Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

And now, a musical interlude, from Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, because he will soon (March 22) be appearing in Saskatoon at the Broadway Theatre. We are not to be graced in Victoria, alas. I must have invoked him because I was looking through some of his Youtube appearances a few days before I happened upon the notice for his show when I was in Saskatoon last weekend. Andrew put me onto him when I was in London a couple of years ago.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Terroir in Saskatchewan

... or as they quipped during the Saturday night entertainment, that's terroir as opposed to terre noire as opposed to terreur. It's a term that began in the realm of winemaking, to describe the many elements that go into building a wine's character: the mineral content of the soil, sun exposure, moisture and drainage, altitude and so forth.

Marc Loiselle and the Rural Development Alternatives panel.

The word has been picked up by other food producers who find it a good all-encompassing way to describe the qualities that go into making a food product unique. If it's an animal product, you look at the breed as well as the climate, topography and flora that affect the flavour, fat and texture of its meat or milk, which will in turn provide unique characteristics to its products - cheese, for example - made from it.

So last weekend I spent a day at a conference with the enticing title of Terroir, Identity and Seduction which gave the francophones of Saskatchewan (and a few of us anglophones) a chance to take a close look at local issues of terroir, through presentations, networking and even a bit of eating and drinking.

Kicking things off with a plenary on Regional Development in Saskatchewan and Beyond

There was a small but diverse and surprising selection of producers offering tastes and consumables of all shapes and sizes; howdja like them apples, from Petrofka Bridge Orchard

or that lovely flour from Marc Loiselle's Red Fife Wheat

rising to life in Trent Loewen's excellent Earthbound Bakery bread...

and who could have imagined Bedard Creek Acres' Red Clover Syrup

plus beaucoup de bison (including an awesome bison pâté) from the Meridian Bison Company; marvellous moutarde de Gravelbourg from Gravelbourg Mustard (the one with cranberry made me swoon, and yearn for a nice bit of roast goose to eat it with).

André Simard told us about Charlevoix's Local Development Centre and the state of gastrotourism and food production in Charlevoix, where they've made good progress in establishing unique products and viable markets for them, including La Route des Saveurs de Charlevoix, which was set up nearly 15 years ago and continues as a model of gastrotourism to the rest of the country.

Jean-Pierre Lemasson offered some gritty truths about terroir, identity and commerce, touching on some interesting dilemmas, like: is it possible to recreate a historical dish when the ingredients no longer resemble their origins? And talked about the industrialization and globalization of production and taste since World War 2, and the sticky issues those things raise for contemporary notions of authenticity and terroir. At lunchtime he offered an impromptu historical view of Tourtière, maintaining - to enthusiastic acclaim - that it is an ancient food, on the grounds that a recipe for a meat pie encompassed in pastry was found on cuneiform tablets, proving it's been on the table for around 4,000 years. Hotly debated, tourtière's origins according to folklore are that it was named for passenger pigeons - tourtes - that were used as ingredients a couple of centuries ago; but others maintain that, like paella, the food is named after the dish it's cooked in. Here's a recipe for it from Charlevoix.

We heard from Claude Dubé about Economuseums (économusées)

which are part museum, part workshop, part commercial enterprise, or as they define themselves:
a craft or agri-foods business whose products are the fruit of an authentic technique or know-how. The business showcases artisans and craft trades by offering an area for interpreting its production and by opening its doors to the public.

André Simard and Sylvain Charlebois ponder Saskatchewan issues.

We even had a participant who knocked a few socks off - even when they were sat the other side of the wall in the next room - by ending his presentation a capella. Here he is singing for CBC/Radio-Canada, the one and only Zachary Richard, Acadian advocate from Louisiana:

For me the grand finale was the Iron Chef competition, featuring three talented locals preparing hors d'oeuvres we could vote on:

Jean-François Dionne

Pascal Lafond

and Trent Loewen prep it up.

