Opportunistic food gathering is easy on the Northwest coast intertidally or with a simple hook & hand line. Kayaking means getting “back to nature” and finding your own food is its most basic form.
1. FILTER FEEDERS Bivalves (oysters, clams, mussels anything with two shells) feed by filtering plankton out of the water. but they also filter anything nasty and store it – from raw sewage to dioxins and PCBs that teaks into the ocean. Check the Sport Fishing Guide for areas that are permanently closed due to pollutants.
2. “RED” TIDES
Marine biotoxins are a naturally occurring phenomenon. Warmer water and longer daylight hours in spring and summer cause growth of dinoflagellates belonging to the genus Alexandrium, and with optimal conditions, a ‘bloom’ can occur often resulting in perceptible color changes and spectacular displays of bioluminescence. Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) can result and is potentially fatal, but more often only debilitating while the toxins run their course. Clams, oysters, scallops and mussels can all be responsible.
Diatom blooms belonging to the genus Pseudo-nipzchia are the causative agent for amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP). ASP was the cause found in the deaths of people who had consumed Atlantic bivalves in PEI (mid 80s). Pseudonipzchia also occurs naturally in BC coastal waters.
Some believe that bivalve consumption is safe during months with an R. Not true for the Pacific coast where conditions optimal for algal growth can occur throughout winter. Another misconception is that heat from cooking denatures the toxin. Since 1996 less than 20 reported cases of marine biotoxin poisoning have occurred in BC coastal communities. Many more cases go unreported as symptoms can be mild and often non-lethal. By the time we perceive a noticeable color change in the water, commonly known as red tide, bivalves may have accumulated algae to toxic levels. And not all red algae produce harmful toxins.
Symptoms. The PSP toxin acts as a neurotoxin. The onset of symptoms after ingestion of contaminated bivalves are tingling and numbness of the tongue, lips, facial muscles and extremities. As the toxin spreads further, neurotransmission is interrupted and coordination becomes impaired. In extreme cases breathing may be arrested. The active agent in ASP is domoic acid. Onset of symptoms include severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. ASP also acts on the nervous system. Higher concentrations of domoic acid in the system can cause short term memory loss (amnesia), and in extreme cases death.
Treatment. Anyone suspecting that they have consumed contaminated bivalves should seek medical attention immediately. Continued assimilation of toxins can be reduced by minimizing physical activity and inducing vomiting (providing the risk of aspiration is minimal).
Contact the DFO 24 hr shellfish information voice bulletin (604-666-2828)
3. LAW AND ORDER
To legally take most seashore animals in Canada you must have a sport license and be familiar with the relevant laws. In the U.S. check with the state’s Department of Fish & Wild life. The laws are an attempt to keep “sport” harvests sustainable, so follow them and report people that don’t. Persistent abalone poaching is why they are stilt rare and why there is still no legal season on them.
4. RESPECT YOUR ELDERS
Surviving ten or more years of mother nature is no easy feat and is a good rule for sustainability – long lived species (like big rock scallops and most of the rockfish) cannot handle much harvesting. Many are at alarmingly low levels in the Georgia Strait area,
Charlie White’s books are great.
The Beachcomber’s Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest (J. Duane, 1999, good for identifying something before you taste it)
Coastal Fishes of the Pacific Northwest (Andy Lamb & Phil Edgell; 1986, a great fish book-includes notes on eating every species you’ll find)
Northwest seafood cookbook–they often include preparation and even collection tips we all need to eat.
CLAMS Healthy clams live below sand or gravel and use siphons to pull in water and filter out the goodies. Healthy clammers use rakes or shovels to uncover them; then we stick them in cool salt water so they filter out the grit. Butter clams, manillas, littlenecks, cockles – lots of smallish clams live near the surface in protected bays and are tasty when steamed. The bigger ones (like horse clams) live deeper; speedy razor clams live under surf beaches.
