it is. Get some bagels and go nuts!

Posted in Lox