The Roughest Catch: Ike Jime on the Gulf Coast, Part 1 of 4

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"I don't eat bait," growls Captain Barry Irwin, pointedly ignoring the plate of raw bonito being offered to him.

It's the end of a 15-hour commercial fishing expedition in the Gulf of Mexico, a mere pleasure cruise for someone like Irwin, who's been a commercial fisherman since he was 16 years old. And even though Irwin has been fishing and eating out of these waters his entire life, he's not even remotely interested in eating Gulf fish raw.

It's a perfect illustration of the prejudice against Gulf fish spotlighted in our recent feature, "The Fish That Got Away," which examined the struggles in trying to create a market for ike jime -- or sashimi-grade -- Gulf fish.

Even Texas fishermen are uninterested in eating (let alone catching) sashimi-grade Gulf fish, leaving people like Jim Naismith frustrated yet hopeful that attitudes will shift over time as he tries to establish his own sashimi-grade fish company here on the Gulf coast, the only business of its kind.

Naismith, who owns the trawler that Irwin captains, is happily snacking on the bonito that Irwin refused. His lanky frame is sprawled out on the cabin's makeshift couch, the lively Jack Sprat of the pair.

On a little paper plate, Naismith shows off the rough chunks of the blood-red fish that he carved up himself. Its meat is firm like tuna and almost crunchy this close to its death.

There is a slight, shimmering rainbow sheen coming off its raw flesh, Irwin points out. "You never see fish that fresh," grins Irwin. It's clear he has a fond admiration for the bonito; he just doesn't want to eat it raw, and he can't understand why Naismith would want to either. Irwin seems flummoxed by a lot of the things that his boss does, including this latest venture.

"I used to be known as a mass murderer of fish," Irwin chuckles softly as he steers the boat, a 58-foot full-displacement trawler named La Victoria. He's strong and stout, but late in life now and weather-worn under a cap of light grey hair, wearing a shirt bearing stylized photos of his trade: yellow marlins and blue trawlers. Marlboro Blacks hang from his lip from dawn to dusk, smoke trickling out of his nose while he works.

Tonight, the La Victoria is barely weighed down, with only 200 pounds of red snapper in Igloo coolers on the aft deck and a crew of two. It's a drop in the bucket compared to the 10,000 pounds a day that Irwin would catch in the heyday of Gulf fishing back in the 1970s and '80s.

The trawler puffs its way slowly back to Aransas Pass at five knots under Irwin's pensive watch, its paravanes tucked up and away to increase its speed. But the tide is rushing out at dusk, and the trawler has to work even harder to keep pace.

Naismith, a fast-paced whippet of a man with an intense but friendly gaze, owns a marine services company that surveys sea floors; Irwin is his captain for the fleet of boats they operate. This sashimi-grade fish venture is more a hobby than anything else, although Naismith is confident that there's room in the Gulf seafood market for his artisan-style fish.

He and Irwin painstakingly catch fish like red snapper, grouper, tilefish, barracuda and bonito in small batches and ike jime each fish, or bleed it out quickly and painlessly before gutting, cleaning and super-freezing their catch.

Irwin is happy -- more or less -- to accompany Naismith on these trips, to steer him toward the best wrecks and reefs for fishing, but he's pessimistic when it comes to ike jime-style fish catching on. After all, he says, the entire Gulf fishing industry is "a fiasco" right now. Individual Fishing Quotas, or IFQs, have all but destroyed the fishing industry as Irwin once knew it. In fact, the La Victoria is the last of her kind around here: the only commercial fishing boat left in the entire Corpus Christi-Port Aransas-Rockport area.

"It was like a rodeo," Irwin recalls of the old Wild West attitude that he and his peers once held toward fishing. On the first day of the commercial fishing season, boats would race one another -- Deadliest Catch-style -- to catch their entire quota for the season as quickly as possible. It was not uncommon for fishermen to shoot each other, on dry land or on the high seas, over the "rights" to the best fishing grounds.

