The octopus war

The giant Pacific octopus is, in the words of a Seattle conservationist, a “glamour animal.” It is also tasty. Therein lies the conflict.

Marnie Hanel / The New York Times /

Published Nov 3, 2013 at 04:00AM

In the months leading up to the hunt, Dylan Mayer trained twice a week in his parents’ swimming pool, asking friends to attack him, splay their arms and grab him, drag him to the surface and shove him below it, pull off his mask, snatch his regulator, time his recovery. By last Halloween, he was ready, and as the light began to fade that afternoon, the broad-shouldered 19-year-old jumped into a red Ford pickup truck with his buddy and drove some 40 minutes from Maple Valley, Wash., to West Seattle. They arrived at Alki Beach around 4 p.m., put on their wet suits and ambled into Cove 2. Then they slipped into Elliott Bay, the Space Needle punctuating the city line in the distance like an inverted exclamation point.

Under the dark water, the teenagers looked around with the help of a diving light. At 45 feet, they passed a sunken ship, the Honey Bear, and at 85 feet, beneath the buoy line, they saw further evidence of the former marina — steel beams, pilings and sunken watercrafts. Marine life thrived in this haven of junk, and for this reason, Cove 2 was a popular dive site. According to the permit he had just purchased at Wal-Mart, Mayer was allowed to catch this sea life and cook it, which is exactly what he set out to do. He wasn’t much of a chef, but he had experience foraging for his dinner. Mayer had attended a high school known for its Future Farmers of America program; he also knew how to slaughter cows and castrate bulls. Now he was going to community college, where he was asked to draw something from nature. He figured that he might as well eat it too.

And as he scanned the bay, he could already imagine searing the marine morsels on high heat and popping them, rare and unctuous, into his mouth. He soon spotted his prey. “That’s a big [expletive] octopus,” he scribbled on his underwater slate.

The giant Pacific octopus was curled inside a rock piling, both its color and texture altered by camouflage. Mayer judged it to be his size, about six feet, and wondered if he could take it on alone. He lunged at the octopus, grabbing one of its eight arms. It slipped slimily between his fingers, its suckers feeling and tasting his hand. He reached for it again, and again it retreated. Able to squeeze its body through a space as small as a lemon, the octopus was unlikely to succumb to his grip. He poked it with his finger and watched it turn brighter shades of red, until finally, it sprang forward and revealed itself to be a nine-foot wheel charging through the water.

The octopus grabbed Mayer where it could, encircling his thigh, spiraling his torso, its some 1,600 suckers — varying in size from a peppercorn to a pepper mill — latching onto his wet suit and face. It pulled Mayer’s regulator out of his mouth. His adrenaline rising, he punched the creature, and began a wrestling match that would last 25 minutes.

Eventually, he managed to pull the animal to the surface, where a number of divers couldn’t help noticing a teenager punching an 80-pound octopus. As they approached, Mayer freaked out. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, sucker marks ringing his face. “Maybe we shouldn’t have done this.” But it was too late. He dragged his kill ashore, where a few bystanders, in disbelief, took his picture and threatened to report him. Lugging the octopus to the red truck, Mayer cited his permit. But the divers kept taking pictures. That night, as Mayer butchered the octopus for dinner, they posted the photos online.

Front-page news

In a city finely attuned to both the ethics of food sourcing and poster-worthy animal causes (the spotted owl, the killer whale and marbled murrelet among them), Mayer’s exploits became an instant cause célèbre. On Nov. 1 and 2, Seattle’s competing news stations reported the octopus hunt. The next day, The Seattle Times ran the story on the front page. On Web forums, Seattleites tracked down the teenager’s name and address through the clues in the photos: the truck’s license plate, the high school named on Mayer’s sweatshirt and the inspection sticker affixed to his tank. “I hope this sick [expletive] gets tangled in a gill net next time he dives and thus removes a potential budding sociopath before it graduates from invertebrates to mammals,” read one typical comment, which received 52 “thumbs-ups.” Around the same time, Scott Lundy, one of the men who had confronted Mayer in Cove 2, issued a “Save the G.P.O.” petition to ban octopus harvesting from the beach and examine the practice statewide. By the next day, he had collected 1,105 signatures.

Consummate locavore

Across Elliott Bay, at the same time, a much subtler food sourcer was at work. Chef Matthew Dillon was building his highly anticipated new restaurant, Bar Sajor (pronounced “sigh-your”) in Pioneer Square. After the success of his first, Sitka & Spruce, Dillon, 39, earned an unsought reputation as the consummate locavore in a city filled with them. He cultivated rare herbs and foraged for mushrooms in the foothills of the Cascades; whereas many Brooklyn restaurants are only now coming around to wood sorrel and perilla, Dillon has been cooking with them since 1995. At Bar Sajor, there would be a rotisserie and a wood-fire oven, but no gas range; Dillon would make his own yogurt and vinegars, ferment his own vegetables and change his menu every day depending on what looked fresh and interesting — including, as it happened, giant Pacific octopus.