OYSTERS You have to love oysters. Big, out in the open, delicious when grilled, a taste (um…) sensation when raw. They are filter feeders, so watch your oyster where’s and when’s (marked oyster leases usually prohibit harvest as well). Most of the oysters you’ll find are less than five years old and aren’t even native, so munch away. My favorite method is on a fire – cooked/smoked right in the shell. Return shells to the beach juvenile oysters love to grow on them (in Washington it’s the law). Winter/spring oysters taste best – by late summer they are pumping all their energy into molluskian sex.
MUSSELS Our two species of mussels can be abundant in both protected water (bay) and the open coast (calitornia). They are tasty steamed but are also very quick to pick up toxins so be especially aware of pollution and red tide alerts.
LIMPETS Sick of molluscs with red tide issues? Well, gastropods are scavengers, grazers or predators – not filter feeders. This means they are far safer to eat. While not everybody enjoys chewing on pencil erasers, limpets are usually abundant and can be prepared well – in stews or soups, but also marinated, steamed, fried in butter or even fresh right out of the shell.
Rock fish and ling cod are incorrectly called rock cod but neither of these unrelated species arc cod at all. They don’t fight much on the line so they’ve never been popular as sport fish. Nowadays their delicious white flesh is prized and population levels are way down in many areas. Go easy on these unless you’re in a remote locale.
Not so long ago there were a lot of rockfish in the Northwest that were a century old, and a few that lived a mind boggling two centuries or more, but those days are gone. In a relatively short while, our hooks and nets have reduced them to remnant populations of young, small individuals.
Those youngsters are still out there though, waiting for us to ease up so some of them can get old. In the Orca Pass area there are over thirty species of rockfishes, about ten of which you’ll bump into regularly while diving. What are they, anyway? We incorrectly call some of them snapper or cod, but most of us don’t realize they are really scorpion fish, in the same family as those exotic and poisonous lionfish of the tropics. Don’t believe me? It’s red snapper, not some lionfish wannabe you catch? Try this then—bring your hand down firmly on the dorsal spines of the next ‘red snapper’ you’re going to keep. What you’ll feel from a canary, vermillion or yelloweye rockfish (they’re all red), is venom, a mild version of the toxin in their tropical cousins.
The Northeast Pacific has about 72 species of rockfish in just one genus—that’s pretty remarkable. They seem to be in the process of speciating rapidly, which means that some of the ones we think are the same are becoming, or might already be, different species. One of the reasons for this remarkable diversity is that they have internal fertilization and bear live young. They don’t just spray eggs or sperm out willy nilly—they pick a partner, do a little dance and make a little love. Courtship behaviour like that allows similar populations to become different simply because one doesn’t do the same dance as the other.
All those species also mean that rockfishes dominate many Northwest ecosystems, especially since they are relatively large and predatory. It’s an adaptable genus—rockfish of one sort or another can be found over mud, among boulders, along rock walls, in mid water and in kelp beds. There are enough species and variety for a phenomenal depth range too—you can see blacks, coppers and various juveniles from your kayak, while some types live nearly three kilometers down.
Back in the 70s, scientists discovered an accurate way to age rockfish by slicing through bones in their ears and counting the rings. It became alarmingly apparent that most rockfish live considerably longer than was originally thought, and that this slow growth meant that we were harvesting them unsustainably. Unfortunately, mining fish populations until they’re tapped out is nothing new.
As for recreational fishing, why would you want to casually kill something that’s older than you are anyway? Maybe older than your father, or even your dear old grandmother. Fortunately, such old time rockfish tend to live in deep, cold water (though that doesn’t protect them from commercial fishing). Some of those record holding 205 year old rougheye rockfish (S. aleutianus) can be found from Asia through Alaska right down to California, but they prefer depths greater than 150 meters.
The problem is, rockfishes seem to get better at making little rockfishies as they get older. At over a century, females produce more and possibly higher quality eggs than the young whippersnappers, and are therefore very important to maintaining populations.