"I used to net $2,000 a week," he says. "That's after fuel, bait, ice and everything else. I used to make $3.50 a pound on red snapper -- and that was in the '80s, when fuel was 60 cents a gallon."

Gone now are the days before regulations and licenses: the good old days, according to Irwin. In their place are IFQs, game wardens, environmentalists and a number of federal agencies that closely monitor fishing activities. The regulations have scared off most of the old fishermen like Irwin, who are opposed to not only the monitoring but also the technology and expense required to remain in compliance with the agencies.

"You have to keep in mind," he says, "that most of these fishermen have an IQ of less than 100." Asking them to install things like on-board computers and GPS units -- and then operate them -- was the last straw for many fishermen. "They work in refineries now, oilfields," says Irwin, fields that pay more and require far less bureaucracy than fishing now does.

Asking them to learn to perform ike jime in addition to all of this would be the last thing the industry needs, according to Irwin. After all, they're still figuring out how to contend with IFQs.

The IFQ system, which grants "shares" or quotas of a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for specific fisheries each year, has been long-established in places like Canada and the Netherlands. IFQs are designed to prevent overfishing in both U.S. and international waters, which begin nine miles offshore. Before these IFQs were instituted, most fishermen worked entirely in cash, meaning that very few fishermen kept records of their sales or their historic catch rates, Irwin included.

Irwin fled to the comparatively freer waters of Mexico in the early part of the last decade to avoid the increasing regulations. He fished there happily, making an even greater profit than he'd made as a commercial fisherman in Texas. But three years in, the Mexican government confiscated Irwin's boat and he had no choice but to come back to Texas and the now-instituted IFQ system.

"I had no historic catch rate here," he says of his return to our waters. And by 2006, the IFQs for red snapper had already been allocated to all of the fishermen who had kept records of their catch rates, meaning that there were no quotas left for people like Irwin. Here was a lifelong fisherman, suddenly unable to fish for one of the Gulf's most basic and plentiful fish. And many of his peers -- fishermen who no longer wanted to participate in the system -- had sold their IFQs to individuals and corporations, which buy and sell the quotas like stocks.

"There's a lot of risk involved," says Naismith, who purchased a few IFQs with his business partner in order to start up this sashimi-grade fish venture, which he called, simply, Sashimi Grade. If you purchase the IFQs for red snapper, you also have to find a captain and deckhands to go out and get those fish. And with men like Irwin in short supply, that can be difficult.

"They'll hire these young guys," Irwin snorts. "Inexperienced guys who don't know where to fish. They'll tear up the boat and come back with nothing." With time, those men will venture back into the oilfields and refineries as well, the number of working commercial fisherman dwindling by the day.

But that's where ike jime comes in, at least as far as Naismith hopes. The La Victoria catches far fewer fish than a traditional commercial expedition would, requiring less fuel and bait (and therefore far less overhead), and the ike jime process is beneficial when fishing in such small amounts. The shelf-life of the fish is much longer, and the pristine, bloodless fish can be sold for a much higher price on the market. If Naismith can find a sustainable market, that is.

Irwin himself is not a sushi fan, nor a fan of other raw preparations like crudos and kinilaws. "I do make ceviche," he grins, "with mayonnaise and Tabasco sauce." He doesn't think that most restaurants are willing to pay more for sashimi-grade fish, especially non-Japanese restaurants, despite knowing how superior the fish is to the rough-caught stuff coming out of larger fishing boats.

More pressing, his innate and profound knowledge of the Gulf and its best fishing spots will die with him, and so will Naismith's ability to cherry-pick the best fish.

"He is perfectly content to take that knowledge to the grave," says Naismith, peering at Irwin from across the trawler. "And he will."

Check back tomorrow for part two of our series: Naismith and Irwin fish the best wrecks and rigs along the coast, and Naismith explains why ike jime is the best process for killing fish -- even if it's complicated for fishermen to learn at first.

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