The Moment We’ve Been Waiting For: Ready, Set, Crab!

Dungeness crab season begins on the Washington coast tonight at midnight (January 24, 2013), and for hundreds of Washington crabbing families (including ours) this is the most important moment of our year.  We have all spent months, if not years, preparing for this moment — rigging up crab pots, measuring lines, painting buoys, grinding rust off boats, painting boats, replacing boat parts — and it has all come with a cost.  The price to invest in the crab fishery is not cheap.  Between leasing or buying fishing permits, crab gear, and boat maintenance and repairs, we have all invested many many tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars.  Our blood, sweat and tears go into these fishing operations (literally), and if we have one bad crabbing season we could lose everything we have worked so hard for.

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The Robin Blue in shipyard earlier this month

We have essentially been preparing for this moment for the last year and a half and we now find ourselves at the point where we could begin to make money instead of borrowing and spending money. The excitement and the tension are indescribable.

The first “pick” (or “set”) of the season is an important one.  The entire coastal dungeness crab population is scuttling around out there, so the first set will likely be the best.  With every set the crab fleet makes from then on, the crab population grows smaller and smaller, and catches grow smaller and smaller, until it no longer remains cost-effective to continue fishing.  This year there are quite a few boats crabbing in the same area, off of Westport, Washington, so there will be some competition to set pots in the prime fishing grounds.

Late night at the dock, loading crab pots on to the boat

Late night at the dock, loading crab pots on to the boat

I apologize for my lengthy explanation of the crab season (especially for those of you already familiar with the process) but I really want to drive home the point that this moment — the first day of the crab season — is a very important and very scary moment.  I will be a nervous wreck for the next week, waiting to hear how the first trip went.  Unfortunately, I could be waiting all week if Zed is out of cell range.

As a fisherman’s wife, it is necessary for the maintenance of my sanity to keep myself from worrying about things that are out of my control (boats, weather, danger, prices, etc..).  Sometimes this works for me, but I have a feeling that this week my mind will be reeling out of control with questions like “what if he doesn’t catch any crab?” “what if it’s a horrible season?” “what if they get trapped in a storm?” “what if the (fill in the blank with any of the major parts we just installed) doesn’t work?”  I’m already biting my fingernails and the season hasn’t even started yet!

All I can do at this point is to wish my husband — and all the other crabbers out there off the Washington coast tonight — prosperous and safe crabbing!  And I will leave you with this message from the Washington Dungeness Crab Fishermen’s Association:

FOR THOSE FISHERMEN HEADING OUT TO SEA, WE WANT YOU TO KNOW YOU WILL BE IN OUR HEARTS AND ON OUR MINDS.
AS YOU RETURN BACK TO WORK, RISKING YOUR LIVES TO SUPPORT YOUR FAMILIES AND TO HELP FEED THE WORLD, WE HOPE YOU KNOW JUST HOW MUCH “COMMERCIAL FISHERMEN HELP ALL OF US LIVE BETTER”
MAY THE WAVES AND THE WINDS OF THE PACIFIC OCEAN BE CALM, YOUR JOURNEYS SAFE AND YOUR HARVESTS PLENTIFUL.
MAY GOD BLESS YOU, KEEP YOU, AND RETURN YOU TO THOSE OF US LEFT BEHIND. BE SAFE… GOOD LUCK…

 

 

Looking Back on 2012-Looking Forward to 2013

Before we set our sights on the busy year ahead of us, I thought that now would be a good time to look back at all the craziness of 2012.

I’m not much of a believer of new year resolutions, trying to “start over,” or make huge life changes simply because the calendar year has changed.  Ideally I would like to continuously make positive changes throughout the year, but I do think the new year is a good time to reflect on the choices I’ve made in the previous year, and the successes and failures that have come about as a result of these choices.

2012 was a huge year for the Blue family.  We began the year separated – Zed in Alabama, desperately trying to fix up our newly acquired mess of a fishing boat – and me with the kids in Washington trying to hold everything together while watching from a distance as everything seemed to go wrong.

Read my blog post from January 2012, “Starting a New Life in 2012,” to get a sense of where we were.

