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Forget Salmon and Tuna—It's Time to Start Eating 'Trash Fish'

The market and our palates need to catch up with changes in the marine ecosystem.
 
 
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It’s fair to assume that fishermen in Cape Cod usually fish for, well, cod. For centuries, cod were so numerous that they gave the region its name. But that’s not true any more.

Fisherman Greg Walinski has fished off of Cape Cod for 35 years. Every winter, he would catch cod and haddock – “groundfish” in fishermen lingo. These fish are in high demand and they sell for great prices, from the fisherman’s perspective. The problem? There aren’t enough of them left.

Within the last several years, the numbers of cod and haddock have dropped  -- so much so that the government has declared the fishery a disaster. As Walinski put it, “It changed in the last couple years. We were just going along and then it kind of fell off a cliff.”

That does not necessarily mean that fishermen must pack up and go home. Other species, like dogfish, are in plentiful supply. “It's amazing how easy it is for me to catch 4,000 pounds of dogfish. It literally takes me 2 hours, and I'm a mile and a half from the beach. That's what we have in the ocean,” says Walinski. Comparatively, “I have to go 16 miles and put in 24 hours to maybe catch 1,500 pounds of cod and haddock.”

Unfortunately for the fishermen, the market has not caught up with the changes in the marine ecosystem. American consumers still love their cod – which comes from places like Iceland now – and few in our country have heard of dogfish.

Last year, chefs in the organization Chefs Collaborative noticed this disconnect and decided to take action. After all, dogfish is very popular in Europe, and it’s a delicious and inexpensive fish. To highlight this, they held a “Trash Fish” dinner in which nine chefs prepared and served abundant and tasty species that few had ever heard of: dogfish, pollock, redfish, Blood clams.

“For me, it was about trying to find a market for dogfish and pollock and all of these fish we have an abundance of but nobody was interested in,” said Richard Garcia, one of the chefs who came up with the idea. “And the thing for me is that in New England every fish you catch is white, mild, and flaky. People were afraid to try pollock because they'd never heard of it but in reality it is in the same family as cod and haddock and it has the same flavor profile as cod and haddock.”

At the time, Garcia was the executive chef of the Boston Renaissance Waterfront Hotel (“literally 15 feet away from the Boston fish pier”). Now he is the Executive Chef of Restaurants at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville, TN, where he continues to try to promote “trash fish.”

“There’s another fish out there called hake - again, the flavor profile is very similar - so why can't we, as Americans who understand that we're depleting the fish population, why can't we make a decision to use another fish that's in plentiful supply?” In his words, he is trying “to get people to understand that there are other choices.”

After working in such close proximity to the fishing community in Cape Cod, Garcia understands that his efforts affect more than just the fishermen. "It's the guy selling gas to the fishermen, and the guy on the dock selling ice to the fishermen. It's this whole community being hurt. Why are they going to go for pollock if they are going to get pennies on the dollar for what they'd get for cod?"

 
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