There’s a New Cod in Town

 

Blue Star launches a custom-built, humane-harvest longliner unlike any other out there.

STORY BY NICOLE SPRINKLE

Alaska fishers Michael and Patrick Burns’ interest in humanely harvesting cod didn’t begin with fish, but with their grass-fed cattle ranch.

The brothers own a 50,000-acre cattle ranch near Troy, Oregon, in southeastern Washington. Inspired by the teachings of Temple Grandin, a famous professor who advocates for the humane treatment of livestock during slaughter, they decided to take their ethical leanings into their original careers as fishers.

They moved to from upstate New York to Cordova, Alaska, in the 70s where they became the first longliners in the region—and eventually, some of the most respected fishers among Seattle chefs seeking high-quality cod. Longliners catch fish on individual hooks, which results in less unwanted bycatch compared to trawlers that drag huge nets through the sea. Long-lining also results in higher quality fish; trawlers crush and suffocate their catches, whereas long-liners are gentler.

The brothers called on their shipbuilding backgrounds to build their fishing vessel, The F/V Blue North, completely from scratch. The result: a brand new 40-million-dollar, 191-foot longline fishing vessel unlike any other plying the deep waters of the pollock- and cod-rich Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska.

The ship is state of the art, with high-tech features that haul the cod in gently, where they are immediately killed with a stun gun, and frozen and packed on board. Not only is it one of the most high-tech boats on the sea – the 770,000-square-mile arc of deep waters cradled by Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula – it’s also catching some of the best tasting, most sustainable cod available in the Northwest.

It’s the first boat to have a veritable fish factory at sea, with a series of automations that result in significant upgrades for the boat’s crew. Take the moon pool, for instance. It’s a kind of swimming pool for hauling fish set within the deck. Traditionally, the crew hangs precariously over the side of the boat to haul lines in, which is hard, cold, and often dangerous work. Here, they are protected from the elements, pulling lines in through the watery hole from the comfort of the ship’s deck.

Then there’s the stunning table. After the fish are pulled through the moon pool, they are immediately stunned, a process that causes minimal stress to the fish and is believed to result in a better taste.

Michael & Pat Burns

“For us longliners, it’s a no- brainer,” says Michael. “The fish come onboard one at a time, and it’s really easy to put them through the stunning table, which renders them unconscious. Stunning tables have been used on salmon fish farms, so I decided to figure out how to use it on a wild-catch boat. We found out that if you stun the fish, it makes the meat much better, gives it a longer shelf life, preserves more omega-3s and better proteins.”

They worked with Dr. Mahmoudreza Ovissipour, who earned his Ph.D. in seafood science and technology. Ovissipour explains that fish proteins are degraded when fish are under stress and panic. “Seafood is one of the most important natural vectors for high nutritional value protein and omega-3s for humans,” he wrote in a 2015 Washington State University report. “Since fish can feel pain and stress, these factors can easily influence their quality, nutritional value, shelf life, and consumption safety.”

In a blind study done at the School of Food Science at Washington State University, humanely harvested fish had higher levels of nutrients and proteins, were flakier, and had improved muscle texture.

The cod has been recognized as a “Best Choice” option by the high priest of seafood sustainability, The Monterey Bay Aquarium. And Seattle restaurateurs like Tom Douglas and Renee Erickson are buying it up, despite its slightly steeper price point. Chances are, if you’ve had cod on the menu at Dahlia Lounge or The Whale Wins, you’ve eaten fish caught by Blue North.

Eric Tanaka, partner and executive chef of Tom Douglas Seattle Kitchen, attests to the superior taste. Although Blue North cod costs a little more, Eric finds that the fish loses less water weight. Several other Tom Douglas restaurants, including Etta’s, Dahlia Lounge, Cantina Lena & Bravehorse Tavern, also serve Blue North cod.

In November, Town & Country Market on Bainbridge Island was the first retailer to offer the humanely harvested cod. “This seems a natural next step in our commitment to offer sustainable seafood and conscious food choices to our shoppers,” said Susan Allen, shareholder and Director of Brand Development for Town & Country. Today, Blue North cod is sold at Town & Country’s 6 grocery locations.

The improvements don’t end with the stunning process, however. Once the cod are stunned and bled out, they are beheaded, gutted, and then sorted by size via an automated belt, before they slide down into a freezer. The crew then merely stacks the fish after they’ve been automatically bagged. It doesn’t mean that everything is easier though.

“It’s still a work in progress,” says Michael. “Of all the boats we own and all the boats in Alaska, if there’s a problem, you can fix it with crescent wrench. For this boat, you need a computer to fix it. It’s a big transition from the mechanic to the software world.”

And, of course, there’s the reduction in yield that comes with longlining versus trawling. Though Blue North puts up a million and a half pounds of cod every month, a trawler does 10 times that amount. Given the massive cost of the ship, the company can’t rely only on local restaurants and grocery stores sales. A huge portion of their catch is sold to China and pet stores.

Do they foresee other fishers adapting to this model? Though Michael and Patrick hope that their ship bolsters new builds, they’re skeptical. “You could retrofit a boat to do this, but it’s most likely to happen when you’re building a new boat, and it’s so expensive to do it here in the U.S.,” says Michael. “People saw what we went through and wonder if they want to deal with it all.

“For me, late in my career now, the inspiration came from dreaming all these years about building a brand-new boat,” he continues. “We specialized in buying old funky boats and fixing them up to be longliners. A new boat is an incredibly beautiful object, and I have a passion for things that work really well.”

When asked about what it was like on his first trip out on the boat, his voice gets more animated. “We took it out in Puget Sound and invited anybody who had any involvement. Everyone was touring this beautiful boat, and I just felt so good about it. My dream really came true.”


Nicole Sprinkle is the former Food & Drink Editor at Seattle Weekly and has written for Cherry Bombe, the New York Times, Seattle magazine, and Taste, among others. She currently works at Sasquatch Books.

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