Most of the rockfishes we hook today are much younger than that, but not compared to other fish. How old is that whopper Chinook salmon you caught? Maybe six. How old is that modest quillback rockfish you caught? Five or six times that, and it could live to nearly a century. A six year old quillback probably has to avoid hooks and nets for another five years before it even hits puberty.
Some aren’t sexually mature until they’re over twenty years old! That’s an awful long time to wait to start dating, particularly when another species seems intent on eating you long before then. It’s also an excellent reason to set aside a few “no fish” zones in an area like Orca Pass, to let at least some of our amazing rockfish get older, wiser and more productive.
Rockfishes of the Northeast Pacific
The Rockfishes of the Northeast Pacific is a big, heavy, 400 page treatise by Author Milton Love. The first sentence in this remarkable tome is “We wrote this book because rockfishes are cool.”
He and coauthors Mary Yoklavich and Lyman Thorsteinson are right, of course. Rockfishes are cool. It’s filled with illustrations, photographs and art. Beautiful underwater images, gyotaku fish prints, historical photos and Ray Troll’s delightful colour artwork feature prominently throughout.
The writing—it’s amusing, alarming, awe inspiring, entertaining and interesting. You can get a paperback version of this book, for only $25 US.
Rockfish Get a Break
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), in consultation with sport and commercial fishermen, has proposed over 100 sites as potential Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs), where fishing would be closed in order to protect these largely sedentary fish. In taking this action, DFO is following the prescription for marine reserves advocated by conservationists and scientists worldwide.
Of the 28 RCAs that DFO established in 2002, four are in Orca Pass, and all of these correspond to the ‘biodiversity richness’ zones that People for Puget Sound, Georgia Strait Alliance and other Orca Pass project partners have identified for possible special management. These areas are D’Arcy Island, Portland Island, Saturna/ Belle Chain Islets and North Mayne, just outside Active Pass.
This year, the rest of the proposed 100+ RCAs will be reviewed. Another eight of these fall within Orca Pass, and several coincide with biological richness zones identified there: Zero and Little Zero Rocks, Gooch/Domville Islands and Bedwell Harbour/ South Pender.
The life history of rockfish make them particularly vulnerable to over-harvest, and so Rockfish Conservation Areas are critical to give these fish a chance to grow old and successfully reproduce. Rockfish grow slowly and are extremely long-lived, reaching 90 centimetres and in some species, over 100 years. They’re slow to reach sexual maturity (for most, around 20). Survival of young rockfish is subject to ocean conditions, and years of good survival seem to occur every 15 to 20 years. Over the past few decades rockfish have been harvested to such a degree that they are now being considered for listing under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
PERCH. There about 23 different types of ocean perches – in protected water they can be taken off docks or from your kayak with a simple handline. Just ask any kid who’s fishing and you’ll get expert advice. On the open coast, various species of surfperch will feed as the tide comes in-you’d need a weighted hook with some bait (try the chewy necks of your clams) to pull them out for the pan.
SALMON. Salmon seem like the perfect food fish. They get big, they are great fun to catch and best of all-they are abundant and short lived. At least they should be abundant. Salmon need healthy rivers even more than us. Coho are the easiest to catch while trolling from a kayak and hopefully recover enough to be legal to keep again soon. For Chinook you’ll need a planer or weights to get your hook down deeper, and be prepared for a wild ride if you hook into a big one.
CRABS Red rock and dungeness crabs are prized for their tasty flesh. You really feel like a predator eating these crustaceans because you have to snap, bash and crunch their exoskeletons to get at the meat inside. Baited traps are the easiest way to get big ones and there are minimum size limits. Cruising shallow bays with your kayak can be productive too, depending on how wet you’re willing to get.
SHRIMP Animal protein doesn’t come much tastier than fresh shrimp. Most are taken in deep traps, but on fall nights coonstripe shrimp roam into shallow water and can be trapped or (better yet) stalked with a flashlight and dip net. Their eyes reflect light so they are fairly easy to spot.
