Good Catches : The local fishing industry is providing seafood outlets with plenty of fresh fish, including halibut and salmon.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite warmer-than-usual waters off the Ventura County coastline brought on by El Nino conditions, the local fishing industry is progressing uninterrupted and providing area markets with a variety of fresh catches.

Currently, one of your best bets for locally caught fish is halibut. This species is actually the largest member of the flounder clan--any of more than 300 species of bottom-living flatfish. Other types you're likely to find at seafood outlets throughout the year include the northern, Mexican and Atlantic halibut.

"The halibut is excellent right now," said George White, owner of Moby Dick Seafood in Ventura. According to White, local waters are a haven for the "California" halibut.

When purchasing, you might want to ask if the halibut is the California variety. This type is preferred, not only because it is thought to be superior in taste but because it is sure to be fresher when it reaches the markets. Fishing boats in Mexican or Alaskan waters will stay out to sea up to four days and most of the catch will have to be frozen. Not so for local halibut--travel time to market is but a short boat ride to the shoreline.

"The California halibut is prolific in this area," White said. "On average we usually see them anywhere from 7 to 8 pounds and on up to around 25." Other halibut varieties, such as the Atlantic, grow much larger and can reach weights of up to 400 pounds.

A good indication for fresh halibut fillets is a near vanilla color; as they get older, the flesh becomes more white. And given the firmness of the flesh, White said halibut fillets are a good candidate for broiling. A couple minutes on each side should do it; once it starts to flake it's ready. White said local halibut fillets are running about $8 to $9 a pound.

A big favorite available at area markets is salmon, and this spring's local catch is notable.

"We're catching a lot of king salmon around the Point Mugu area," said Michael Wagner, owner of Andria's Seafood market in Ventura. "I haven't seen a catch like this in eight years."

The large bounty this season in local waters came as a big surprise, he said. Salmon fishing in Northwestern waters has been prohibited for now because of a depleted stock. This depletion was caused, in part, by the drought, which wreaked havoc on spawning grounds, and El Nino conditions, which reduced food supplies for the salmon.

"Nobody expected to find salmon down here this year either, so (federal regulators) are keeping a real close eye on it right now," Wagner said. "They could close the season at any time."

Wagner attributes the large salmon catch to some extent to schools finding large amounts of bait fish to feed on. "Salmon is a predator fish," he said. "They'll go where the food is and they're finding it where the cold-water current is meeting the warm-water current."

Because of El Nino conditions, water along the coast is about 64 degrees, he said. Near the Channel Islands, the water has remained closer to the norm--about 57 degrees. "Where this wall is, that's where the salmon are finding all the bait."

Local salmon fillets are running about $8 a pound, Wagner said.

According to Wagner, there's a fish, which he likens to "an ax handle with lots of teeth," available at some seafood outlets that you might not have had the pleasure of trying yet. The skinny Pacific barracuda features a white, flaky flesh and is excellent for barbecuing or broiling, he said.

According to Wagner, the large quantity of Pacific barracuda that has moved into the area is providing fishermen with an unusual bounty.

"The barracuda just kind of comes and goes with the wind around these parts," he said. "I really don't have an answer as to why it's being caught in good quantities right now." One possibility is the schools are following the warm-water currents, he said.

Although popular in areas such as Florida, where the barracuda is commonly harvested, this saw-toothed fish is a harder sell on the West Coast. "Our biggest problem is having to explain what to do with it," Wagner said. "Nobody knows anything about this fish."

When preparing, Wagner suggests that you employ your broiler. About three to four minutes on each side will suffice. "A hollandaise or a beurre blanc sauce is excellent over barracuda," he said. "Or use any recipe that calls for white fish."

The fillets--about 18 to 20 inches long and 3 to 4 inches wide--are running about $4 a pound.

The fishing seasons will open soon for two other popular varieties--sea bass, June 15, and swordfish, July 1.

* WHERE TO BUY IT

* Andria's Seafood, 1449 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura; 654-8228.

* Moby Dick Seafood, 307 Borchard Drive, Ventura; 643-7155.

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