The Roughest Catch: Ike Jime on the Gulf Coast, Part 1 of 4
"I don't eat bait," growls Captain Barry Irwin, pointedly ignoring the plate of raw bonito being offered to him.
Photos by Groovehouse Captain Barry Irwin prepares to set out from Aransas Pass for the day on the La Victoria, a commercial trawler. See more photos from the expedition in our slideshow.
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.
Fresh, raw bonito tastes like a fine tuna steak.
"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.
Naismith is hopeful that his sashimi-grade fish business will revitalize at least a small part of the industry.
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.