What better time than Lent to learn about new Louisiana seafood products?
The state’s seafood market is changing in consumer-friendly ways, says the guy who runs two state programs that work with fishing families all along the coast.
“We see this whole world of innovators emerging,” said Thomas Hymel, director of the Louisiana Seafood Industry Professionalism Program and the Louisiana Direct Seafood program, through the LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant. His department runs educational programs for commercial fishing and seafood industries, which are struggling to survive.
Louisiana is the No. 2 seafood state, after Alaska, and primarily a producer of bulk commodity products, selling fish wholesale, he said.
Hymel’s work with fishing families helps them participate at the next level: selling to the public.
“We work with individuals, small mom-and-pop microprocessors, to help them develop different products, items that can go into the marketplace,” Hymel said. “They make more money, and it brings special products to the consumer, which is huge.”
The new technologies combine vacuum packing and freezing. Seafood is caught, handled with care and packaged immediately at peak quality. Consumers get a premium ready-to-use product they can store flat in the freezer. And fishermen can have something to sell the entire year.
One example, available at the Red Stick and Bucktown farmers markets, is a black drum fillet from Doug Olander, of Big D’s Seafood in Vermilion Bay. Some years, he harvests over 1 million pounds of black drum, all going into wholesale seafood markets in New Orleans.
Now, some of the catch is iced down on the boat, then vacuum packed, one fillet per pack, and frozen at the processing plant.
“The typical side is about a half pound. It goes into the freezer, flat, and stores easily. Nothing is added to it,” Hymel said. “It’s an incredible product. You cut open the bag and it smells like ocean water … They thaw almost instantly.”
Of course, Hymel said, the ultimate fish is one you catch and cook yourself. But even good Louisiana seafood in the market may be a few days old. Compare that to a fish caught and frozen on the boat, he said. The new technology allows for products and distribution in ways not available before.
Black Drum with Crawfish Cream Sauce
Hand-peeled, hand-deveined shrimp by the pound are available online via the Louisiana Direct Seafood Shop, a marketing initiative administered by the AgCenter and Sea Grant programs. These shrimp don’t have the sodium tripolyphosphate, a loss-preventative additive, of commercially processed shrimp, Hymel said. You can check out LouisianaDirectSeafoodShop.com for seafood availability at the port nearest you, but be forewarned, you may be tempted to jump in your car and speed to where fishermen are promoting products.
One product, frozen in plate freezers on the boat, is premium head-on shrimp, complete with legs and antennae. When thawed, it looks like it just fell out of a net, Hymel said. Look for it under the Louisiana Limited Wild Plate Frozen brand.
Captain Quincy’s Seafood, out of Bayou Dularge south of Houma, is doing all sorts of things, Hymel said, including shrimp, flounders and sheepshead fillets.
In Lafourche Parish, Anna Marie Shrimp owner Lance Nacio took one of his shrimp boats and started fishing for Gulf fish. “He’s now catching and processing grouper and other Gulf fish you rarely see available,” Hymel said.
Demand for soft-shell crabs outstrips supply 10 to 1, Hymel said. At the end of the season last year, they vacuum-packed and froze two to a package just after they had shed, to test-market at the Delcambre Seafood & Farmers Market. They were sold immediately.
“There are more and more things we can do like this. It’s endless,” Hymel said. “It’s exciting. This is some stuff that’s been a long time coming.”