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The Robin Blue in Shipyard, Bayou la Batre, Alabama

We were in a bad place, emotionally and financially.  We were trying to get our boat functioning enough to transport back to Washington state for the dungeness crab season (our main source of income), but we ran out of money and couldn’t afford to finish the repairs, let alone transportation costs.  Thankfully, our wonderful friends and family came to our rescue and loaned us enough money to get the boat from there to here.  The Robin Blue and her crew departed Alabama at the end of February, 2012.

Read my post, “Alabama to Panama: A Photo Journal” for some images of the voyage.

In the locks of the Panama Canal

In the locks of the Panama Canal

After two months of traveling and over 6,000 miles, The Robin Blue arrived in Bellingham, Washington at the end of April 2012, just in time to catch the tail-end of the dungeness crab season.  With all our newly acquired debts it was essential that we kept our boat working, so at the end of the coastal crab season, we switched over to tendering (taking deliveries from smaller boats) crab in the Puget Sound.

small fishing boat tied up to the Robin Blue, delivering crab

small fishing boat tied up to the Robin Blue, delivering crab

After tendering, Zed hopped on another boat as a deckhand to longline for blackcod.

Zed and the crew of the Pacific Hustler

Zed and the crew of the Pacific Hustler

And then our bank loan for boat improvements went through (finally!) so the Robin Blue was hauled out of the water and placed in the shipyard where she has spent the last month getting cut up, ripped apart, and welded back together.

The 2013 dungeness crab season is fast approaching (January 24th!) and it feels like a race against time to get the boat operating, pots rigged, and everything in place on the coast.  Most of the crab are caught in the first couple weeks, so if we aren’t ready to go in time…  Let’s just say a lot is riding on these next few weeks.  Like any kind of commercial fishing, it is exciting and terrifying at the same time.

Wish us (and the rest of the dungeness fleet) luck as we enter into a new season of crabbing!

One last look back… here are my top posts from 2012:

 

The Best Crab Dip You Will Ever Eat!

I’m not joking. This recipe for crab dip is amazing and It has been serving us faithfully for many years now. This is a recipe that Zed has been making since before we started dating.  We made it together while we were dating.  We served it at our wedding.  We still make it for parties.  It is the real deal.

I believe that Zed first got the recipe from his old roommate, who got it from a cookbook called Kachemak Kitchens: A Taste of Homer, which is a compilation of recipes from restaurants and homes in Homer, Alaska. This recipe for Hot Crab and Artichoke Dip comes from Land’s End, a resort and restaurant in Homer. Over the years we have modified the recipe slightly to include more crab and more cheese (can’t go wrong with that).

This crab dip is the perfect appetizer for a holiday gathering and is sure to make you lots of new friends at a potluck.

this is the beauty I made dip out of today

this is the beauty I made dip out of today

For the crab in this recipe you can use any type of crab, but my personal favorite is Dungeness crab. I might be a little biased, but I think dungeness crab has the most flavorful meat of any crab I’ve ever tried. But feel free to use whatever type you have access to.

Hot Crab and Artichoke Dip
16 oz cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup sour cream
1 cup mayonnaise
2 cups Parmesan cheese, shredded + 1/2 cup for topping
1/2 cup onions, finely chopped
2 TBSP garlic, minced
1/4 cup scallions, chopped
1 cup artichoke hearts, roughly chopped
3 cups of crab meat
1 tsp fresh ground pepper
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp Tabasco sauce

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Combine cream cheese, mayo, and sour cream in a big bowl and mix until smooth. Add onions, garlic, scallions, pepper, Worcestershire  and Tabasco and mix thoroughly. Add 2 cups of Parmesan cheese, artichoke hearts and crab and stir gently to combine. Pour into a casserole dish, cover with the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese (or enough to lightly cover the surface), and bake until bubbling and golden brown. Serve with sliced baguette.

bubbling and golden... perfect!

bubbling and golden… perfect!

Warning: This crab dip is not very healthy! It is really rich and creamy. I have no idea what the calorie count is, and frankly, I don’t want to know. This is a recipe I only make for special occasions – usually only for holidays – and I am of the philosophy that holidays are a special time when you should eat whatever the hell you want and not feel guilty. So eat this crab dip and enjoy it, dammit!

