Tucking in to alien outcasts

by C.W. Nicol

IN MAY, I was invited to Vancouver to give a keynote speech at the Fourth World Congress of Fisheries. The congress in that beautiful city in southwest British Columbia was attended by about 1,500 delegates from 80 countries. Its theme was: “Reconciling Fishing with Conservation.”

Among the many topics on the agenda were the decline of the world’s fish stocks and the serious problems of by-catch (creatures taken from the sea but then discarded in place of the desired catch). As well, close scrutiny was made of the impact of salmon farms both on wild salmon stocks (through disease transmission when the heavily medicated farmed fish escape, and differences in the spawning cycles, among many other problems) and on the stocks of southern-hemisphere fish caught to provide them with fishmeal feed. The impact of bottom trawlers was also examined, as was the international management of shared river systems and the eco-certification of fish sold for human consumption among other issues.

The conference certainly made all of us think very seriously, but for me it was also good fun, because I was able to meet biologists I had worked with in the Canadian Arctic, and on both the west and east coasts of Canada.

When I got back home to Japan, I headed straight to Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture to join a group of about 30 cooks and chefs for our annual Mottainai Club event.

Mottainai means “what a waste” in Japanese, and the club started off four years ago by making all kinds of tasty dishes and barbecue fare using deer meat that is normally discarded by Japanese hunters. The following year, we feasted on a sake brewery’s pest-controlling paddy-field ducks that would otherwise have been incinerated after the harvest (see Old Nic’s Notebook, Jan. 3, 2003, at www.japantimes.co.jp ). Then, last year, we dined royally on wild boar parts that hunters normally spurn.

This year it was black bass and bluegill.

There is little doubt that black bass (Micropterus salmoides) were introduced from North America and propagate throughout Japan by anglers and people who want to sell gear and services to anglers. They soon became the bete noire (perhaps, more properly, the “poisson noir”) of purist anglers and biologists because they are blamed for drastically altering populations of indigenous fish.

Imperial riddle

Last year, Shiga prefectural government introduced a bylaw for Lake Biwa making it illegal to release black bass after catching them. This in turn has instigated a trial brought by anglers who claim it is their right to release them.

The bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) is a small, perchlike fish that is also native to North America. Many claim it, too, was illegally imported for angling. There is, however, a rather more delicate story in circulation, about which I have personally been shown very creditable data. This is that the bluegill was supposedly first brought to Japan in 1969 for research by the present Emperor into their use as primary hosts for the larvae of a freshwater bivalve, in the hope it would become the foundation of a freshwater pearl industry.

For the purposes of the research, bluegill were put into enclosures with mature shells, which “infected” them with larvae, and so increased the shells’ numbers. Several native fish were also tested, but it was found that the bluegill was the most effective host for the larvae, which live off the fish’s body fluids for 10 days before dropping off to mature. However, as the story goes, some fish got away. Moreover, the freshwater pearl industry failed in Japan, though it has since made a comeback in China, from where Japan now imports freshwater pearls.

Back to the present. The Shiga prefectural government began paying the Biwa fishermen a bounty on black bass and bluegill of 350 yen per kg, rising to 500 yen in the protected season for sweetfish. This soon knocked down the numbers of the larger black bass, until the bluegill outnumbered them 9:1.

The trouble was, though, that instead of using the traditional, fixed trapnets, which did not kill fish caught in them, the fishermen started using the more deadly nylon gillnets, which caught and killed valuable native fish together with the foreign pests. As there were very rarely any government officers monitoring the catch, the fishermen got paid for the whole lot, which was then dumped or incinerated.

Money-grubbing fishermen

When a concerned fisherman blew the whistle on this by-catch of native fish, other money-grubbing fishermen took to tossing these overboard, bringing back just the black bass and bluegill for their bounty. Last year they were paid for 520 tons of bounty fish, all of which was treated as garbage.

I have not seen it myself, but I have seen photographs indicating that this waste of both native fish and public money is still going on.

That’s where our Mottainai Club came in. About 30 of our members, including the famous Kyoto chef Yoshihiro Murata, gathered at Lake Biwa on May 11 to prepare both black bass and bluegill in many different ways, to see if this resource could be put to better use. At our gathering there were local school-lunch cooks mingling and debating with chefs from classy Kyoto traditional Japanese restaurants, as well as Chinese, Italian and French establishments. Even Old Nic did his bit. We had big aerated tanks keeping about 60 kg of mostly bluegill fresh and ready, as well as plenty of chilled beers, wines, and other beverages to keep cooks and helpers happy.

None of us were really prepared for the swarm of television and press reporters, nor for the gaggle of politicians who came to our party.

But how was the food? Well, apart from the fact that nobody would really want to eat 30 or 40 variations of the same thing, it was excellent. Black bass flesh is whitish, and bluegill is a very pale bluish-grey, and very delicate — not at all smelly as all the “experts” who have never tried it claim. Indeed, our bluegill burgers were, in my opinion, far superior to any fast-food fishburgers, and the tempura was delicious, too. I made bluegill fillets wrapped in fresh kelp and steamed with soy sauce and sake — and hey, they went down just fine with chilled white wine.

At the end of the day, we all agreed that it was foolish to throw fresh food away. If somebody was serving bluegill at a robata yaki grill, I’d certainly try one to go with my shochu on the rocks.