"When you can get sushi in Victoria, you know the market has changed," laughs Jim Naismith over the phone. Naismith lives and works in Corpus Christi, where a strong Gulf breeze has kept the town cooler than much of the heat-wilted state this summer. It's the Gulf that Naismith lives and breathes, a fisherman since before he was old enough to hold his own pole.
Naismith runs a hydrographic survey business that takes up most of his time. But on the side, he started Sashimi Grade a year-and-a-half ago, a business that sells ike jime'd fish to local chefs and restaurants. Or at least it did.
"I'm gonna convert it back into a hobby," says Naismith with a sigh and a chuckle. "I have freezers full of sashimi-grade fish in my garage," fish he's holding on to for now, because it's the last of the Gulf sushi fish he'll be getting for a while.
Just as with Houston fishmonger Louisiana Foods, Naismith has found that there's currently no market for his fish. At least not the kind of market that's sustainable right now. It's the same problem we covered recently in our cover story, "The Fish That Got Away." And in Naismith's case, no amount of hard work on his part and no amount of desire on the restaurant industry's part could push past the biggest barrier: the fishermen.
"The main thing I cannot find is a fisherman that will follow through in the same sense that a lot of the Japanese will," says Naismith, who's traveled to Japan and researched the ike jime technique himself. "We need fishermen who really care about the fish and want to work directly with the chefs on a one-on-one basis."
Mark Marhefka in Charleston embodies that type of fisherman for Naismith. Marhefka is a man who works within his daily catch limits to bring up quality Atlantic fish, prepare them correctly and calling chefs on his satellite phone on the way back to the shore.
"They've got them sold by the time they get to the dock," says Naismith. "I think that would work spot on in Texas." If only he could find that same elusive fisherman model here, he says. "But there's an inherent problem in that there's a history of doing things the same way."
Naismith initially approached the issue of Gulf sushi after trips to Vancouver, China and Japan turned him on to raw fish 10 years ago. Back in Corpus, he says, "I went around and talked to chefs and found zero that were getting any fish out of the Gulf." So the lifelong fisherman went to work himself, researching the killing and storage techniques that made sashimi-grade fish possible, battling misconceptions about Gulf fish along the way.
"When I started doing this, I had people telling me, 'You will die if you eat red snapper out of the Gulf,'" he chuckles. "'Those parasites will eat you up!'"
"The really bad parasites in fish are in the ones that are in mammal food chains," Naismith counters. "We have some marine mammals but we don't have bears out there eating our fish." And the water is clean, too. He's tested his fish relentlessly.
"There's all kinds of pollution" he says, especially in the bays and in places like the Houston Ship Channel. "But when you actually test the fish, they show up pretty clean. Where we're commercially fishing is the prettiest cobalt blue water you'd ever see," he effuses. "It rivals anything you'd see off Hawaii, but most people don't go out that far."Superfrozen tuna is the norm in Japan, where it must be carefully thawed before serving.
With testing and research complete, Naismith says, he "went out, caught fish, processed it and brought it in." He purchased industrial-strength deep freezers -- the same that are sitting in his garage now -- to superfreeze the fish at -76 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature at which the fats and oils in the fish freeze in addition to the water, allowing him to keep his catch ultra-fresh for at least 12 months. He went to local sushi chefs in the city and gave them the fresh fish for free. And then he waited.
"We got great feedback pretty much across the board," he says. "We really met the quality standards they need. Red snapper out of the Gulf is not the same as the tai you get out of the Pacific, so if you're just cutting it for sashimi, most people like the texture of the Pacific tai better. There's those kinds of differences in the fish that show up, but the snapper itself is great."
The fish was a hit in sushi restaurants from Origami in Corpus to Uchi in Austin. "They basically said just show back up with fish and we'll buy it," Naismith says. "And that's where I started to fail."
He needed a captain to bring the fish in. He couldn't do it all the time. After all, Naismith still has his own business to run, and he admits that he doesn't have the stamina and strength of a commercial fisherman. "It's a very difficult living. I cannot keep up with these guys."
But no captains were interested, certainly not at the volume Naismith and his chefs were requesting. "They're just trying it out, these chefs, so there's no market. We don't need 2,000 pounds of fish, we need 200." That's where the wheels fell off. "They have no desire to develop the market," Naismith says "They want to hit the ground running." And who can blame them?
Certainly not Naismith. "It's not exactly the time in the economy to take risks. They're struggling," he says of the fishermen. They're desperate to make money and feed their families. So much, in fact, that many are leaving the industry altogether as individual transferable quotas (also known as ITQs or IFQs) are making it difficult to make the kind of money they once did.
But these quotas are designed to protect Gulf waters from overfishing. And as much of a burden as they may seem to longtime fishermen accustomed to "killing everything in sight," as rough-catching is often referred to, this act of environmental protection could end up being exactly the encouragement that some fishermen need to develop Gulf-caught sushi fish in the long run.
"Part of the roadblock right now is there's no room for a middleman," Naismith says. "The volumes are too small and the guys in distribution don't want the fishermen selling to the chefs." But that doesn't mean they can't. A Gulf fisherman given a restrictive ITQ -- a fisherman who's only able to catch enough fish to barely make a living -- could process those fish ike jime-style and sell them at much more of a profit, just as Mark Marhefka does in Charleston.
"Under the new regulations," Naismith says, "a person who would pay attention to the fish would be successful." It's especially true as those commercial ITQs are expanded to protect more and more species of fish.
"Low quantities, high quality and deal directly with the chefs -- chefs that really care." That's the key, he says, to developing a market that could ultimately sustain Gulf-caught sushi programs. For now, though, Naismith is going to keep Sashimi Grade as a hobby, and enjoy the fish he has superfrozen in his garage.
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"I've got amazing, high-quality stuff in there," he says. "I'm spoiled rotten."
Read more about the ongoing battle with Gulf sushi "The Fish That Got Away.".