Ok, if you really want to make this recipe healthier you can substitute some of the ingredients. In place of the cream cheese, use reduced fat cream cheese. In place of the sour cream, use either fat-free Greek yogurt or light sour cream. Use half the amount of mayonnaise and half the amount of Parmesan cheese. It will still be delicious.

For Christmas this year we have a nice relaxing day planned of hanging out with family and friends and eating.  (And hopefully eating this crab dip.)  I love Christmas in our house because we are the only couple with little kids, so our extended families come to us!  That means no stressful holiday traveling and our kids get to wake up in their own house and sneak down stairs to see what Santa brought them.  We basically just enjoy each other’s company and each other’s food all day – basking in the warm glow of our children’s excitement.

What about you?  Does your family have any traditional holiday dishes you can’t live without?

After trying this recipe there is a good chance you’ll want to add it to your annual holiday menu too.  Make this crab dip and wait for the adoration to start pouring in.  Could it have been his crab dip that made me fall in love with Zed all those years ago?  It sure didn’t hurt, I’ll tell you that much!

The Last Blackcod Fishing of 2012

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The crew with a nice looking blackcod

I Should clarify… The year’s last blackcod fishing FOR ZED!  He finished the season longlining on the Pacific Hustler and took some photos on the last trip, so I thought I’d share.  These were all taken off the Washington coast.

Now to get ready for Dungeness Crab!

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Zed’s finger after getting snagged by a hook. Yuck!

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Al and Remo at the rail

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an aerial shot of Al and Remo at the rail

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Al and Remo at the rail

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left to right: Brad, Mike, and Andrew

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the “fish stripper” stripping fish off the hooks

What Ever Happened to the Blues?

I think I’m way overdue for a Blue family update.  I’ve been writing new blog posts, but I realize that I’ve been leaving out details of our new boat/fishing/business operation.  I think I’ve just been too stressed out and depressed about the whole situation to write about it and share it with the world… until now!

If you are a regular reader of this blog you’ve probably been thinking, “didn’t they buy a boat?”  If you are new to this blog you are probably thinking, “what the hell is she talking about?”  So first, for any new readers, I will try to summarize what our family has been working on for the last year.  One year ago, my husband (Zed) and I purchased a sixty foot commercial shrimp boat in Alabama, fixed it and converted it to a crab boat for fishing on the Washington State coast.

Our boat in shipyard in Alabama last year (and our dog, Dora)

As these types of projects seem to go, we went over schedule and way over budget.  Zed spent four straight months in Alabama working on the boat and then two months traveling, bringing the boat around through the Panama Canal, and up the Pacific coast.  By the time he arrived in Washington with the boat, the crabbing season (our main source of income) was mostly over.

We have spent the last six or seven months just doing whatever it takes to stay afloat (literally and figuratively) until next crab season.  Essentially, our boat has been docked for most of the year because it is only rigged for crabbing and we couldn’t afford to set it up for any other fisheries.  Zed used our boat to tender for crab, but he’s mostly been working as a deckhand on another boat longlining for blackcod.  I have picked up several odd jobs to help make ends meet, including some freelance writing for www.alaskajobfinder.com, babysitting kids in our neighborhood, and teaching a preschool art class (okay, this last one is more just for fun).  I even painted our neighbors fence!

Essentially, I have spent the last year raising two kids (and two dogs and a cat) on my own.  I’m not gonna lie to you – it’s been a rough year.  We have been barely scraping by, not even able to pay our bills some months, let alone pay off any of the personal debts we have recently acquired.

Captain Larkyn, you might want to turn those around

But I am happy to report, things are just starting to turn around!  We are slowly finding our way out of the woods, so to speak.  Last week we signed the final papers to refinance our boat loan and to finance some much-needed improvements to the boat.  This loan has been in the works for months now and I can hardly believe it is over and done with!  I’ve been sleeping better the last few nights knowing we are in a safer financial situation.

Between now and the start of the crab season (sometime in January) we have a lot of work to do – putting our boat in shipyard and installing a refrigeration system and a new generator (to start), getting our crab gear in order, buying new crab pots, painting buoys, cutting line, and all the other fun preparations that happen before a season.  All of this work will happen here in Bellingham, or nearby, and I look forward to having my husband home every night.

stack of crab pots last year

big pile of lines and buoys

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the same time, I don’t have any expectations that things will get any easier just because Zed is in town.  I am well aware of the never-ending duties of a boat owner.  This is a very important time of year for us – it is absolutely essential that our boat is ready to fish when the season starts or we could miss out on our most profitable fishing of the year.  In short, Zed will be burning the candle at both ends and I don’t expect to see too much of him, except maybe when I’m bringing him lunch down at the harbor!