Pascal Lafond's spectacular and surprising cherry salsa, mustard tile and liver pâté bison glacé

Jean-François Dionne's Diefenbaker Lake trout tartare with greens served on a wild rice flour cracker was elegant and understated:

but the winner was Trent Loewen's silky chicken liver mousse on Éphémère flax bread.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Money for nothing and your CanLit for free

I recently fielded a request from Canadian Literature, where I had published (unpaid) a poem a few years ago. They have developed a fine archive featuring poetry they've published, together with virtual interviews and biographies. The laudable aim of this enterprise is to make good quality contemporary writing available to Canadian students so they can take inspiration from published works in order to learn to write poetry themselves.

The journal makes its archive available for free, which is lovely for the schools and students who will benefit. But one of the reasons it's available for free is they're not paying the writers for what amounts for unlimited use of their creative works, as well as the thought and effort involved in answering questions about their life and process.

There are a hundred tired comparisons I could make: does a teacher or editor or librarian who develops such a database do so without accepting a salary? I doubt it. Should a carpenter be asked to build a house for free because it's beautiful to look at and inspiring to student builders? Unlikely.

There is, unfortunately, no end to the things writers are asked to do for free, and unfortunately for those who ask, such requests have to go to the bottom of a freelancer's or wage earner's task list. Maybe it's worth it to tenured academics with publication requirements or budding writers with day jobs who are hungry for publicity. But it seems to me that a lot of worthwhile and well-intentioned projects that aim to make information or creative work freely available to a wider public overlook the fact that the people who create those works have a right to expect to make a living from their writing.

And in my experience, the people who initiate these projects seldom make the effort to raise funding to pay those creators, particularly if the projects are from academic or educational institutions. Worse are the folk - like Google for example - who do so with aims of generating revenues of their own, on the backs of creators.

While educational institutions may not be awash with cash themselves, they are no less able than more exemplary folk - some valiant and unpaid editors of magazines and reading series - who fall over backwards to pay the people whose writing they publish and promote. And they are no less able to tell the people they're asking just why there's no money to pay them, if they have tried.

After a little prodding, Canadian Literature told me they did try their hardest to get funding for the project, but failed, and decided to proceed anyway, in the interests of having something worthwhile to offer to students, particularly those in remote locations. On the strength of the enthusiasm of the archive's creators, I will likely participate in this project despite my misgivings, but I can't help feeling caught in some kind of freebie vortex that sucks me and my ability to earn a living ever downwards. Money may not be why poets write poems, but it's certainly a consideration in making them public.

And I wonder how keen those students will be to take up poetry if they're made aware that a good annual income from writing for successful Canadian poets (aside from the blessings of PLR and Access Copyright cheques) seldom exceeds three digits.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Couple of local events, where I am and am not, and tribute to Yotam Ottolenghi

February 20-22: Terroir: Identity & Seduction; Saskatoon
A conference about Terroir -- in Saskatchewan. Why not? Some interesting speakers and entertainments planned, as the participants toss around ideas of sustainability, gastro-tourism, geographic indications (appelations), ecomuseums and rural development initiatives. I'm expecting some good music, eating & drinking too.

February 23-March 8: Fair Trade Fortnight; UK
In England, recent research finds that 70% of British consumers now recognise the Fairtrade Mark, and more than a third of people want to see more Fairtrade produce available in cafes, restaurants and pubs (34%, up from 25% last year). Fairtrade is more than a fair selling price and marketing scheme for goods; it's a fully audited system of trade that assures that the workers who grow, harvest or work with those goods are fairly treated and that their communities - not just the business owners - reap a benefit (the 'social premium') which goes towards improving health, education and living standards for all. Thousands of producers in poorer countries depend on the system for a fair price for their product, fair trading conditions and market access. Britain celebrates and promotes this work with Fairtrade Fortnight, which this year runs from February 23 through March 8th. Perhaps we smug North Americans could get on this bandwagon a bit more - if British supermarkets like Sainsbury's can bow to consumer pressure and stock only fairly traded bananas, why do I never see any in Canada? (In Canada, the process is handled by Transfair)

Yesterday, at St Peter's
And one more local event was aperitivo hour at the writers' colony last night, which featured Yotam Ottolenghi's wonderful caramelised garlic tart. Here's my picture of this food's horizon of caramelised garlic, golden nugget squash (thanks Jim!) and goat's cheese:

And here are some Scottish socks complaining in falsetto about Ottolenghi's pics:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Jammy thoughts

The other day, I was talking to Jim the gardener who had spent some years in France, and time in Spain, and inevitably therefore the conversation wandered into quince territory. I'd seen quince (mele cotogno) trees growing in Herculaneum. In Spanish it's known as membrillo, which is also the word used to describe quince paste - a good companion for cheese and which I read here is, itself deriving from melomeli (more about this below) the etymological ancestor of marmelade.

