Top | The Culinate Interview

Paul Johnson

(article, Culinate staff)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true]

p(blue). Fishmonger, sustainable-seafood activist, and author of the book Fish Forever, Paul Johnson is the owner of the Monterey Fish Market in San Francisco, California, which he founded in 1979.

p(blue). In this Culinate Interview, Johnson answers seafood questions submitted by Culinate readers. For more about Johnson and his work, see Twilight Greenaway's recent article, The life aquatic.

What do you feel about the term "local" when you're talking about seafood? Do we have to enlarge our definition of "local" when it comes to fish?
When I first started in the seafood business, 90 percent of the fish I sold was landed within 100 miles of San Francisco, which is what I considered “local” at the time, and 10 percent was from elsewhere. Today, I think those figures have come close to turning upside-down — 10 percent from San Francisco waters and 90 percent from elsewhere. Out of necessity, my own personal definition of "local" has changed to include the entire California coast. 

What this change represents is the depletion of local fisheries and the disappearance of the small-boat fisherman. Much of the blame for this can be attributed to poor fishery-management policies throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Fortunately, we have moved into an era of improved management; unfortunately, many of our small-boat fishermen are still paying for the sins of past mismanagement.

[%image reference-image float=right width=250 credit="Photo courtesy Paul Johnson" caption="Paul Johnson"]

For me, it's important to have an understanding of and a connection to a fishery and the people who catch the fish. We can all understand how and where salmon or crabs or codfish come from, but who can relate to Chilean sea bass, a frozen fish from thousands of miles away with a made-up name, processed by foreign laborers on industrialized factory boats? 

What is important for me is to support U.S.-based, small-boat, artisanal fishermen and local, seasonal fisheries, whether they be found in Port Orford, Oregon, Morro Bay, California, or Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
What's your assessment of the recent oil spill in San Francisco Bay? When would you eat fish from the bay? Give us an update, please.
Due to the nature of tanker fuel — it coagulates into large globs that float on the surface — most of the oil from the Cosco Busan spill washed up on beaches and rocky shoreline. For this reason, the spill was particularly devastating to birds as well as intertidal dwellers, such as oysters, mussels, and barnacles. But it did not affect Dungeness crab or other commercial fisheries, which take place many miles offshore in clean waters. 

Extensive testing by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the California Department of Public Health have shown no detectable residue of metals or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in commercially-caught seafood, although PAHs were detected in mussels and red rock crabs taken from near the Berkeley shoreline on the eastern edge of the bay.  

A much greater threat to the bay than the Cosco Busan spill is stormwater runoff, which carries agricultural and animal waste, oil from our roads and streets, sewage overflow and garbage such as plastic bags into the bay. We need to improve urban infrastructure, encourage better agricultural practices, and capture storm runoff so it can be cleaned up before we can safely eat from the bay. 

Today, I would not recommend that anyone eat seafood from San Francisco Bay.

Were you aware of the Mark Bittman recipe in the New York Times a while back recommending monkfish? I know he got a lot of heat for recommending an endangered fish.
Unfortunately, judging whether or not a fishery is sustainable is not a simple, cut-and-dried process; all salmon is not necessarily good, and all monkfish is not necessarily bad. We have to look at a number of considerations, the most important being whether the fishery is well managed or not, biological factors, and the method of capture or culture. 

Northern stocks of monkfish are considered healthy. The rub is in the way monkfish are caught — most are trawled, which harms the sea bottom and is responsible for bycatch of other species such as flounders. But some monkfish are caught by large mesh gill nets, which have little or no impact on habitat and bycatch. So, most monkfish are bad, but sometimes they are OK.

I don’t want to defend Mark Bittman, because I don’t think he thought it out this far. One of the thorniest issues we face as seafood buyers and consumers is what to do about the “good fisherman in a bad fishery.” I almost always choose to support the good fisherman who fishes by sustainable methods, such as hook and line, trap, harpoon, or gill net. If we don’t support the “good fisherman,” we will not have any choice at the market. Because there's no question that the wealthy, politically influential, and industrialized fisheries are not going away.

Where should someone new to fish be buying his fish? How can I tell if a market is all right? And what kinds of questions should a buyer be asking the fishmonger?
Someone new to fish should seek out a full-service shop where seafood is openly displayed and there are employees whose job is to sell seafood and only seafood.

[%image fishforever float=left width=300 credit="Photo courtesy Paul Johnson"]

Establish a relationship with someone behind the counter and develop an ongoing dialogue. Ask how and where their seafood was caught or cultured, and your fishmonger's answers will let you know if they are concerned about health and sustainability issues. They don’t have to know all the answers, but they should show a willingness to find the answers. 

Look for openly displayed labels. Country-of-origin labeling laws (COOL) mandate that seafood be labeled as to whether it is wild or aquacultured, but a good fishmonger will take that one step further by providing exact provenance (for example, oysters from Willapa Bay) and the method of capture or culture. A good fishmonger will also display the National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP) tag, which carries the date and exact location of harvest for shellfish.

And positive feedback on your part provides incentive for your fishmonger to make sure you get the best quality every time. Everyone loves a compliment.

What makes a scallop sweet? What's the science?
Animals that live in the ocean must maintain their bodily fluids at the same density as the ocean that surrounds them. Saltwater is about 3 percent minerals, mostly salt.  The optimum level of dissolved minerals inside animal cells is less than 1 percent, so the scallop makes up the difference with tasty amino acids such as glycine, which is sweet, and glutamic acid, which is savory. See Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking for further information.

What is your favorite method of preparing fish?
It depends on the time of year, type of fish, and whimsy. Delicate-flavored, lean spring salmon are best poached or steamed, while in late summer, when the nights are warm and the fish have fattened in preparation for their run up natal rivers, I really enjoy charcoal grilling. 

In winter, I like to make stews and chowders. One of my favorite preparations is cooking in parchment paper: fish, vegetables, and seasoning all folded up into a packet and baked in the oven for 15 minutes. It's a complete meal, easy and elegant. Sautéing is quick and easy; baking or braising in the oven is healthy. And of course everyone loves flavor-rich, calorie-laden deep-frying, but my daughter Kelley and I save it for when Mom’s out of town; she hates the mess.

reference-image, l

fishforever, l