Zed and Atticus on the boat

I think we have another rough year ahead of us – I don’t see any breaks in sight until the summer, at least – but we have hope that this coming crab season will be profitable and bring us further out of debt.  That’s what fishing is all about: working your absolute hardest and hoping for the best.  Wish us luck!

And Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers!

 

 

An Authentic Thanksgiving Dish: Roasted Salmon

I am currently hard at work planning my Thanksgiving day menu and, as usual, trying to fit as much seafood into the day as possible. Swapping out “traditional” fare for seafood is pretty easy for me, considering my proximity to the ocean and my general ambivalence toward turkey. It’s not that I dislike turkey, I’m just not overly fond of the birds. If turkey was on my plate, I would eat it, but I would be much happier if fish was on my plate.

For the main dish this year I’m thinking of serving a large salmon, stuffed and roasted whole. This idea appeals to me partly because I just love salmon, but also because fish was one of the foods served at the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621. Fish was a staple food for both the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe. The Wampanoag taught the pilgrims to catch fish, grow crops (pretty much saved their asses) and joined them in their first Thanksgiving feast.

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Still life with salmon, a painting by Edouard Manet

I don’t plan on having an entire historically authentic Thanksgiving meal, but I was curious what that might look like. After doing a little research I discovered that the only foods we know for sure were at that first Thanksgiving feast between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims were deer (five of them to be exact) and fowl (most likely waterfowl like duck, geese, or swans, but possibly wild turkey). It is most likely that seafood (fish, eel, lobster, shellfish, etc..) was served because it was such an important part of everyone’s diet at that time.

Pilgrims (I’ve read) often stuffed whole fish with onions and herbs – a great and timeless combination – but I wanted to take the recipe a little farther.

If you wish to roast a salmon for Thanksgiving this year, seek out the biggest wild fish you can find. An eight pound fish will serve around twelve people. If you can find a fish with the head and tail on – wonderful! Often the head has been removed from the fish before it reaches your grocery store, and that is just fine.

Roasted Whole Salmon

  • A large whole salmon, rinsed and patted dry
  • 1 large onion, sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds
  • 2 lemons, sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds
  • Bunches of fresh herbs such as dill, parsley, fennel, or basil
  • 3 TBSP butter
  • 2 TBSP lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup white wine

1. Preheat oven to 450°F. Place a sheet of parchment paper or cheese cloth in the bottom of a large roasting pan or sheet pan and place the fish on top. Cut three shallow diagonal slits in the skin of the salmon on both sides. Season the salmon generously with salt and pepper inside its cavity.

2. Stuff as much of the onion, lemon, and herbs (leave them in sprigs or chop them up) into the cavity of the fish as you can. Measure the thickness of the stuffed salmon with a ruler.

3. In a saucepan, melt the butter and add the lemon juice. Baste the outside of the salmon withe the butter-lemon mixture and place on the middle rack of the oven. For every inch of thickness, bake for 10 minutes (for example, if the fish is three inches thick, bake for around 30 min). Click here to read more about this technique. Baste the fish thoroughly every 10 minutes with the butter-lemon. Test the flesh every 10 minutes as well, and take the fish out of the oven when the flesh flakes apart with a fork. If the tail or head are looking too brown or are getting dried out, cover them lightly with aluminum foil.

4. After pulling the pan out of the oven, pour the white wine into the pan to help loosen the fish from the paper or cheese cloth. Carefully slide the fish onto a platter to serve.

If you would like to cook a side dish at the same time – and save room in your oven – roast your salmon on top of a bed of vegetables. Green beans, squash, or potatoes would all work well if you cut them into smaller pieces so they cook quickly. Just toss your veggies in olive oil, lay them in a single layer in you roasting pan, and sprinkle with salt before laying your fish on top of them. You might need to add a few more minutes to your cooking time.

