By William Norris
Photography by William Norris
Uchi, Fino, Starlite, Wink, Asti, Zoot, Aquarelle, Dai Due Supper Club—John “PJ” Stoops’s client list reads like a Who’s Who of Austin’s best restaurants. But while his small, family-run fishing business changes the tabletop landscape around town, what Stoops really wants to do is change your mind about a few things.
“Why do we have to eat salmon all the time?” Stoops ponders as he tends a fishing line on the beach of Galveston. “Where we live, salmon should be a treat.” This morning he’s fishing for fun, and his own table, but on many other days he wakes early to meet fishing boats as they dock along the Gulf Coast. Later he’ll drive the freshly iced catch directly back to Austin and into the hands of eager clients.
Originally trained as a chef, Stoops spent time working in the south of France, near the Mediterranean, and more recently as the executive chef at the Legend Boutique River Resort in Thailand. “It was the first time I ever saw good fish, really good fish
, coming into a restaurant,” remembers Stoops. Now based in Texas, he concentrates his time and energy on opening people’s eyes to the poorly utilized Gulf Coast resource and its slowly disappearing fishing fleet industry.
“Not many use Gulf fish because of its reputation,” Stoops says, alluding to the commonly held belief that the Texas Gulf water and coastline are dirty. “They look that way because of geography.” Indeed, the murky green water and gray sand are a direct result of the Mississippi River depositing silt into the western Gulf. Stoops admits there have been a few oil spills from offshore tankers and rigs over the years, but the infamous tar balls
that blacken the soles of Galveston beach walkers are actually caused from natural oil deposits bubbling up from the nearby Continental Shelf, and have existed long before refineries appeared on the horizon. Karankawa Indians even used them to waterproof baskets and pottery.
Stoops remains unfazed about the Gulf’s supposed bad rap. “Most places in the world where fish are harvested have some environmental quality issue,” Stoops notes. “In developed countries, pollution is always going to be part of that problem.” He insists that catching and importing wild fish from elsewhere isn’t necessarily a good answer, and actually causes more harm than good. “Everyone knows snapper, so it’s always sold,” he explains. “But most often it’s red snapper, and a lot of times it comes from Mexico because it’s a hell of a lot cheaper there. It’s not the best fish, but many don’t seem interested in quality, or sustainability or the local fisherman.”
Hoping to ignite a wave of change, Stoops founded Stoops and Son (honoring his toddler son, Burin) in June of 2007, then proceeded to put 32,000 miles on his white minivan in five months, driving freshly caught shrimp and finfish from the Gulf to Austin. Stoops works only with small, family-run fishing operations and keeps an eye on quality, the state of the fishery and sustainability. He’s mindful about the harvesting, so he chooses those fisheries that utilize preferred methods, like hooks and lines to catch fish rather than trawlers that dredge the ocean floor. “Some of the larger operations trawl near Mexico and rip up the whole bottom, coral, everything,” says Stoops. “Then they discard the fish they don’t want.”
Stoops wants consumers, fishermen and chefs to think differently as well. “Some Gulf species don’t have pretty names, but they’re good,” he says. “Sheepshead is one. They’re awesome, but I’ve rarely been able to sell one. Red drum sells, because it’s familiar, but there’s no wild red drum fishery in Texas. By law, it’s all farm-raised. Most people don’t know that sheepshead is also a drum, they just know it’s got a weird name and a funny body shape.”
This hesitancy for people to branch out with their palette leads to the overfishing of certain fish families, and accelerates the alarming depletion occurring in our wild fish stocks. “Fish like halibut, salmon, cod and tuna are terribly depleted because we’re not using the resources right,” says Stoops. “That’s why I try to sell things aside from favorites like snapper or flounder.” And in-demand doesn’t always mean delectable. Stoops has issues with the flavor, texture and freshness of the wildly popular, albeit always shipped-frozen, Chilean sea bass. “If you can make the Chilean sea bass popular,” he chides, “a fish as dreadful and ridiculous as the Chilean sea bass, if that
can be popular, why can’t all of the fish in the Gulf of Mexico be popular?”
There are chefs who would love to use different fish, but Stoops maintains they’re afraid the market won’t support the move. Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due Supper Club is one chef unafraid to tackle the more exotic species Stoops has to offer. “PJ gets me stingrays, whiting and croaker,” says Griffiths. “Some restaurants won’t touch croaker simply because of the name, but Stoops knows they’re delicious, and that the harvest moon combined with a cold front will send swarms of them up to the beach, full of eggs that are also delicious,” Griffiths adds. “PJ offers me a set of eyes, a chef’s perspective, a broad knowledge of fish, seasonal differences and availability, and some pretty honest answers when it comes to freshness. Those are great qualities in a purveyor, whether they’re selling fish, vegetables or rabbits.”
The readily accepted, farm-raised fish is yet another challenge for Stoops. He likens many aquaculture ventures to factory farms, and disputes claims that a farm-raised salmon is safer than one caught wild. In 2007, a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts called Sustainable Marine Aquaculture: Fulfilling the Promise; Managing the Risks
backs Stoops’s claim, noting that for carnivorous fish like salmon, current aquaculture practices are not sustainable.
To provide farmed salmon with the protein they need, they’re fed a mixture of fish meal and oil derived from wild fish like herring, menhaden, sardines and mackerel. It takes between two-and-a-half to five pounds of wild fish to generate one pound of farmed salmon meat. Many farmed fish are also dosed with antibiotics and, in the case of salmon, colored with dye so the flesh is the familiar pink—a hue unattainable without a natural diet. Stoops urges advocates of farm-raised fish to consider waste, as well. Studies have determined that a salmon farm with 200,000 fish releases nutrients and fecal matter roughly equivalent to the raw sewage from 20,000 to 60,000 people. “It’s like an industrial hog farm in water,” he says.
To Stoops, there’s just nothing that compares to wild fish pulled straight from the Gulf water, but it’s not just about flavor. “You can’t separate the taste from the political aspect of it, the economic aspect, the ecological aspect,” he explains, likening the plight of small fishing operations to the plight of the family farm. “I’ve seen old pictures of massive numbers of shrimp boats out of Freeport, Texas, from 70, 80 years ago,” says Stoops. “There’s not many of those iceboats left—the ones that bring back fresh, never-frozen shrimp.” Stoops believes the key to keeping this small industry alive on the Gulf Coast is through local markets. “I don’t want to line the pockets of someone who lives far away and doesn’t care about what’s happening here.”