Have you ever heard of scup or sea robin? Have you ever eaten periwinkles, skate wing, or green crab? If you have, I’m impressed. If you haven’t, you should. I tried these underloved species for the first time in South Kingstown, RI at a community seafood dinner, organized by Eating with the Ecosystem and prepared by the fishermen who caught that evening’s seafood.
Having studied fisheries science and policy in college and written my thesis on New England’s underappreciated fish, this was the perfect opportunity to taste what I’ve been writing and talking about. It was nice to see that the flavors back up my research. As a self-proclaimed gourmet, I was excited to try things that I’d never tasted before. The meal did not disappoint; not in its flavors and not in the excitement and mood throughout the room. For $15 dollars, I shared a delicious meal of
with about 150 complete strangers. At my table: a chef looking to open an upscale sandwich shop in Providence, a woman with an idea for a non-profit featuring underloved fish, two teachers, a benthic ecologist, a NOAA anthropologist, and a farmer’s market vendor. In my experience, food is only one component of a great meal. The people you share it with, their attitude toward the food, and the conversations you have are just as important. Interesting people and fun discussions have a way of making good food taste great. Suffice it to say, I was at the right table.
Why isn’t sea robin on menus?
As I was being served, I asked one of the fishermen how much they get for skate, sea robin, and scup at the market. These delicately flavored white, flaky fish – that could probably pass as cod or haddock to most people – sell for about $0.10/lb down at the docks. Cod, the most famous fish in New England, sells for around $2.00/lb at the Portland Fish Exchange.
So it makes sense that we don’t see underloved species like sea robin, skate, scup, cusk, mackerel, dogfish, and many more on menus or in grocery stores. Fishermen can’t make a living off them. But here’s the catch (pun intended): New England fishermen are having a hard time making a living off popular fish like cod. I guess we could blame this on cod’s historic abundance and utility. There was so much of it 200 years ago that you could walk from Boston to Portland to New Brunswick without getting your feet wet. Consider that in 1861, fishermen caught over 68,000 metric tons of cod in Frenchman’s Bay, ME (Alexander et al. 2009). In 1982, when the New England Fishery Management Council started monitoring catch, fishermen hauled in 22,000 metric tons in the entire region. In 2013, the cod quota was set at 1,550 metric tons per year, just 2% of the catch in a single bay 150 years earlier, and yet fishermen did not catch enough fish to meet that quota.
People often fault fishermen and poor management structures for fisheries crashes. However, there’s a stakeholder that’s often absent from the conversation: consumers.
Despite the diversity within marine ecosystems, consumers often have a one track mind when it comes to seafood. We fixate on a few species, fish them heavily, eat them often, and then move on. Cod isn’t the only stock we’ve fished to the brink. Fishers and consumers in the northwest Atlantic considered halibut to be a worthless bycatch species prior to the 1840s. However, halibut’s “robust migration, improved transportation, consumer tastes, corporate decision-making, market capitalism, advance in refrigeration, and the physical nature of the fish itself – in terms of reproduction and product preservation – all contributed to its trajectory from worthlessness to a commodity” between 1840 and 1880, which lead to near commercial extinction for the fish (Grasso 2008: pg. 67). Bluefin tuna, the most valuable fish in the world, was once considered the fish of the poor in Italy.
Expanding palates, one meal at a time
Our focus on just a few species has us stuck in a feedback loop that doesn’t allow for much diversity within the seafood market. So how do we get out of this cycle? While management plays an important role in the future of our fisheries, I think that the market can push fisheries in a sustainable direction. Dinners like the one in South Kingstown, NAMAs Seafood Throwdowns, and Trash Fish Dinners organized by the Chefs Collaborative are a good start.
Consumers need to be convinced that sea robin, cusk, pollock, and skate wing taste just as good as cod. Food advocates, conservationists, and scientists can talk all they want, but a delicious meal of underloved fish is the best form of marketing.
Alexander, K. E. et al. 2009. Gulf of Maine cod in 1861: historical analysis of fishery logbooks,
with ecosystem implications. Fish and Fisheries 10:428–449.
Grasso, G. M. (2008). What appeared to be limitless: The rise and fall of the nineteenth-century Atlantic halibut fishery. Environmental History, 13(1), 66–91.