Monday, June 8, 2009

A Fishmonger’s Tale

Dan Nattrass explained how the sea urchin (uni) is processed, graded and then packaged in special containers before being shipped.

Dave Rudie, owner of Catalina Seafood Products, was a sea urchin diver in the late 1970s. He began selling sea urchin to sushi restaurants in Japan. Diving during the day, he and his wife, Kathy, processed them out of his garage at night, and he, his wife and his sister, Julie, delivered them the following day. Today he has one of the largest seafood companies in California, providing a product line that includes high quality fresh and frozen fish, abalone, scallops, lobsters, unagi, masago, maguro, hamachi and premium sea urchin with nearly 90 percent of the products coming from the waters off Southern California and Baja.

Catalina’s spokesperson and sales manager, Tommy Gomes, recently offered to show me the company’s processing plant, located on a small side street off Morena Boulevard.

It was there that I met the principal buyer of the fresh seafood from Baja, Dan Nattrass. Who explained how the sea urchin (uni) is processed, graded and then packaged in special containers before being shipped. It is one of Catalina Offshore’s most popular items accounting for a third of their sales. After hearing how much time Dan spent in Baja, I couldn’t resist arranging an interview with him.

Dan’s career with Catalina Offshore began when Dave Rudie sent him down to Baja in search of seafood products, in addition to the popular sea urchin. Dave had shown Dan a live fish that he called an Estacuda (grouper) and asked him to try and find them in the Baja fish camps.

Loading up a ‘clunker’ truck with Styrofoam boxes, Dan drove down the Peninsula, stopping at the remote camps which dotted the west coast of Baja from Ensenada to Todas Santos and then up the into the Sea of Cortez to Santa Rosalia. He only wanted the fish that could be exported to the United States, called “Primira” (number 1) by the locals. That included halibut, grouper (Estacuda), yellowtail, white sea bass, huachinango, tuna, scallops, shrimp, abalone, lobster and sea cucumber.

Once Dan found the fish camps, his greater challenge was to convince the fishermen that improper handling of their catch would reduce the value or conversely, careful handling could increase the value significantly.

Initially the fishermen refused to cooperate. Changing attitudes that had been handed down from father to son for generations was a formidable task. In the beginning, in many cases the fish would come to the scale dried out from lying in the brutal Baja sun in the bottom of a panga.

Convincing the fishermen that quality of fish is all about how it dies and keeping it cool until it was delivered to the scales was essential.

Slowly Dan trained these fishermen in the strict handling procedures necessary to preserve the freshness and optimum quality. Now most of the fish is wild caught, using hand-lines to protect the undersea ecosystem and minimizing the by-catch of other overfished species. Boats now contain chilled tanks to ensure exceptional freshness, and the fish is picked up immediately as it arrives on the beach. Frozen seafood is kept in -20 degrees coolers until exported.

Dan considers scallops to be one of their most successful ventures. Baja scallops today are preferred for their taste and size. Their first delivery was 2,000 pounds, but has grown into a market requiring 60,000 pounds a year.

With his background in environmental studies at University of Santa Barbara, Dan’s goal is not to overlook the by-products created. As an example, the shells from Lion Paw scallops were being discarded. After requesting his suppliers repeatedly to bring shells to him with no success, he finally went to the city dump at Guerrero Negro, and shoveled a load into his truck. After cleaning them, he now sells them to Sushi restaurants as serving plates.

Dan Nattrass is one of the “New Breed” of fishmongers who is making a difference in Baja. With an education anchored in environmental studies his goal is to identify resources that can make a difference to the local villages and fish camp economies. With his tutelage and encouragement, local fishermen are learning how to increase their income by improving the quality of their catch delivered to the scale…not by increasing the quantity.

For more information

The complete audio interview with Dan Nattrass is available