Food Film Thursday

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For the last seven years, I have been fortunate to work with Patagonia on a very cool project, which is now known as Patagonia Provisions. It’s a food company whose reason for existence is to make delicious food that’s good for people and the planet. Along the way, I’ve met some of the most inspiring people around–people who are growing, raising, catching and making food in ways that can help solve the current environmental crisis. The passion and knowledge these people bring to the food world is mind blowing.

This movie, made by my friend Chris Malloy, introduces these people and shows what they’re doing. Which to me, is really amazing stuff–reef netting for salmon off Lummi Island, raising free-roaming buffalo in South Dakota, pioneering new crops and ways to grow and use them in Kansas and the Skagit Valley. And now, you can see the film this coming Thursday, June 30th, 7:00pm at the Seattle Patagonia store. Come on out if you can make it–we’ll have good food, beer, and conversation with Chris and some of the people featured in the film.

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Lummi Island Fun

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Whenever possible, I like to include Skyla and Weston in some of the work I’m doing. It’s a way for us to share some cool experiences and give the kids a little bigger view of the world. Fortunately, the people I was working with on Lummi Island share that point of view. Birgit, who runs Patagonia Provisions, brought her family along, as did James, who’s the product manager. The kids wasted no time in becoming fast friends, and they quickly descended on the tide pools in front of the house we stayed in.

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I also wanted the kids to learn more about commercial salmon fishing, so we went out to the reef-net “gears,” and spent an afternoon doing what we could to be helpful. That’s Josh, the reef-netter, teaching Weston how to catch and bleed fish from the live tank. Huge thanks to the kind and exceptionally kid-friendly crews aboard the reef-net boats.

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Later that day, I borrowed the Wild Fish Conservancy skiff to take the kids sport fishing. But the sudden appearance of harbor porpoises changed the objective. We followed them all the way across the channel, and ended up at a seal rookery, where dozens of mother and baby seals were hauled out on the rocks.

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On another day, Keith and Riley, from the Lummi Island Wild salmon co-op, took us on their new tender to pick up fish from the outlying reef nets. The trip also doubled as an awesome tour of all the San Juan Islands, and included a stop for ice cream at Roche Harbor. (The looks on all the yachtie’s faces when a huge work boat pulled in amongst the fancy pleasure craft and released a pack of barefoot kids into their midst was priceless.) That’s Weston, Skyla, Claire and Gracie holding down the fish bins aboard the Galactic Ice.

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But every time we came back to shore, the kids went immediately back to the tide pools. They built elaborate “habitats” in salad bowls and buckets to temporarily house the critters they found. While Birgit and James (from Provisions), Kurt and Nick (from Wild Fish Conservancy) and Riley and Keith (from Lummi Island Wild) and I discussed how this union of a commercial interest, a fish conservation NGO and fishermen can help save salmon, and Darcy (filmmaker) shot b-roll for her video of the reef netters, the kids absorbed themselves in sea life. When I went to check on them, I heard Skyla and Gracie shouting, “We have to improve the habitat! We have to improve the habitat!” A fitting sentiment, I thought, for the meeting going on inside.


Sustainable Salmon Harvest

Reef net "gears" just off Lummi Island. The buoy lines guide migrating salmon into the nets.

Reef net “gears” just off Lummi Island. The buoy lines guide migrating salmon into the nets.

The kids and I spent a few days up on Lummi Island this week, checking out what is quite possibly the most responsible, environmentally friendly commercial fishing enterprise in the world. The Lummi Island reef netters employ an ancient technique, where a net is suspended between two anchored boats; when the target species enters, the net is raised to capture them. The way it’s done on Lummi really sets the bar for low carbon footprint, zero by-catch and the highest quality fish.

First, the reef net boats–or “gears” as the whole array of lead lines, boats and nets is called–are anchored in place for the season. The main netting location is just a few hundred yards offshore, so the only energy used to fish is the tablespoon or so of gas it takes to get from the beach to the “gears” by skiff. When the crew arrives on the boats, the nets are lowered into place and fishing begins. The spotter climbs to the top of a tall platform, the headstand, and watches for fish entering the net. When he sees the right species and number of fish, he or she–30% of the Lummi Island crew is made up of women–shouts “TAKE ‘EM!” The net flies upward, powered by¬† a series of solar-powered winches, the captured fish are released into a live-well, and the net is re-deployed. It takes less than a minute and the boat is back fishing.

Hauling in the catch. Here you can see the captured salmon about to be transferred to the livewell.

Hauling in the catch. Here you can see the captured salmon about to be transferred to the live-well.

The zero by-catch starts with the visual spotting of fish entering the net. If non-target species approach, the net is simply left in place, allowing the fish to continue their migration. If, by some small chance, a non-target species is captured in the net along with the target species, it is released completely unharmed. But in two days on the gears, I did not witness a single non-target species inadvertently netted.

Pink salmon harvested from an abundant--and growing--population swim in the live-well.

Pink salmon harvested from an abundant–and growing–population swim in the live-well.

Finally, the quality of fish caught by this method is unbelievable. The fish go directly from the net into a live-well with no handling, and stay there until the crew is ready to start processing. Each fish is lifted from the live-well by hand, and bled in another well. (The presence of blood in salmon flesh creates the majority of off flavors.) It then goes directly into an ice slurry, nearly untouched and completely free of blood. Unlike gill nets or seines, the other main commercial harvest techniques used in the area, reef-net fish are not bruised, caught by the gills, or abraded during any part of the process.

On a cultural level, we found none of the macho, us-against-nature mentality that sometimes develops in other commercial fishing fleets. To a man (or woman) everyone we met on the Lummi Island crew was exceptionally relaxed, welcoming and kind, with a clear sense of responsibility for the resource, and pride in what they were doing.

This is the future of commercial fishing. And I’m excited that Patagonia Provisions and the Wild Fish Conservancy, both of which I work with, are a part of the future that this fishery represents.

Closer shot of the reef net gears. The angled roofs on each boat are solar panels that run the winches.

Closer shot of the reef net gears. The angled roofs on each boat are solar panels that run the winches.