URCHINS The Northwest has three species of these spiny echinoderms – red, green and purple. The big reds are the favorites, but inside all of them is a caviar-like egg mass. This roe, called “uni’ in Japan where it is an expensive delicacy, is an oily, acquired taste. But you might just get to lovin’ it, and urchins can be very abundant in areas where they arc munching up all the kelp. See more in the Appetizer Section.
4. SEA VEGETABLES – SEAWEED
Seaweeds are multicelled algae that grow in marine environments, classified by botanists as red, brown or green. But don’t worry about choosing the wrong one, all are edible.
Gather seaweed from clean uncontaminated water. Most algae are annuals, so spring is the best time to collect the tenderest plants. To harvest from the long fronds, take a sharp knife and cut what you need off the top (about 1/2 cup per person). Leave at least 6″ of the holdfast of the seaweed attached to the bottom, so it can can reproduce blades and regrow. A net bag is handy to hold harvested plants.
You can feast on seaweeds mixed with carbs to fill hungry bellies. It is a natural with fish – to wrap, steam or stuff.” Some fresh seaweeds can be eaten in salads and taste like a vegetable without the fishy smell of dried seaweed; others cook like vegetables. Dried seaweed can be eaten as a snack or fried like chips; or it may be powdered to use as a seasoning. Dried kelp can be used to wrap food like sushi or soaked and added to salads or the cooking pot.
Nutritionally, seaweeds compare to vegetables and are a source of beta-carotene, B vitamins and vitamin C. Seaweeds have high concentrations of minerals (up to 40% by weight) like iodine, potassium and calcium (1/4 cup of dried brown algae (alaria) contains the same amount of calcium as 1/3 cup of milk).
Red algae are the richest in protein, between 10 and 25% protein by dry weight. This sounds impressive, but ten sheets of sushi seaweed contain as much protein as an egg.
The soluble fibres in seaweeds help to lower blood cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure. And the alginic acid (the sugar in brown algae) binds with heavy metals making them indigestible and speeds the elimination of body wastes.
Note: ‘Super Blue Green Algae’ is basically pond scum. Species like Spirulina are harvested and marketed as capsules or tablets for their alleged health benefits. Unfortunately, eating blue-green algae has been reported to cause nausea and diarrhea, as well as weakness, numbness and tingling in your hands and feet. Health Canada advises consumers that products containing blue-green algae may contain toxins harmful to the liver.
Red algae is called nori in Japan and red or purple laver in Western countries. Nori has the mildest flavour of all seaweeds, so is a good one to taste first.
Porphyria Porphyria consists of single thin blades, sometimes grey or brownish purple and iridescent or oily in appearance. Porphyria perforata is ruffled and perforated. The Japanese dry and press its cousin Porphyria teneri into thin, black crispy sheets to roll around rice for sushi. Sheet or sushi nori can be lightly toasted over an open flame or electric burner, then cut with scissors or crumbled over salads, stews or casseroles. It can be eaten right off the shore or added to soups and stews.
Dulse The spicier dulse (Rhodymenia palmata) is more commonly found in New Brunswick and Maine. The rust-red blades found in tidepools and sea-filled crevices vaguely resemble a waving palm. Fresh dulse tastes like potato peelings.
Brown kelp is harvested commercially for its algin which absorbs huge quantities of water for emulsifying and binding in ice creams, puddings, drugs, paints and make-up and stabilizing the foam on your beer or McDonald’s shake. Brown kelp is used in BC to collect herring roe-on-kelp (a delicacy in Japan) each spring. A local company, Barkley Sound Kelp, sells several varieties of dried brown algae for snacks and cooking.