So then I was looking at my beautiful little book about foods of Pompeii which I'm crawling through with my limited Italian. It's called le stagioni dell'antica pompei: recette farmaci e conserve, and includes a few recipes, including one for preserving quince (Conserva di mele cotogne) and making melomeli - a kind of honey/fruit wine used for its curative powers, to treat fevers and liver, kidney, or urinary ailments; as an astringent, and to facilitate digestion and relieve dysentery.

The basic method used in Pompeii was to pick quince when at their ripest - on a dry day in a waning moon - and then remove their fuzz, layer them in a glass container covered with a woven wicker cover and pour liquid honey to cover. My book says that this also produces melomeli which is used to treat fevers. But the melomeli recipe attributed to Apicius requires adding to the quinces a mixture of defrutum (grape must reduced by half) and honey. And defrutum is thought to be the ancestor of balsamic vinegar.

So food once more ties the past to the present in an edible package. Let's celebrate on this wintry day with a little Hot Chocolate, courtesy food poet Leslie McGrath.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Wild bees and alfalfa

We had a chat in the lounge the other night which raised some buzz about wild bees. In BC we have Blue Orchard Mason bees (Osmia lignaria) which emerge before the honeybees (Apis mellifera) and do faultless work in the apple trees. They don't make honey for us, but we need them for pollinating our fruits and flowers so there's a lot of interest nowadays in making them welcome by building them little homes. These can be made out of scrap lumber, rolls of paper or slatted extravagences.

These bees are subject to mites - not the varroas that imperil honeybee populations worldwide, but other varieties, so the houses should be cleaned (I heard that you can soak them in bleach solution, or if they're made out of scrap lumber you could burn them at the end of the season and make new ones).

We also get visits from leaf cutter bees (Megachile perihirta) who decorate our rose leaves with nice round holes, and in return pollinate all kinds of things.

Here on the prairies, apples bloom and honeybees buzz at closer times on the growing calendar, so that's why prairie honeybees can make apple blossom honey and layabout coastal bees can't.

And there's another bee, a relative of the Blue Orchard bee, the Alfalfa leaf cutter bee (known as ALB, or in Latin, megachile rotundata), which is prized - and bred - in these parts to pollinate alfalfa. Alfalfa is tricky for honeybees to pollinate, our bee-breeding writer colleague told us, because it's a long way into the stamens, and they're apt to lose the pollen on their way out. The leaf cutter, though, is a hard little nipper and can do a much more efficient job.

The world is struggling to maintain its population of wild bees as much as its honeybees; and much the same culprits are killing off both populations: urbanization/loss of habitat, pollution, pesticide use, and mites. In our relatively sparsely populated country we are lagging behind the losses, mercifully, and maybe temporarily; so the bee breeders in Canada sell a lot of bees to our neighbours to the south. We can all help in our small ways by building bee houses and cultivating bee-friendly plants. And holding off on the pesticides!

While you're at it, if you belong to an organization that might be relevant, you can join the campaign to support the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate's Organic Agriculture Protection Fund, to let the Canadian Food Inspection Agency know you want Canada to withdraw its approval of Monsanto’s GE Alfalfa. This substance was approved in Canada in 2004, and in the US in 2005, but in 2007 an American federal court found that the US Department of Agriculture’s approval of the crop was illegal on the grounds that it lacked a thorough Environment Impact Assessment, a decision affirmed last September and a national ban (in the US) was upheld. Because alfalfa is at the bottom of our food chain - essential for crop rotation and animal feed - cross contamination would bring our organic farming business to its knees and would contaminate just about every animal product we eat. Because we lack labelling for GM products, we wouldn't know anyway. The SOD campaign deadline for supporting groups is February 28, 2009.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Counting chickens

Last night's chicken dinner (roast chicken with the skin removed and no gravy?!) brought to mind all kinds of chickeny issues. Like the Victoria Film Fest's screening of Mad City Chickens which was most entertaining and made me wish for a little coop in my own backyard. I loved the tale of Consuela the battery hen who was rescued from a Wisconsin dump - she was one of the old laying hens who'd been gassed and dumped by the local battery egg operation, only "they don't always die" according to the guard at the gate. She'd been debeaked and was nearly bald from the crowded conditions she'd been living in, but with a little TLC and daily handfuls of greens from her foster mother she revived and started laying again.

