He Doesn’t Want Name Blackened : Cajun Food Frenzy Snares Little Fish and a Big Chef

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Times Staff Writer

Chef Paul Prudhomme, the master of blackening, was talking and eating, eating and talking, sipping a root beer, gobbling down a bite of an oyster po’ boy, talking on the telephone, trying some chicken with black-eyed peas, signing checks and listening to Rusty Kershaw’s musical ode to the redfish.

Prudhomme had commissioned the song, had told Kershaw to write something about the need to preserve the redfish, and this was the first time he had heard it. Prudhomme was not having redfish songs written for fun.

The last thing he wants is to be linked with the decline of the fish--the notion that he, a redfish fan, was somehow responsible. He had already received some letters accusing him of just that, and it was troubling.


All he had done was invent blackened redfish, a dish that led to a national craze. That sent demand soaring, which led to the worry about overfishing and, finally, to a federal limit on catches and the accompanying furor.

There was no way he could have predicted the mania over blackened redfish, the phenomenon of trendy restaurants from New York to California serving it up, the fame that came with being the first to cook a piece of spiced-up fish in a white-hot iron skillet. He did it back in 1981 only because he couldn’t afford a wood-burning grill for his Cajun restaurant’s kitchen.

Yet it happened. Commercial fishermen jumped at the chance to make big money on the Cajun food craze. They fished the deeper waters for bigger bull redfish that only a few years earlier would have been thrown back as inedible--too coarse, too fishy-tasting. A junk fish, they called it.

But what did those New Yorkers know about redfish? They didn’t say they wanted small, tender redfish--the fish that have long been a staple of New Orleans cuisine and the only kind Prudhomme uses. They wanted any kind of redfish they could get their hands on.

So the fishermen scooped up redfish in huge purse seine nets.

Figures tell the story: In 1980, the year before Prudhomme put fish to skillet, the commercial redfish catch in the Gulf of Mexico was 1.6 million pounds. Last year, it was 6.3 million pounds. This year, another 7 million pounds had been caught by June 1 and some predictions were that the 1986 catch could have gone as high as 20 million pounds had not the federal government stepped in.

Federal Limit on Catch

The secretary of commerce placed a million-pound quota on redfish for 90 days, beginning last June 26, after Rep. John B. Breaux (D-La.) complained about the size of the redfish catch and introduced a bill in Congress calling for a moratorium on fishing for them. But here again is another example of the demand: The 90-day quota was filled in 10 days.


“It would be tragic for me, personally, to know that redfish would be extinct,” said Prudhomme, who has considered taking redfish off the menu in his restaurant, K-Paul’s, where the lines begin forming early for dinner and often stretch around the block. “If I had information I could believe, I could probably make a decision on it.

“I think the federal government did the right thing by putting a moratorium on it, stopping the purse seiners and finding out what we’ve got,” said Prudhomme, whose great girth envelopes the oversized chair reserved for him in a corner of the restaurant.

As Kershaw put it, “Chef’s trying to make a point about these redfish to help them out.”

Chef Prefers Tuna

And, truth be told, Prudhomme may have made his name with blackened redfish, but he prefers blackened tuna that is blood-red in the center.

While the redfish have a temporary reprieve from the fishermen’s nets because of the ban on taking them in federal waters, the law has created plenty of hard feelings in Louisiana. Commercial fishermen claim there are millions of redfish in the Gulf, schools that stretch farther than the eye can see, and that the only reason for the ban is that the sport fishermen won this round.

But those who want to stop the commercial take say the huge catches of the last few years amount to nothing short of plundering, that they are seriously eroding the reproductive cycle of the redfish. They argue that if the large, offshore spawners are netted, there will be fewer eggs to hatch into fingerlings.

“This is the most emotional issue I’ve ever dealt with in 30 years,” said Jack Brawner, the regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. “This overwhelms any other issue.”


The fisheries service has critics on both sides. Some say that it did not act quickly enough to protect the redfish. They say it is not the first time this has happened--that other species, such as the mackerel, have been overfished before the federal agency took action.

