The Roughest Catch: Ike Jime on the Gulf Coast, Part 3 of 4

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Read the first and second parts of our four-part series on Gulf sashimi-grade fish, and stay tuned tomorrow for the final installment.

"Watch 'em," says Captain Barry Irwin as he approaches a charter fishing boat that's anchored next to a towering oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. "They're gonna haul ass when they see these bandit reels." As we get closer to the charter boat, we can see its captain peering curiously at us from across the water, clad in a Polo shirt and khaki shorts. His bright white boat looks almost comical when viewed from the weather-battered, no-nonsense trawler that's headed his way.

He stares us down as Irwin circles him, almost taunting the charter boat. Overhead, a wailing cry blasts periodically from the rig -- it's not abandoned, but it's empty and the siren cries out a warning to ships headed its way. Ships that might crash if they're on autopilot, or ships like this charter boat and its passengers, who are illegally fishing for red snapper way out of season.

The bandit reels on the back of the La Victoria confirm that this is a commercial fishing boat. The reels, operated by hydraulics, are essentially high-powered, stationary rod-and-reel systems that can haul in up to 60 fish at once -- at least on this trawler. It's a signal to the recreational charter boat that real fishermen have arrived, and that playtime is over.

More to the point, Irwin could easily notify the Coast Guard and the game wardens back on shore than this charter boat is fishing illegally. Sure enough, the bekhakied captain hauls up his anchor and jets off as quickly as possible when the La Victoria gets closer, his bikini-clad passengers blinking in the sun as their boat speeds away.

"Told ya," Irwin chuckles.

There aren't as many rigs in this portion of the Gulf -- comparitively-speaking, that is -- as there are off the coasts of Louisiana and the northern portion of our state's coastline. But there are enough to serve as landmarks in large swaths of the Gulf here, and plenty to host large schools of red snapper. But these natural reefs are threatened by the oil companies and -- surprisingly -- the federal government, which stated in 2010 that up to 650 of the abandoned rigs needed to be decommissioned out of the 4,000 that dot the Gulf.

Over 200 rigs are slated to be decommissioned in 2012 alone, a process that involves cutting off the top of the rig (the portion that is above the water) and destroying the underwater portion with explosives. It's the latter part of this method that obliterates the snappers' home, while killing thousands of fish in the process. It's a practice that's been decried by both scientists and mainstream media , yet it's a lucrative industry that brings $3 billion a year in revenue to the Gulf Coast, money that's difficult to turn down.

Jim Naismith is desperately worried about the mass slaughtering of fish and the destruction of their habitats. Isn't this type of slash-and-burn killing the very thing that NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS ) was trying to prevent when they instituted IFQs, or Individual Fishing Quotas? It's the kind of situation that an already-strapped fishing industry doesn't need, no matter how many red snapper Irwin insists are swarming throughout the Gulf.

This rig doesn't have the schools of snapper Irwin was hoping for, so he starts the trawler once more and prepares to head off.

"I think we're done," he tells Naismith.

"Done with fishing?" asks Naismith.

"Naw," Irwin responds. "Done with snapper. We've filled two ice chests. Let's see if we can go find some grouper..." But before he can finish, the bandit reel bends suddenly and fiercely.

"Got some more!" yells Naismith. The two men reel in the catch quickly, and ike jime the fish within minutes. Partially digested crabs spill out of one snapper's mouth and stomach, its supper interrupted.

Later, when Naismith guts it for cold storage, the fish's heart lies among its other entrails -- a bloated stomach, a set of jagged, tooth-like gill rakers -- still beating softly. It's a hell of an end to a dinner party.

Naismith ike jime's a bonito, a bloody affair that leaves the deck looking like a slaughterhouse floor.

After the fish have been ike jime'd, gutted and cleaned with fresh water, they are placed into an Igloo cooler filled with ice. Since the fish are drained of blood, there's no "shrinkage" of the fish as they sit in storage, waiting to be unloaded back at the dock. Once there, they'll go into a superfreezer -- the last and one of the most vital steps in the ike jime process.

At temperatures of -76 degrees Fahrenheit, every drop of fluid in the fish is frozen solid, including the oils that don't freeze in a regular deep-freezer. These are the same oils that are responsible for turning a fish rancid and giving it the fishy, off-putting smell and taste of a catch that's too long out of the water. While large Japanese fishing fleets are equipped with on-board superfreezers, it's not necessary to retrofit these smaller boats; Igloo coolers do a fine job of keeping the fish iced down for a few hours.

There's no grouper to be found in the water today, so the La Victoria begins the long process of huffing back to shore. At 30 miles out, moving at eight knots, its a slow journey. Naismith leisurely catches a bonito on the trip back, the same bonito that Irwin will later refuse as an evening snack.

In the cabin, Irwin is polishing off his 10th Diet Pepsi of the day. It's a starkly utilitarian space, littered with hooks and lines and weights, and the occasional silver glint of a discarded Diet Pepsi can. He punches at buttons on one of his computer screens; commercial fishermen are required to notify the NMFS when they're three hours away from land, so that the NMFS can dispatch a game warden to inspect the vessel upon return.

"They once hid under my house, waiting for me to come back" Irwin says of the cloak-and-dagger way that game wardens will often wait for fishermen to return -- especially if the offloading point is a residence. It's with good reason: Many boats, like that charter cruiser, will fish illegal species or fish out of season. They'll fish more than their quota and try to hide it. Worse, they'll smuggle drugs in from Mexico.

Irwin doesn't see it this way, though; to him, the game wardens and the NMFS are harassing regular, law-abiding fishermen. Worse of an insult is the GPS unit mounted to the cabin. "An ankle bracelet," Irwin calls it. "Like we're criminals."

Irwin's home is no longer an unloading point; these days, he and Naismith rent a dock in Aransas Pass, one of the only spots in the entire area that's a licensed unloading spot for commercial fishermen. As the La Victoria approaches the rickety, warped dock, Irwin spots it: a black dually pickup, its lights off and a gun rack mounted to the back, slowly creeping along a road that runs parallel to the water.

"See?" he points at it, snorting. "You thought I was kidding."

The truck keeps pace with the trawler, driving at the same speed but never turning its lights on. "Do they think we can't see them?" asks Irwin to no one in particular. Naismith is already in the cabin, grabbing up the necessary fishing licenses and documentation to present to the game warden.

Finally, the truck turns its lights on as the trawler docks. A petite woman in a black-and-khaki uniform hops down from the large pickup, and approaches the boat with a reassuring smile.

"Permission to board?" she asks Irwin, who gives her the once-over before allowing her to spring from the dock onto the deck.

The game warden doesn't look the part of a bullying, creeping government thug. Instead, she's friendly and efficient as she quickly examines the Igloo coolers full of snapper, listening with interest as Naismith explains the small catch and the ike jime process.

Irwin has warmed up to her, too, but he's intent on giving her a piece of his mind nevertheless. He half-jokes about how the NMFS and game wardens have destroyed his industry, complains vehemently about the GPS devices and the on-shore inspections. The game warden listens with an air of sympathy, offering her own point of view on the subject before departing for the night.

"You know, we only have two shrimping trawlers left now, too," she demurs. "It just breaks my heart."

Check back tomorrow for the final installment of our four-part series: the challenge of finding chefs and restaurants to purchase sashimi-grade fish from the Gulf, and where you can try this red snapper for yourself.

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