Which brought to mind the opening chapter of Singer and Mason's book, The Way We Eat, and its discussion about the different breeding aims for different kinds of poultry. Battery hens are bred to live long enough to produce eggs at top capacity, while broilers are raised to be hungry - so they gain weight rapidly enough to be slaughtered at 6 weeks. Which basically means surplus battery hens are not the right shape for today's chicken dinners, which is how they end up in landfills.

Although chickens have a lifespan of 5 years, those manipulated into high-yield egg laying last a little more than a year; there is an industry practice of forced moulting which causes them to lay a bit longer; this involves starving them for between 5-14 days, and depriving them of water for part of this time. When they are finished as layers, they are killed, not always humanely. Let us just say that the Coen Brothers were not the only ones to find a novel and revolting use for a chipper.

And there are other living by-products to dispose of. Battery hens lay eggs, some of which are intended for hatcheries to produce more battery hens. But male chicks are an unwanted by-product, much like the male calves from dairy cows. In the example cited by Singer and Mason, male chicks are dropped (sometimes live) into the garbage; a UK website on factory farming says male chicks are killed and their bodies used for animal feed or fertilizer.

Some clarification over egg types, by the way. Unless otherwise labelled, the cheap white eggs in every supermarket are from battery hens, living in unspeakable conditions in cages too crowded to allow them to stretch their wings. Free run eggs are from hens that are not caged, but may be living in overcrowded conditions in barns; free range eggs are from barn-reared chickens with access to the outdoors (which they may elect not to use); organic eggs are from hens fed on organic feed; and if the words 'pasture-reared' appear anywhere it means the hens were raised outdoors.

Chicken issues are very topical, at least in the UK. Last year celebrity chef and sustainable food advocate Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and others embarked on a public information campaign about factory farming of chicken. And Felicity Lawrence's Not on the Label spilled the beans on EC regulations which allow the injection of chicken with hydrolized animal proteins so that they will better retain the water this meat is injected with, boosting its weight and retail value while giving it that characteristic industrial texture of soggy cardboard.

After reading a bit more about de-beaking, which, depending on the method used, can be the equivalent of having your nose sliced off by a hot razor, and is done to prevent aggression and cannibalism (caused in turn by overcrowded conditions) among battery hens, I browsed the website of United Poultry Concerns, which aims to raise awareness about battery hens and industrial poultry rearing. And because I do love a chicken dinner, as long as I know where my chicken came from, I thought with some gratitude about having Farmer Dan within reach, to sell me pasture-raised organic chook.

In brighter news, I'd heard that Oak Bay, notorious for restrictive bylaws, had relaxed its rules on keeping backyard chickens. Not sure if this is the change I'd heard about, but the poultry section of the animal control bylaw there was amended last August to allow up to 5 birds to be kept, as long as your lot is large enough.

And if you've read this far, you deserve to read Steven Dobyns' excellent poem, Spiritual Chickens. Brraaaawk!

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Googley do

Several of us sat in on a web conference call this week to learn more about how the Google Book Settlement affects Canadian authors. The call included a review of the powerpoint presentation found here in pdf, on the Access Copyright site.

There is more information available on Google, including a way to check whether your (in-print) books have been digitized by Google up to January 5, 2009, and are therefore covered by the settlement.