So as the “Save the G.P.O.” campaign raged this spring, the city raved about Dillon’s octopus salad. In The Stranger, the influential alt-weekly magazine, Bethany Jean Clement described it as having “a restrained oceangoing flavor, a bouncy but tender texture — sometimes a little chewy but never rubbery,” plated that day with “a thick walnut sauce, dill for freshness, and an oozing egg yolk for vivid creaminess and color.” The Seattle Times also heaped praise. “Bar Sajor Is Matt Dillon’s Finest Yet,” ran one Friday headline, just a week after another: “New Hunting Rules Likely for Puget Sound Octopus.” Whenever the salad appeared on the menu, it sold out. Inevitably this posed a most uncomfortable question for Seattle’s food community: should it save the giant Pacific octopus or just eat it?

The giant Pacific octopus, the world’s largest, is the celebrity of cephalopods. For decades, visitors have crowded around its tank at the Seattle Aquarium, marveling at the intelligence of a sea creature that can open childproof jars, recognize its keeper and press its suckers against the glass to match a lifted hand. Found between California and Japan, the octopuses usually weigh anywhere between 30 and 100 pounds and can reach more than 14 feet, or about the height of a double-decker bus. As adults, they have few natural predators in the bays and inlets of Washington and live in abundance in the Puget Sound.

While the octopuses were fished by coastal Native Americans centuries ago, their general unwieldiness has prevented them from catching on in the retail fish market. Commercially, giant Pacific octopus was fished in the Puget Sound as incidental catch mostly from bottom trawls, a practice that topped out in 1988 at 83,500 pounds per year, and then dropped precipitously as fishing methods changed. From 1998 to 2000, direct harvest of octopus by shellfish pots averaged only about 100 pounds annually. In 2001, the pots were outlawed; in 2010, commercial trawlnets were, too. This created the strange rule that direct harvest was legal “by hand or by instrument which will not penetrate or mutilate the body,” and you could take one octopus per day. Few bothered. Even in Seattle, where they thrive, the octopus served in most restaurants came from places like the Philippines, Spain, Indonesia and Japan.

And so perhaps diners fell out of the habit of asking where their octopus came from, comforted by the assumption that this iconic marine species — inspiration for countless tattoos, as well as the Seattle Aquarium’s booming annual Octopus Week — was not on their plates. Certainly, no one was ready to see it killed by a teenager. And days after Mayer was identified, the regular meeting of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission was unusually well attended. Dozens of irate Seattleites filed into a conference room and, seating themselves in plastic chairs, were surprised to see that the first speaker to approach the podium was a teenager in bluejeans. “I’m obviously here today from the incident in Cove 2 with the octopus,” Mayer said. “I was the hunter. I did not know that that place was so loved by all the divers, or otherwise I would not have done it. ... I do agree with how that place should be off limits [to octopus hunting], and it should be clearly posted so that this mistake doesn’t happen again.”

Mayer stepped down, and others took the lectern to recite their prepared remarks, which failed to acknowledge that the threat had effectively just been neutralized. Eventually, Mike Racine stood to speak, representing the Washington Scuba Alliance, whose director of conservation, Scott Lundy, first posted Mayer’s photo online. “I did want to recognize that Dylan Mayer is here today. He and his family took a lot of heat over the last week for this legal taking of an octopus. Much of that heat is vitriolic in nature and inappropriate, and Dylan, just so you know, the Scuba Alliance regrets that, and we applaud you for being here,” Racine said. The room stood and clapped. Mayer, once a nemesis of the giant Pacific octopus, had suddenly become its most visible supporter.

From there, Fish and Wildlife went full “Parks and Recreation” on the octopus-hunting problem. The ad hoc Giant Pacific Octopus Advisory Group formed to draft options for protective enclosures. Over the months, they would meet several times, examining the conditions of the celebrity species and amassing a binder of more than 100 (mostly double-sided) pages. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife hosted public meetings at the aquarium and considered formal comments from more than 400 constituents as well as an expert scientific evaluation. Mark Plunkett, the Seattle Aquarium’s Conservation Manager, and his team on the advisory group gathered decades of research data to compile their report.

Robust populationsch

Their conclusion, however, turned out to be more complicated than anyone anticipated. An informal octopus census as well as studies like a five-year diver survey indicated that the giant Pacific octopus population in the Puget Sound was actually quite robust. The species grew quickly, lived briefly and reproduced effectively — factors important to determining its sustainability. In Alaska, in fact, it seemed as if there were more than plenty of them. When in 2011 the state tried to protect the species by capping incidental catch at 150, they discovered the giant Pacific octopus population was so plentiful that they reached their quota by October; that season’s pot cod fishing had to shut down early. The octopus didn’t need to be saved, Plunkett’s team determined; the people of Seattle simply wanted to save it.

