Meet at the market: is it safe to eat local seafood?

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You won’t find today’s local catch in Robert Perez’s latest pick up. Photo: Kathryn Barnes

Each week we meet up with Katie Hershfelt of Cultivate Events as she chats with farmers, chefs and shoppers at the Santa Barbara Farmers’ Market.

Many are wondering what effects the Refugio oil spill may have on local seafood. It’s already led to a fishing ban, stretching 23 miles along the coast and about 7 miles out. That ban has made the hard job of a fisherman even harder, and it’s made chefs in Santa Barbara concerned about feeding their customers seafood from nearby waters.

This week’s guest? Robert Perez of Seagrass Restaurant, just a block from the farmers’ market. He prides himself in sourcing as many local ingredients as possible. But, you won’t find any local seafood on his menu right now, and his reasons go way beyond this month’s spill.

Perez says he made the decision to stop sourcing seafood locally ever since 2011’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Some scientific studies found that radioactive isotopes may have found their way to the Pacific coast through ocean currents.

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California Department of Fish and Wildlife officers intercept a commercial fishing vessel actively fishing in a closed area due to the Refugio Beach oil spill. Photo: CDFW

“Our biggest concern was the possibility that our seafood was contaminated. I decided I would rather err on the side of caution than the side of negligence,” says Perez.

But, that was about to change. Perez began introducing local seafood again this year, after deciding there’s no way to get away from contamination. “It’s in the air, on the ground, in the water,” he says. His latest specials have involved local sea urchins and spot prawns.

“We have such bounty in the Pacific Ocean, and I miss it. That’s why we have slowly been reintroducing local seafood back on our menu, even if it may not be safe,” says Perez.

Then, the oil spill hit, and Perez pulled all his local seafood, even that which came from beyond the fishery closure surrounding Refugio Beach.

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Fishery closure, as of May 24th. Source: CDFW

“It is our responsibility to take the utmost care of our guest, and that is why I want to be careful.”

It’s left him wondering if anything truly is safe, local or not.


Robert’s fish-buying tips:

  • Look for firm fish. If it has it’s skin, there should be a clean fresh “film” on the surface.
  • The fish should smell fresh, like the sea, with no negative odor.
  • Buy fish whole (when possible) so you can see the gills and eyes. Gills must be bright red and eyes must be clear and protruding. If they are dull and starting to sink into the head, the fish is aging fast. Ask the fish seller to fillet it for you.
  • Ask the origins of the fish. If farmed, is it sustainable? If wild, which ocean or river/lake? Do not hesitate to “interrogate” the fish monger! Often times, too often, they truly have little knowledge of the product. But you, the consumer, have all the right to know. If you have any doubt or hesitation in the information you receive, don’t buy it.

How are local fishermen and women affected by the spill? One local sea urchin diver weighs in.

To check out all our past farmers’ market guests, click here.