Fish Management Criticized

“I lose sleep over the management that has allowed this to happen,” said Maumus Claverie, a New Orleans lawyer long associated with fish management in the Gulf of Mexico. “But the redfish is going to turn around and bite them.”

Brawner replies that it isn’t his fault, that the foot-dragging was on the part of the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council, one of eight regional entities responsible, under federal law, for advising on the development of conservation plans.

“The Gulf Council is the one that has been slow to move,” said Brawner, who is himself a member of the council as a result of his position in the fisheries service.

Wayne Swingle, the executive director of the Gulf Council, said that his organization had no way of predicting the surge in demand and that in past years, it had believed that the redfish should be managed by the state.

“No one anticipated the rapid development of the fishery,” Swingle said.

Fishermen Lose Income

The argument over who is responsible means little, however, to the fishermen who stand to lose a big share of their income because of the current, 90-day federal ban, which will probably be extended for another three months. Freddie Black and his twin brother, Eddie, had been catching thousands of pounds of redfish, also known as red drum.


“We can’t see where we’ve hurt anything at all,” said Freddie. “That’s a big ocean out there. I think there are enough fish out there for the sportsmen and the fishermen.

“I’m going to play it by ear,” he said. “You can’t blame the politicians, because they are going for the votes, aren’t they?”

Further up the chain of supply is Tom Lusco, manager of Harlon’s Old New Orleans Seafood House, a fish wholesaler. He talked about his problems while standing in a seafood locker where 10,000 pounds of redfish were stored. The fish were caught not in federal waters, but inside the three-mile limit over which Louisiana has jurisdiction. The state waters are being fished by crews working against the clock because at the end of the month, new, stringent state laws will seriously curtail the commercial taking of redfish there.

“After Sept. 1, as things stand now, it’s all over for us,” said Lusco. “We basically have three weeks to fish the reds.

Lack of Data Cited

“Since federal waters were closed, we’ve bought 60,000 pounds of redfish, all inside state waters. It just goes to show you: That’s three miles, compared to the Gulf. It’s like a grain of sand in a bucket of water,” he said. “They’ve left a little-bitty corner to fish for a month, and we’re catching all the fish we want.”

Lusco has nothing but contempt for those who want to stop the commercial netting of redfish. He says they have no data to back up their claims.


“All they have is what they feel,” he said.

In a sense, that is correct, because the 90-day moratorium was imposed so that data could be studied and biologists could get a true fix on the status of the redfish. Those who wanted to stop the fishing say that lack of information was the basic reason for limiting the catch.

“Those fish were protected in the past because there was no market,” said Randy Bright, the executive director of the Gulf Coast Conservation League. “Our concern is that damage may have already been done. Common-sense biology creates a concern for fishing the brood stock. Until we know what the safe levels are, we should leave the fish alone.”

Dave Hall, an enforcement officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is even more adamant, and with good reason. He has seen a number of fish stocks depleted, along with waterfowl in Louisiana’s once-teeming marshes, and he does not want to see it happen again.

Tons of Fish Wasted

“This has been a horror story, to see the redfish gold rush out there,” he said. He cited, among other things, an estimated 160,000 pounds of dead redfish apparently dumped into the Gulf by overzealous fishermen who had caught more than they could haul onto their boat.

Hall takes a hard line on the whole business: If the laws are not better enforced, if conservation is not put at the forefront, then, “Sooner or later you’re not going to have any species to fish. The demand isn’t going to go away, so you have got to have better conservation and law enforcement.”

Some states, such as Texas and Florida, already have strict regulations about the taking of redfish, and by the end of the month, all the Gulf states will have them. But Brawner, the federal fisheries regional director, said that does not close the book on the redfish controversy, and it will not be closed unless there is permanent regulation in federal waters as well.


He warned that should there be no federal law in place at the end of the fishing moratorium, commercial boats could land their catches in Mexico or along the Atlantic seaboard. Processing boats could ply federal waters off the Gulf states, he said, and never go inside the three-mile limit.

“Some would say that is far-fetched, but I’m not sure it is,” he said. “They’re worth a lot of money.”

All that, because of the Cajun food craze.