Be warned, you must create a Registry account in order to search for your books, and this registry asks for a lot of personal information; you can't proceed to the search screen until you provide it. Surely this is some kind of violation of privacy? I have written to Rust Consulting (a Minneapolis-based "trusted leader for complex data processing and award distribution"), who appears to be the owner of the registry, with the following questions; I'll let you know if I get an answer:
  • Why is this amount of information required for a search to see if I'm included? Why not ask for it only if/when the search has produced results for a claim?
  • If I'm not included, what do you intend to do with my personal information?
  • Why does your form not explain which fields are required fields? You obviously know which ones are required.
But back to your created works. If your books are covered, you have until January 5, 2010 to claim for payment; or until May 5, 2009 to opt out (if, for example, you want to pursue your own claim through the courts with Google). The money set aside for compensating authors for the violation of copyright entailed by the digitization project amounts to a stonking great payment of around $60 per book for single-authored books. Hurrah! Enough for a bottle of champagne (or slightly more cava or prosecco).

The reason authors are pursuing this is that Google, whose stated mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" (while reaping huge corporate profits themselves), has in this ambition conveniently side-stepped any responsibility to allow authors to earn a living from their writings. Which is the whole point of copyright.

During the web conference, one author wondered why libraries thought they had the right to offer their collections for free digitization, when they do not own the copyright. Nobody had a good answer on this call; it would be interesting to hear a library's reasoning.

The whole process is skewed towards the interests of everybody except the people who created the work being passed around for free. The libraries who donate their collections to the project get a digitized copy back; the authors of those works do not.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Food poetry, real dirt and western syrup

Elizabeth sent me this review of a food poetry collection by Deanna Fong, which sounds fantastic.
We watched The Real Dirt on Farmer John last night; it was a terrific documentary, though for a while we were weeping into our popcorn and hoping against hope for a happy ending. Glad to say they gave us one. And lots of information about CSA programs; I was shocked to realise the one at Angelic Organics was over ten years old!

I was sad to have missed the Bigleaf Maple Syrup Festival in Duncan last weekend. There's a small but active group of local syrup makers called the Sapsuckers, who tap the western maple - lower in sugar than its more famous eastern counterpart, but still doable (as is birch) - and offer workshops and advice on making syrup.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

News from the colony

We're into the end of the middle of the first week of the writers' and artists' colony at St Peter's and time is flexing its mean muscle as we brace ourselves for the first of two change-over weekends where some of us leave and some more of us arrive and we roll along together a while longer.

The birds have welcomed us back, the nuthatches being bolder now than the chickadees, and demonstrating an irksome singlemindedness where the menu is concerned. After one round of feeding I had run out of peanut pieces and had only a few sunflower seeds to offer; when nuthatch saw these it picked them up and threw them off my hand onto the ground and gave me a few gentle pecks on the fingers to record displeasure before flying off to have a public hissy fit in the trees. I don't know what names I was called but they were certainly not nuthatch endearments.

Other wildlife encountered included a pair of poets and a nature writer, in the library, with a reading. Three books were launched before our eyes: Mari-Lou Rowley's Suicide Psalms;

Allan Safarik's Yellowgrass;

and Candace Savage's Bees: Nature's Little Wonders.

It was an excellent reading all round, with offerings of intensity, hilarity and curiosity. The Bee book in particular was a treasure: absolutely gorgeous design and offering a fascinating trail of poetry, myth and research about honeybees.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Valentines wishes

GE Free BC reports that our biggest sugar processing company, Rogers/Lantic, the last GM-Free sugar beet processing company in North America, is about to decide if they will accept GM sugar beet this growing season. This sugar beet has been genetically modified to resist Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. Because sugar beets are wind-pollinated, there is a huge risk of cross-pollination between GM and conventional varieties, as well as related crops such as organic chard and table beets.

And as always, of course, there's the overriding safety concern about genetically-modified plants intended for human consumption, which is that we simply don't know enough about the long-term health risks of eating such foods. To paraphrase what I heard one seed grower say about it, do we really have the right to perform this kind of science experiment on our grandchildren?

It is suggested, therefore, that you send a special valentine to Rogers/Lantic's CEO, Edward Makin, asking that he keep our sugar GE free.

Another sweet thought this week might include sending a submission to a new publication, Food & Sex (a new independent quarterly that explores the history, nature and culture of food and sex) from The Bouwerie, "a collective of visual linguists, wayfaring wordsmiths, agricultural artists, and culinary arbiters" who also bring you the very useful Eat Well Guide, a fun search tool to keep you sustainably nourished in Canada and the U.S.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Cholesterol numbers, and howd'ya like them eggs

Greetings from Saskatchewan where the weather is bright and not too cold for walks among the chickadees and nuthatches who have, we flatter ourselves to suppose, been waiting for us and our pockets full of peanuts since last winter's colony.

