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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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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ Edward Westmacott

 

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?"

“Pennies” is no exaggeration. Walinski, who fishes for dogfish, noted that the price dropped to 14 cents per pound this year, making it hardly worth his while to even bother catching them.  Previously, the price was double that, and that was better for him. And for fish-loving consumers, the low price is great news.

Garcia raves about dogfish. “It’s a product that is inexpensive, it's easy to work with, it's very easy to cut… And from a flavor profile, it's still kind of a light flavored fish but it eats more like a steak.” He compares the texture to swordfish. “I love to grill it. I think grilled dogfish is phenomenal… but really you can do anything with it.”

Apparently the diners at the Trash Fish Dinner, held in Cambridge, MA last March, agreed: these fish are delicious. But then something else happened: Chefs Collaborative got requests from around the country to recreate their Trash Fish Dinner concept in other regions. To date, they’ve held dinners in Chicago, Portland, OR, and Las Vegas. Another dinner is coming up in New Hampshire.

The menus were tailored to each region, so that Chicago featured invasive lake species like Asian carp, and Portland chefs served up Ivory King Salmon and Pacific skatewing.

For the dinners, Chefs Collaborative partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s well-known Seafood Watch program and other aquariums like Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.

Sheila Bowman, Manager of Culinary and Strategic Initiatives at Seafood Watch points out that Americans’ seafood consumption has gone from a diverse array of species 60 or 70 years ago to mostly just salmon, shrimp and tuna today. “And it’s really difficult to expect that the salmon, shrimp, and tuna, industries will be able to feed the country and the planet,” she says.

She likes the “trash fish” idea because, she says, it will help us have “a much more sustainable, and I have to say, interesting diet."

Interesting, indeed. So following the Trash Fish Dinners, are New Englanders lining up for dogfish? Not yet. To date, you rarely find it in restaurants or stores.

Keith Flett, CEO of Open Ocean Trading, is trying to change that. He grew up in a fishing family, so he’s familiar with the ins and outs of the industry – and he knows how to operate in a way that works well for the fishermen. Seeing the drops in cod and haddock stocks, Flett began working last year to push dogfish instead. He secures good prices for the fishermen and negotiates large-scale sales.

So far he’s had some success. “One of the things is we are trying to raise the price of the fish for the fishermen,” he says, “so that's the first problem we have… There are definitely some people whose interests are conflicting with that… But the good news is that dogfish if it's well taken care and it's usually frozen - it's a great product. We've been pushing it toward institutional sales. As of last college semester, Wellesley College was the first one to jump on board and start contracting dogfish.”

For dogfish, he’s got a processor who can transform whole fish into four-ounce fillets. He estimates that they’ve got the capacity to process the majority of the dogfish caught each year (which is literally millions of pounds) – but so far he doesn’t have the market for it.

Flett is also working to sell other so-called “trash fish” like pollock, hake, and redfish. And, really, “trash” is a terrible name for them. They might lack a market, but they hold a lot of value as nutritious and delicious food.

If you want to give a boost to underutilized “trash fish” species and the fishermen who catch them, ask in your local restaurants or markets for them by name. And if you do not know which species are local to you, check to see if Chefs Collaborative has held a trash fish dinner in your area – or ask them to come and hold one. They typically describe the dishes served on their website, to give you an idea of which fish you aren’t eating yet – but should be.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of "Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It."

 
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