Maybe it’s just me, but I love the idea of presenting a whole fish with the head and tail on. It seems very appropriate for a feast, and a good reminder to be thankful for the bounty that our oceans, rivers and lakes provide. May we keep our waters clean and healthy so they continue to feed us for ever and ever!

Community Supported Fisheries: The Future of Family Fishing?

Community Supported Agriculture (C.S.A.) is a concept that is growing and spreading across the country as a way for small-scale farmers to connect directly with consumers. Generally, the way C.S.A. works is that an individual can buy a share of the season’s harvest from the farmer before the growing season begins. The revenue from those sold shares covers operational costs for the farm, and when crops become available they are picked up by the shareholder in weekly or bi-weekly installments.

An example of a weekly CSA delivery, photo by Steven Walling

The farmer benefits from this arrangement, incurring less risk throughout the season, increasing revenue by eliminating a middleman, and decreasing the need for the farmer to compete with industrialized agribusinesses. The consumer, meanwhile, receives fresh locally grown produce and gets to participate directly with the farm and farmers that grow their food. Kind of a win-win situation that could potentially rescue our nation’s small family farms from impending extinction.

Unfortunately, our fisheries are headed in the same direction as the rest of our economy – fewer and fewer people owning and controlling larger and larger portions of the industry. In the case of the fishing industry, those with money are buying up permits and quota, boats are getting bigger and bigger, and the small-scale family fishing operations are finding it more and more difficult to compete.  Although it is difficult for small fishing operations to compete with factory fishing boats, the small-scale fisheries have an advantage in one way – the increasing desire that consumers have for a local connection to their food. People want to know where their food comes from and I believe this is a trend that is going to stick around.

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An example of a factory fishing boat, a factory trawler in Poland. Photo by Magnus Manske

Fishermen are beginning to catch on to the C.S.A. model now, with several C.S.F.s (community supported fisheries) now operating out of American and European fishing towns. Consumers pay for a share, or subscription, and then get weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly installments of freshly caught seafood directly from the fishermen.

Read this recent  New York Times article about how struggling fishermen in Port Clyde, Maine escaped their demise by teaming up and forming a C.S.F. in their home town.

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A 16th century Flemish fishmonger painted by Joachim Beuckelaer

For the customer the advantages are plenty:

  • The freshest seafood available
  • Exposure to new species of seafood
  • Relationship with the fishermen
  • Directly support their local economy

The only disadvantage to the customer is the payment of a lump sum up front.

For the fishermen the advantages are just as enticing:

  • Set their own prices instead of being at the whim of the market/buyer
  • Eliminate the middleman
  • Fish for what is available and plentiful
  • More stability and predictability in their earnings

For the fishermen, there might also be some disadvantages:

  • Added work load of marketing and customer relations
  • May need to process their own fish (clean, filet, and freeze)
  • Time of educating their customers on cooking methods for each species

Both C.S.A.s and C.S.F.s encourage a way of life that is not only healthier for the individual, but healthier for the environment as well – EATING IN SEASON!  This means not shipping tomatoes half way around the world to be consumed by Washingtonians in the winter, and it also means not shipping farmed shrimp from Asia to be consumed at American tables.

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A fishing boat in New Zealand, selling direct off the boat

Realistically, if Zed and I were to attempt a C.S.F. operation, the entire management of it would be my responsibility, as I suspect would be the case for many fishing families.  Historically, this was often the case as well, when “fishwives” sold fish in the market while their husbands were out at sea fishing.  Honestly, at this point in my life (with little kids) I’m not sure I could handle the extra workload.  Even though I have thought about direct marketing our seafood, I think I need to wait until both kids are in school before I seriously consider an undertaking of that magnitude.  It is an interesting possibility to consider though…

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Fishwives in Copenhagen 1932, photo from Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13007 / CC-BY-SA

Just as direct sales are the history of commercial fishing and agriculture, is it possible that direct sales could also be the future?

So, I present this question to my fishing readers – does a C.S.F. sound appealing to you?  Would you be willing to put in the extra effort in order to direct market to your customers

And to my non-fishing readers – does this appeal to you?  Would you be willing to pay up front for a season of fresh local seafood?  (Obviously this business model doesn’t work so well for those of you living inland… maybe an overnight Fed-Ex delivery?)

What if these crab showed up on your doorstep?