Dinner From the Deep

Listeners at LBIF Captivated By Commercial Fishing Info; ‘There Is No Cheating in This Industry.’

Karter Larson’s talk on harvesting Viking Village seafood fills the house every year at the Long Beach Island Foundation of Arts and Sciences, and not just because he brings 15 pounds of prime sea scallops that are seared by a chef and shared with the audience.

“These scallops were caught a day ago,” he said, telling how it’s done, every fact loaded with impact of how complexly regulated and how dangerous the task is.

Saturday listeners were immersed in phrases like “fathoms” of great depth, “dark side of the moon,” when fish won’t bite, and heady numbers like $3.5 million, what a scallop permit is worth.

Larson, treasurer of Viking Village Commercial Seafood Producers in Barnegat Light, was also speaking as a veteran fisherman. After joining the Air Force years ago and serving in the rank of captain, he returned home to the family business.

The Feb. 1 Science Saturday lecture started by passing around a swordfish bill that indirectly told a moving story about the perilous profession.

“I got it from a guy named Chris Strawser, my friend, in June of last year,” Larson began, as the bonelike fibrous artifact was carefully passed from one listener to the next.

“He was going out on a trip off North Carolina. I asked Chris if he would bring me back a swordfish bill so I can show people what it looks like. He cleaned it off, and the way they clean it off is to tie it with a rope and tow it behind the boat for four days,” he said, adding as people chuckled, “and it cleans it right up.”

The narrative continued. “If you’ve ever been fishing off the North Carolina coast, it’s always rough. So, they brought back a swordfish bill; however, Chris never survived the trip. He fell down while offshore and crushed his ribs and died trying to get home on a helicopter.”

To a hushed audience that now handled the passed swordfish bill a little more reverently, Larson added, “If you go down to the fishermen’s memorial in Barnegat Light, his name is on that statue. If you want a swordfish bill, ask me, but not this one.”

Day boat scallopers in Barnegat Light go out for 24 hours and come back with 600 pounds, shucked at sea and iced. That was the source of the gourmet sample. Every attendee tasted at least one.

The scalloping industry is government regulated in a program that scientists and fishing industry leaders themselves worked to develop to sustain the species. It has worked, stocks are healthy. However, the rules are strict. Harvest is limited to particular days and regions.

In the six, 30-square-mile regions termed “closed” areas, a boat’s quota is 18,000 pounds, “and not 18,001,” Larson emphasized.

“Anybody want to take a guess how many days at sea they are allowed in 2020, out of 365?

“Twenty-four.”

The boat owners are told each April 1 how many days they can fish that year. “You do the best you can with it.

“They have to plan their trips around good weather. You can’t put your gear in the water when it’s too rough, but the clock is still ticking.”

The 2-ton, 15-foot-wide dredge that captures the scallops is hauled along the ocean floor behind the boat. It is made of rings that are no more than 4 inches wide, calculated to allow any too-small shells to pass through. “They have to be 4 inches, so when you’re boarded all the time by the Coast Guard …” Larson said.

Government eyes are always on the vessels, via satellite monitoring. That is not so for foreign fleets in international waters.

“You have to have a $15,000 antenna on top of the boat that is never turned off,” Larson said. “The government knows where we are 24 hours a day, every day. If you turn it off, the phone rings.”

He relayed an example of one captain who said he got a call that he went 10 feet over the line, in an offshore “closed” area.

“They’re watching you that closely. So that will show you, there is no cheating in this industry.”

An audience member asked if the species could be overfished.

Larson answered, “It is the most studied ocean organism in the world, by far. It can’t be overfished. They monitor it constantly, and there is a Magnuson Act of Congress that was put there to make sure we don’t overfish – catch some of them, the rest leave there to multiply.”

Permits for harvesting scallops aren’t just floating around out there.

“Years ago, the government gave out certificates to go scalloping: 275 pieces of paper,” and Larson said his father, John, got a couple. “Today if you want to sell that piece of paper, it’s about three and a half million dollars.”

Someone in the audience asked about the effect of offshore wind farms on the scalloping industry.

Larson answered briefly. “All those wind farms, not one is a U.S. company,” he said. “Just think about that. They are setting their wind farms right on top of our scallop beds. It sounds good for a politician to tell the general public that we’re using wind, but the carbon footprint …” Another audience question changed the subject.

Come August, the boats have reached the quotas, and they sit tied up at the dock.

The hard-won scallops command a price of $16 per pound – that’s wholesale – when they are the famed U-10 size (10 scallops totaling one pound in weight).

