Another glorious Golden State summer is upon us. San Joaquin Valley peaches are at their height and rolling in to farmers markets from Silver Lake to Mar Vista. Alice Waters' foragers are plucking Napa zucchini blossoms for the chefs at Berkeley's Chez Panisse. Barbecues in Sonoma are primed for grilling Niman Ranch grass-fed steaks.
And California squid are being caught, frozen, sent to China, unfrozen, processed, refrozen and sent back to the United States in giant 50,000-pound shipping containers.
That's right: Every year, 90% of the 230 million pounds of California squid (by far the state's largest seafood harvest) are sent on a 12,000-mile round-trip journey to processing plants in Asia and then sent back across the Pacific, sometimes to seaside restaurants situated alongside the very vessels that caught the squid in the first place.
Even as the locavore movement finds ever more inventive ways to reduce the distance between farm and table, the seafood industry is adding more and more food miles to your fish. And it's not just squid. Overall a third of what is caught in American waters — about 3 billion pounds of seafood a year — is sold to foreigners. Some of those exports, such as California squid, wild Alaska salmon and tons and tons of Bering Sea pollock, make the round trip to Asia and back into our ports, twice frozen.
Why? To begin with, Americans want their seafood recipe-ready, and seafood distributors here don't want to clean it. It's messy, it takes time and, of course, it costs money. For many processors, the much lower labor costs in Asia make it less costly to pay for transporting squid to China and back than to clean it here.
Moreover, seafood processing plants are typically located close to the shore, which is exactly where well-heeled people like to build homes. Across the country, processing plants, oyster farms and canneries have been pushed out of their valuable shorefront locations by residents who didn't want them next door. As a fisherman in Gloucester, Mass., told me recently: "Fish houses are getting turned into hotels all the time. But you never hear about a hotel getting turned into a fish house."
So are we to let our seafood production infrastructure vanish entirely and watch dumbly as American fish and shellfish slip down the maw of the vast churning seafood machine of Asia? Moreover, do we really want to intermingle our food supply with the apparatus of China, a nation that is cruelly stingy with its labor force and that had such severe problems with food safety in 2007 that it executed the director of its food and drug administration for accepting bribes?
I would argue no.
And there are finally starting to be opportunities for keeping our seafood here — from net to table. In the last five years, dozens of community-supported fisheries, or CSFs, have been formed along U.S. coasts. Like community-supported agriculture co-ops, CSFs allow consumers to buy a share in the catch at the beginning of the season and receive regular allotments of guaranteed local seafood. CSFs help fishermen enormously by giving them start-up capital before they get out on the water. They also lock in a good price for fish that helps fishermen exit the ruthless price-crunching commodity market.
A few CSFs are even taking on squid. Alan Lovewell of Local Catch Monterey Bay CSF is collaborating with Del Mar Seafood of Watsonville to micro-process 1,000 pounds of squid for the Local Catch buying coop. This summer, for the first time, Local Catch members will get fully fresh (instead of double frozen) squid tubes and tentacles that make for fabulous grilling, stir-fries and Italian zuppa di pesce.
Yes, they'll pay more for it. But if all Californians were to do it this way, economies of scale would prevail. It costs processors about $1.50 extra per pound to process squid here in America. Wouldn't you be willing to pay that kind of premium to keep your squid fresh and out of China?
And even if you don't have access to a CSF, there's always the option of cleaning the squid yourself. Currently, the 10% of unprocessed squid that doesn't go to China often gets used as bait. If you ask your fishmonger, you might be able to get some of that whole squid yourself. It's really not that hard to clean it. And if you mess up the first time around, it's not a big deal. Squid are actually incredibly cheap compared with most seafood, and it is high in omega-3s and minerals to boot.
The next time you fire up the backyard barbecue, consider buying a pound or two of California's tentacled native seafood, getting out your knife and cutting board and experiencing squid as it's meant to be eaten: fresh from the ocean and bursting with flavor.
Paul Greenberg is the James Beard award-winning author of the bestseller "Four Fish" and the new book "American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood."