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Where sustainable swordfish meets the plate

REGION — Rob Ruiz, chef and owner of The Land & Water Company restaurant in Carlsbad, lets nothing go to waste.

While doing a swordfish demonstration on Nov. 14 for a special dinner event sponsored by Pew Charitable Trusts, Ruiz leaned over the freshly caught 96-pound swordfish he was filleting and said he would scrape it down, saving every morsel including the bones. The bits could be incorporated into fish cakes, sandwiches, stews and more.

The restaurant, which grows vegetables at its own farm, even burns food scraps to create ash that can be used as seasoning. Sustainability at The Land & Water Company is not a buzzword; it’s a practiced lifestyle.

“As a chef, you’re responsible for what goes into your food,” Ruiz said. “That means choosing sustainable sources, providing healthy food and addressing any allergies people have.”

The swordfish Ruiz prepared had been caught by deep-set buoy gear, a fairly new technology developed by scientists at Oceanside’s Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research (PIER). The method targets swordfish with minimal bycatch, the unintended species caught while fishing.

Data from a PIER study of deep-set buoy gear showed catch rates that were 83 percent swordfish and 98 percent marketable. Non-marketable species were released alive.

Pew Charitable Trusts, which helped fund the PIER research, held the Nov. 14 event called “3 Cheers for Buoy Gear: A Celebration of California Swordfish” as a way of bringing together fishermen, chefs and scientists — all of whom have a stake in the sustainable seafood movement.

Chef Rob Ruiz, who owns The Land & Water Company restaurant in Carlsbad, gave a swordfish demonstration on Nov. 14 for a Pew Charitable Trusts dinner event called “3 Cheers for Buoy Gear: A Celebration of California Swordfish.” Ruiz has won awards for his commitment to sustainable seafood. Photo by Carey Blakely

Tara Brock, policy analyst with Pew’s Pacific Ocean Conservation Team, sees deep-set buoy gear as a “win-win for conservationists and fishermen” because of its minimal bycatch and the higher price it can fetch on the market. Unlike swordfish caught by other methods that might languish after putting up a long fight, swordfish caught by buoy gear die a quick death and quickly make it to market.

Chugey Sepulveda, Ph.D., a fisherman and the director of PIER who came up with the concept for deep-set buoy gear in 2009, told the Pew event attendees that the average buoy gear trip is 3.6 days compared to longline fishing expeditions in Mexico that last 19 days on average. That time difference makes a big impact on the freshness and quality of the fish.

But consumers need to be willing to pay for that difference in quality, Sepulveda said, noting that fishermen can’t survive if people want to be “bargain hunters.” He elaborated, “It costs more to operate sustainably in California, and we need to be willing to pay for that.”

With the buoy gear method, typically about 10 fishing lines featuring baited hooks are dropped to the depths where swordfish feed. A buoy will move when there’s a bite, alerting the fishermen monitoring the lines. The deep dive patterns of swordfish allow fishers to avoid catching sea turtles and marine mammals, which typically stay in surface waters, Sepulveda explained.

Lance Reinhart, a fisherman based in Avalon on Catalina Island, has been fishing with buoy gear for about five years. “Every once in a while I’ll catch a blue shark, but I let it go alive,” he said. The amount of bycatch he’s caught with buoy gear is significantly less than when he used drift gillnets in the early 1980s.

Driftnets are a controversial fishing practice that will soon be outlawed in California in phases. Some fishermen, including Sepulveda, have voiced misgivings about the driftnet ban, noting that it was a highly regulated fishery and with its elimination, they now have one less method available for harvesting swordfish.

Scott Aalbers (foreground) and Chugey Sepulveda, scientists with the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research (PIER) in Oceanside, tag and release a swordfish while conducting research on swordfish movements that was crucial to their development of sustainable fishing gear. Photo by Ralph Pace

Like other buoy gear fishermen, Reinhart also uses a harpoon — another sustainable fishing practice — to catch swordfish when they bask at the surface. But that’s not an opportunity that presents itself frequently enough to be relied upon on an ongoing basis.

Reinhart’s wife, Leah, expressed concern that if the Pacific Fishery Management Council authorizes deep-set buoy gear in federal waters off of the West Coast this June — right now there are only trial permits allowed — there would be too many fishers on the water and not enough fish and profits to go around.

Addressing that concern, Brock wrote to The Coast News, “Pew has supported and the Council recently endorsed a ‘phased-in’ approach for issuing deep-set buoy gear permits, meaning only a limited number of fishermen will receive permits each year once buoy gear is authorized. This will allow the market to expand slowly, enable the Council to assess any potential economic or environmental impacts if they arise, and guard against too many vessels on the water.”

RJ Moore, a Land & Water chef who was preparing spicy tuna rolls at the event, said he left Harney Sushi in Oceanside with Ruiz and other co-workers when Ruiz expressed a desire to launch his own restaurant rooted in sustainability. When asked what the secret was to making a great spicy tuna roll, Moore said, “You have to put your love into it. And it’s all about the quality of the fish.”

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