A little while ago I was having one of my food-obsessed conversations with someone and struggled to remember something I'd read about cholesterol in Gina Mallet's Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World. I tracked it down in her chapter on The Imperilled Egg.
Dr [Donald J.] McNamara explained that [in 1968] a group of food scientists got together and thrashed out the idea of setting a safe cholesterol standard. Some thought the whole idea unnecessary, but others were adamant. So the debate went back and forth and finally a compromise was reached. The average human intake of cholesterol is 580 mg (per litre of blood) a day, so let's just halve that. Make it 300 mg. 'There's not one bit of scientific evaluation in that number,' Dr McNamara added.
This was amazing to me; I've heard and read a lot about the egg debate but never seen the fundamental RDA numbers contested so simply. She continues, "Cholesterol is created by the way the body processes food, not by foods like eggs that contain cholesterol... So, overnight as it were, and on the basis of an arbitrary calculation the egg was in trouble, deep trouble."

(Of course the source of your eggs is a whole other question. As with anything we consume, we need to be aware of what our food was fed on. Eggs from battery chickens - fed on Omega-6 rich grains - will not be as nutritionally sound as from pasture or organically fed free-run chickens who can glean nutrients from varied sources and live healthier lives.)

Cholesterol - and the case of the imperilled egg - is only one of those areas where we've been battered by contradictory scientific opinions till we're not sure which way is up anymore. Mallet affirms the anti-nutritionism position for which Michael Pollan has been slammed by, of course, food scientists:
People today are blasé about food science because they have been frightened into changing their diets so many times only to be told later that the scientists were wrong. For years, people believed in food science and obediently ate fibre to stave off colon cancer. Then, suddenly, they were told fibre makes no difference. Margarine was briskly touted as an excellent, healthy substitute for butter, cheaper too: and even though margarine has a disagreeable taste and ruins any dish it is cooked with, people obediently used it, thinking they were lengthening their life span. Now, of course, margarine is ringed with red flags as a trans fat, the deadliest of fats.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Catching up on food news

Some things dredged from my inbox.

My visit to Edmonton coincided, sadly without personal coincidence, with a visit by Michael Pollan. Elmarie kindly sent this interview between Pollan and Bill Myers which covers American food poverty and food-health issues the new president needs to address. The article referred to in this interview, An Open Letter to the Farmer in Chief, published in the New York Times back in October, also led to a new blog: the White House Farmer, where they're trying to encourage the creation of a new post in the new White House.

Meanwhile, Bert sent me this bit of news from Italy, where ethnic eateries (actually non-Italian 'foreign food' which would include many fast food joints including one starting with M) have been banned from the Tuscan city of Lucca and are now being given the nudge from other municipalities including Milan. When in Rome, I guess, and that city is certainly plagued with more than its share of McDonalds outlets, including the one that sparked the Slow Food movement.

BBC Food has some seasonal vegetarian and vegan recipes up, in case you're still rooting through a veg box.

And here's some food-art Elizabeth sent me, which comments on food sources in a piece called Domestication.

All the ugly facts on the latest avian flu/mass slaughter of poultry in British Columbia are on the CFIA website.

And what sounds like a fabulous talk on a little-discussed fish is coming up, thanks to the Victoria Natural History Society, on Monday, February 23.
MARINE NIGHT: Are Lingcod Too Tasty for Their Own Good?
Lingcod are a common fish in our local waters, easily observed by scuba diving. They are also sought by many fishermen. Following methods developed by the Vancouver Aquarium, local divers have been conducting an annual survey of lingcod spawning in Gowlland Tod Park. Doug Biffard, a long time diver and member of SeaChange Marine Conservation Society, has compiled and summarized six years of spawning observations. The talk will cover aspects of lingcod biology, management, and population trends of the lingcod in Saanich Inlet. 7:30 p.m. Room 159, Fraser Building, University of Victoria. Everyone welcome.