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Handling Live Fish, Shellfish Sympathetically



By Nicki Holmyard, SeafoodSource contributing editor


Published on 19 August, 2014



Are we driven by our emotions when dealing with fish and shellfish? Do we care less about little fish than big ones?

I remember the first time, many years ago, that I went out on a commercial mackerel handline boat and was horrified to find that the fish were left to gasp their last breath on the deck. Where is the “priest” (weighted stick for knocking fish on the head) I asked, but was told that was why they did not like girls on boats — they were generally too squeamish.  

Salmon, trout and large game fish are reverently handled when caught, yet smaller species are often not given the same care by fishermen and anglers. Some of it comes down to education, some to tradition or to desensitization, but mostly when dealing with commercial catches, it comes down to the simple impossibility of dispatching fish or shellfish individually.

One reason to be concerned for the welfare of big fish is that some of them, such as skate and rays, can be successfully returned to the sea alive if accidentally caught, provided they are handled correctly.

The Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group (SFSAG) MSC North Sea Saithe fishery, has a condition placed on it that requires any endangered, threatened or protected skate and ray species caught, to be returned unharmed to the ocean.  

Jess Sparks, environmental and technical manager of Seafood Scotland, recently prepared a handbook for SFSAG, that will help fishermen in the MSC saithe fishery to comply with this condition. It includes an excellent identification guide, along with handling techniques to ensure the fish are not damaged.  

“Skates and rays are not aggressive animals by nature, but large specimens are powerful and may cause harm to themselves or the crew if they are not handled correctly when being returned to the ocean. Because they are hardy animals, some fishermen assume that they can easily survive no matter how they are handled, whereas in truth, whilst they may appear healthy upon release, they can die later because of injuries caused by the fishing process and also by their handling onboard, so it is important to respect the animals and to understand how to minimize trauma and stress,” said Sparks.    

Another reason for handling a catch sympathetically is to ensure a high quality product for the chef or consumer, and that applies throughout the supply chain.

Shellfish are particularly susceptible to trauma and stress if not handled and stored correctly, and this impacts their eating quality directly. Live storage and transport systems for lobster, crab and langoustine have advanced a great deal in recent years, helping to increase their popularity.  

However, once they reach the restaurant, another debate opens up — that of whether to cook from live or to stun or kill first. At the New York Grand Central Station Oyster Bar, where lobster is a firm favorite with customers, executive chef and co-owner Sandy Ingber believes they should be killed humanely before cooking.

“It’s a matter of choice between chefs how they handle shellfish, but the most important thing is to make sure they are alive before cooking, so that they are in the best condition for eating,” he said. “We inform the customers about this, because they like to know their food is fresh and also that the animal has been properly treated.”

“If it is going in the steamer, we put it head first into the boiling salted water, which kills it instantly. We do the same for crabs. If we broil the lobster, then we kill it first by cutting with a very sharp knife into the chest and heart, before splitting it in half,” he said.

Roy Brett chef patron of the acclaimed Ondine seafood restaurant in Edinburgh, said that refrigeration is key both to keeping the animals in good condition and to making them sleepy before cooking.  

“We follow the RSPCA guidelines, which recommend that both crab and lobster are killed immediately before cooking, and we do this with a very sharp knife and never have any problems,” he said.

At Burgon’s of Eyemouth, a Scottish seafood specialist which processes up to a metric ton of crab every week, the animals are individually spiked through the head before cooking, which produces a better quality product than other methods the company has used in the past, according to factory manager Danny Garsder.  

One solution for chefs and processors is to use a Crustastun, an electro-stunner suitable for lobsters, crayfish and crabs, which is available for continuous flow use in shellfish processing factories or for single use in restaurants, fishmongers and professional catering units.   

Crustastun has found favor with top U.K. chefs including Georgio Locatelli and Raymond Blanc, and is recommended by the RSPCA, as it reduces stress in the animals, and in doing so, has been found to improve the taste and texture of the meat.

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