Pot Luck

Ike Jime or Bust: One Texan's Battle with Gulf Sushi

"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."

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Katharine Shilcutt