Plunkett says this often happens with ‘‘glamour animals,’’ and so the advisory group was faced with a question that seemed begging for mockery: Must a species be endangered to justify protection, or was just liking to look at it reason enough?

The success of any octopus dish lies in its texture. In the Greek isles, fishermen swing octopuses into boulders, up to 100 times, to tenderize the tough meat, which is about 90 percent muscle. In Japan, disciples of the sushi chef Jiro Ono massage their octopuses by hand for up to 50 minutes. Many home cooks, including Mayer, pound it. Even then, the texture can still be unfavorably compared to what Plunkett de-scribes as ‘‘butter-fried rubber’’ — a consistency that caused Mayer’s mother to choke when she found a bite of his octopus in her bowl of bouillabaisse.

At Bar Sajor, Dillon has his own three-day-long octopus preparation ritual. He massages it with salt and lets it self-brine for 24 hours (‘‘it really releases some of the muck’’), then he rinses it and places it in a braiser with chunks of pork, halved lemons, peppers, whey and flowering dill. In his wood-fire oven, it takes on a new texture. (‘‘It very much has a pork-shoulder quality to it when it’s been cooking for a long time — held together but stringy like brisket.’’) Dillon then lets it rest for another day before returning it to the fire for a rustic finish. In a recent week, he plated the octopus segments on a dollop of smoked yogurt, nestled with wedges of lobster mushrooms, a smash of ember-roasted celeriac and a sprinkle of unopened nasturtium blossoms. It was a decadent, meaty dish.

When the chef started experimenting with octopus, he used imported catch from the Sea of Japan. Eventually, though, he started talking to coastal fishermen about local octopus. His sardine supplier knew a black-cod fisherman who sometimes found octopus among his haul; Dillon asked for his number. (The state demands that trawl fishermen discard incidentally caught shellfish but not octopus and squid.) Now the fisherman sends Dillon a text message when he accidentally snares an octopus, and the chef purchases the bycatch for a sizable investment of $6 to $7 a pound. It’s about double the price of the small, imported ones at the fish market, but it tastes great.

This sort of sourcing deftly dodges unease about eating a beloved animal. Bycatch is a poorly managed resource, after all; it can account for six pounds of waste for every pound of shrimp caught. Eating it becomes less a question of ‘‘if something is already dead, what’s the harm in consuming it?’’ than ‘‘what could feel better than eating something that would otherwise be wasted?’’ And the small-scale, unpredictable nature of incidental catch is very much aligned with Bar Sajor’s ethos. ‘‘I’m willing to say: ‘If I have it, I have it. And if I don’t, I don’t,’ ’’ Dillon says.

Sustainability

Dillon’s reputation as a seasonally shifting master locavore is well earned. He lives on a farm accessible only by ferry and knows where his food comes from (his backyard, mostly). Yet he says a blind adherence to ‘‘local’’ fare misses the point. ‘‘I don’t buy blackberries because they’re local. I buy blackberries from that farmer because they’re delicious, and I have yet to be shown a more delicious blackberry that I can get somewhere else and, at the same time, support my economy,’’ he says. ‘‘Sustainability and being local is not the part that interests me. I want to support it, and I want to support environmentalists, but I’m interested in supporting people and their welfare.’’ The community itself, in other words, is more important than where the food is from. Dillon suspects the uproar surrounding Mayer’s catch wasn’t really about sustainability; it was about the social context. ‘‘We don’t live in a culture where people go out and get octopus and then bring it in and eat it. This isn’t Marseille.’’ His issue with it, however, was simply that Mayer found this particular octopus in Elliott Bay, where the Duwamish River Superfund site drains.

Mayer’s real offense may have been forcing a community to realize that just because they’ve embraced local fare doesn’t mean they’re necessarily ready to see, in gory detail, it slaughtered or hunted or punched out and dragged from the bay. Mayer, who learned as a kid to track and kill coyotes that threaten livestock, recognized this, too. ‘‘I’ve always been a woods person,’’ he says. ‘‘I don’t mind killing for my food. I do it a lot. I don’t really like going to the store at all. Some people are too modernized; they don’t realize when they go to the store, that was killed somewhere, generally by people like me.’’

In the end, though, the Fish and Wildlife department concluded that there was still value in protecting a species, if only as watchable wildlife. The advisory group had drafted a list of 30 popular dive sites, and the department decided to ban octopus harvesting in seven of them, including Cove 2. Earlier this month, the state designated these locations Octopus Protection Areas and published a map that acknowledges the handful of places where octopus may not be harvested. Washington hasn’t yet placed permanent signage at the protected areas, but it’s doubtful they need it. Seattle’s most notorious octopus hunter already knows the rules.