Egregia (Feather Boa): Brown kelp fringed with rich, chocolate brown blades and olive- shaped floats. After harvesting, run your knife or scissors up the mid-rib and discard it. Each piece of the frond is neatly uniform in shape and turns vibrant green when cooked. Add Egregia to a stir-fry at the very last or chop and stirfry it quickly with pepper and garlic for spreading on a chunk of bread as a snack.
Bull Kelp The long brown blades that look like streamers floating along the surface belong to bull or ribbon kelp. Nereocystis luetkeana is the botanical name for the kelp with the thick bulbous stems or stipes. Mercia Sixta told me she has a great recipe for bull kelp pickles. The whip-like strips can be cooked as a vegetable. Dried bull kelp can be toasted and crumbled into flakes to make a seasoning salt for salads, soups and stews. Try using half kelp powder in place of salt in a recipe.
Curious omnivores and dedicated vegetarians should try bull kelp (pickled).
Giant Kelp You may have thrashed through dense beds of pale yellow-brown floats and blades close to the open ocean. This giant or macro kelp (Macrocystis integrifolia) has a mild flavour. Thin, wavy dried giant kelp can be used to wrap sushi, stirfried or added to soups, stews or grains. Barkley Sound Kelp even recommends sprinkling the dried kelp on salads or sandwiches as a garnish. Go for it!
Kombu Kombu grows in a dense underwater forest of broad, flat black-brown blades where there is substantial water motion. Japanese prepare dashi, a multipurpose stock, from their ‘kombu’. Out of the package, kombu sticks could be used to swizzle a Bloody Mary or Caesar. Adding kombu to a bean dish you are making cuts cooking time and makes the beans easier to digest. Remove the kombu before eating the beans. See Kombu Stew.
Alaria (Winged Kelp) Alaria marginata is the North American relative of Japanese wakame (Undaria). This kelp has a short stalk continuing as a midrib up a long, ribbon-like, shiny, wavy-edged, olive-brown blade. It is common in the lower intertidal zone on exposed rocky shores, and thrives in rough wave conditions. Tender, tasty fronds of alaria has a rhubarb-like smell and a fresh milk flavour, without a fishy taste. The mid-rib is delicious to crunch raw (like celery) or slice thinly to toss into a salad or spaghetti sauce. Thinly slice the frond across the grain and steam or parboil for 1 to 2 minutes. Mix with oil and vinegar and cool in a bag, bowl or pan for a salad. Alaria cooks quickly to a bright green and can be mixed into pasta or rice. Serve it as an edible bed for a fish dish. Soak small pieces of dried alaria in water for 30 minutes to use in salads, soups, stews or stir-fries. Use alaria instead of grape or cabbage leaves to wrap rice, meat, vegetables or seafood.. Wrap Alaria around oysters to steam and give them a sweet peazucchini hit.
Rock Weed You may have seen swollen yellow-green ‘gloves’ of seaweed in clumps on shorelines in the intertidal zone. This would be rock weed, sea wrack, bladder wrack or popping crack and officially called Fucus furcatus. Many northern European countries use the young stems in salads. Bladderwrack Tea: Add it to boiling water and steep for five minutes to make a sweet bouillon. Put Fucus into the pot with herbal teabags and sliced ginger for a more full-bodied drink. The algin from the rockweed can be used to thicken broths or as a marine aloe vera to soothe cuts and scrapes.
As for wearing seaweed, rub Fucus on your hands or wrap Laminaria around your arms to make your skin feels wonderful. A soothing idea to try after a day of paddling.
Sea Lettuce The bright green blades that look like cellophane are called sea or water lettuce or green laver. Ulva lactuca is found on rocky shores and in rough weather blades break off and are found in coves and mud flats. In the spring, collect tender leaves to add to a salad, stew or soup, just like salty lettuce, added near the end of cooking. Try a new wrap for a snack or side dish – spread Ulva with light cream cheese and roll it around cooked rice with chopped nuts. If you are a baker, throw chopped Ulva into your bread mixture with nuts. Ulva dries well on rocks to flake into savoury scones.