There’s no question that fishing can be grueling, dangerous, sometimes even terrifying work. Even so, Kristen Penner characterizes it as the most rewarding job she’s ever had.
“Fishing can also be gorgeous, exhilarating and serene,” says the Garibaldi-based commercial fisherwoman, owner of Blue Siren Shellfish along with her partner, Aaron Yunker. “When the water is glass and your lungs fill with clean salt air, the feeling of bringing a beautiful crab or wild fish up through the clear ocean can be so pure and elemental.”
The duo work on a 24-foot wooden dory boat Yunker built by hand in the tradition of Pacific City dories — flat-bottomed fishing boats that are unique to the region. Their operation is small but mighty. Dungeness crab is their primary catch, but the two-person crew also harvests wild clams and percebes, sometimes called goose barnacles, a rare Iberian delicacy that also happens to be found on the Oregon Coast.
They supply that seafood to many of Portland’s top Spanish and seafood-focused restaurants, as well as nearby coastal businesses like Salmonberry Commons (formerly Salmonberry Saloon, which has recently added on fresh grocery sales), Offshore Grill in Rockaway Beach and The Schooner in Netarts.
Recently, Blue Siren has also been working with other fishers on a mobile microprocessor to filet and vacuum-seal their fish, as well as a Tillamook nonprofit called Food Roots, to sell locally grown products to residents and visitors. It’s a lifestyle that still surprises Penner.
“If anyone asked me five years ago whether I would be involved in commercial fishing, I would [have said] never,” says Penner, who grew up more than 2,700 miles away near the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. “I love this and I appreciate the water, but I never imagined that I would actually be doing this for a living.”
After moving to Oregon, she enrolled in what was then called Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, in Portland, where she met her partner. They ultimately found themselves taking a chance on the Coast after a stint running a farm-to-table restaurant in Hermiston.
Once in Garibaldi, they quickly became involved with Blackbird, a now-shuttered locavore restaurant in Manzanita, when it was in the process of opening. Yunker drew upon his woodworking background to help build tables for the restaurant, and both started working in the kitchen.
“That’s when I really got exposed to the amazing, incredible diversity of producers and really passionate people on the North Coast,” says Penner. “I got a sense of this interconnected network and the bounty that was here.”
The next step was setting up Blue Siren as a business to be able to sell directly to consumers, retailers and restaurants. Even though Blue Siren might be a tiny operation in the grand scheme of things, the small business is still subject to the same licensing requirements — from shellfish permits to wholesale dealer licenses — as a much larger company.