The regulations have been “successful” to sustain the fishery, Larson said. Right now, the “open” areas yield 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of scallop meat per trip. In the summer, the 10 boats scalloping with Viking Village pack out six days a week, 18,000 pounds per day. The total in 2019 was 2,143,000 pounds of scallops sent from Viking Village.

Larson added, to laughter, “I don’t even like scallops.”

Gathering Supper, Forty-Five Fathoms Down

The Viking Village fleet includes a couple of longline boats that go for swordfish from the beginning of June to the beginning of September. “They go out one week before and one week after the full moon, only,” Larson told the audience. “You can’t fish on the dark side of the moon, ever,” he said, emphasizing the ever. “The fish won’t bite.”

But the demand in metropolitan restaurants doesn’t fade with the lunar activities, he put in. So, restaurants fill in with product from overseas.

The talk turned to sea turtles, with another prop. Larson held up a thick piece of fishing line with a “circle hook” attached. The circle hook is documented to significantly reduce bycatch of sea turtles.

“When the longliners go out, they set their line with one of these every hundred feet, and set the line between 5 and 50 fathoms deep – a fathom is 6 feet – and they let it soak overnight. The next morning after breakfast, they go back to the beginning of the line and pick them up.

“One more thing about this: for U.S. fishermen only, they have to use this hook they call the circle hook, shaped so it won’t get caught in a turtle’s beak. And if it does, it’s a material made to dissolve over time.”

Another category in the fishery at Barnegat Light is net fishing boats. “This time of year, they are monkfishing. Most of them just ran out of days; they have 37 days to catch monkfish.”

Net boats go fishing 45 miles east of Barnegat Light, at about 40 fathoms deep.

Another display item was a wad of balloon remnants that had faded to clear, from the bright colors they had been.

On the ocean floor, they heralded death to sea turtles, not “Happy Birthday” or “Congratulations, Graduate.”

“The monkfish never leave the ocean bottom, and (fishermen) catch a whole lot of things out there besides fish,” Larson said. “Most of these things I hold in my hand are Mylar balloons. You can buy them at any shop over in Manahawkin for parties and graduation. We know they’re on the bottom because that’s all the net is hitting, the bottom.

“The problem with this is, besides pollution, the sea turtles’ main diet is jellyfish. On the bottom of the ocean, these things look like jellyfish. When turtles eat them, turtles’ throats are made so that they can’t regurgitate anything they eat.

“So once they eat it, it’s over, and they die a slow, painful death. There is a 100 percent mortality rate.

“If you have a party and you have these Mylar balloons, when you’re done all you have to do is deflate them” and dispose of them, he suggested.

When the net fishermen catch a mess of balloons, they bring them in and throw them in the Dumpster, Larson said. “Some of them they give to me to show you what is out there.”

Where There Was Smoke, Scallops Were Searing

Somebody suggested they give the police and firemen some scallops, too.

Before the presentation even started, a crew was in the arts foundation kitchen cooking scallops for the crowd, on high heat, as is the best way to cook them quick to keep them tender.

The smoke alarm went off. (It actually wasn’t the first time this had happened in a fishing/tasting presentation.)

Everything was fine, but by that time, the first responders were on their way as protocol to make certain.

“The good news is, the scallops are coming out really well,” announced a smiling John Imperiale, the LBIF’s new business and community relations manager.

Soon, golden, caramelized samples in cupcake foils were being passed around to all who were sitting in the building’s main exhibit room/auditorium.

Harvey Cedars Shellfish Company chef Mike Garofalo, son of the co-owner by the same name, later came out and demonstrated the cooking method of searing.

“The important thing is to get a really hot pan,” he said, using cast iron that retains heat and distributes it evenly.

“When you’re searing, it does throw off a lot of smoke … don’t worry, you’re doing it right.”

They broil them for serving on the restaurant’s menu, though, due to logistics, he said.

Garofalo had drained the scallops on a paper towel, and he used vegetable oil in the pan – “it has a high smoke point.”

Just coat the bottom of the pan, not a lot of oil is used for searing, he said. The oil will shimmer when it is hot enough for the seafood to go in. The scallops will sizzle. Don’t overcrowd the pan with too many scallops at once; it will bring down the temperature of the oil.

The scallops usually need only about two minutes of searing on each side. The meat will become opaque when done.

This simple preparation used salt and pepper to season, then finished with a balsamic reduction, which is about a 2-1 ratio of balsamic vinegar to brown sugar. The chef had simmered and reduced the balsamic glaze before the scallop cooking started. Chopped parsley added a colorful garnish.

Garofalo called the quality of the Barnegat Light scallops consistently “outstanding.” He said fine restaurants in Manhattan and Philadelphia agree.

mariascandale@thesandpaper.net

Reposted from The Sandpaper, Feb. 6, 2020