Some of the best fish rarely make it to our tables – but they should.
Seacoast fisherman Erik Anderson has been harvesting seafood from Gulf of Maine waters for over 40 years. His considerable tenure at sea—most recently focusing on pulling lobsters aboard his vessel, the Kris ’n’ Kev, which he lands in Portsmouth Harbor—has certainly not spoiled his taste for all kinds of fish.
In fact, the opposite is true.
“I would eat seafood seven nights a week if I could,” Anderson says. He enjoys finfish and shellfish alike, but he most favors those with a stronger taste. “I understand that the public’s eye is so attuned to white, flaky fish like cod and haddock. And those are really great fishes, don’t get me wrong. But I want a fish that tastes, well, fishy. One that has some fish oils that come through. You know, fish with some body to it,” he says.
Newcastle, New Hampshire-based lobsterman Damon Frampton likes lobster, of course. He prefers the tender meat, perfectly cooked, undressed, on a bun. But when he ventures to have actual fish on his plate, he, too, likes “the fishy fish” taste. Frampton also notes, “I don’t tend to eat a fish the day it’s pulled out of the water. I like it better when it’s been out of the water four or five days."
Behind the Quotas
What fishermen living and working along the Seacoast eat themselves is more than simply a matter of taste. The dozen or so fishermen and lobstermen interviewed for this story consistently say the seafood they take home to eat also depends heavily both on what’s in season and what falls within the slim margins of their regulatory quotas.
Hampton Harbor fisherman David Goethel, has been the captain of his 44-foot dragger, the Ellen Diane, since he commissioned its construction back in 1982. After more than 30 years catching fish from that boat, he’s still very much enamored with most kinds of seafood (he can’t abide salmon). But he only eats it once or twice a week, usually on the days he’s not been out fishing. “And I eat seasonally,” Goethel says, drawing on a word popularized most recently by the eating local and farm-to-table movements.
In the spring, Goethel mainly eats cod and flounder, noting that when he brings these fish home to his family for dinner, the count has to be reported in his log book and plays directly into his catch quotas for groundfish (fish that live on the sea bottom such as cod, haddock, and flounder). “I mainly eat fish that don’t have really small quotas. Sometimes you need that one last fish to have enough weight to sell all the other fish of that same species,” he explains. Starting in June and running through October, he eats silver hake (also known as New England hake or Atlantic whiting), herring, and mackerel.
All these seasonal fish are typically sold whole to consumers. And while they promise great eating at the height of the summer season, Patrick Soucy, Executive Chef at Applecrest Farm Bistro in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, argues that whole fish can be daunting for home cooks. But, he notes, serving a good dish starts at the point of purchasing the fish. “Nobody wants to be that guy in the line at the fish counter that asks so many questions about the product that the people behind you are rolling their eyes,” he explains. “But you just have to be that guy that asks to smell the fish to make sure it’s not been out of the ocean too long."
When the whiting, herring, or mackerel passes that test, home cooks should always ask the fishmonger to remove its scales, as doing that job at home is both messy and inefficient. You can also ask that the fish be gutted.
In October, Goethel moves away from these whole smaller fish and once again starts consuming groundfish. And most years, December brings Maine shrimp to his table. He laments that regulators shut down the 2013–14 Maine shrimping season before it even started, so he did not get any shrimp in either his nets or on his plate.
Maine shrimp isn’t the only type of seafood fishermen are missing on their plates. “I’d love to have more wolffish,” Goethel says. Anderson longs for Atlantic halibut, and Frampton would like to eat local smelts. The NEFMC has had a zero-catch policy for wolffish since 2009. According to NEFMC Public Affairs Officer Patricia Fiorelli, the policy was put into place because wolffish numbers have been falling precipitously. Scientists suspect the population of this bottom-dwelling, fang-mouthed fish has been depleted because they are often caught in trawls and gillnets as bycatch—unwanted species of fish caught along with the targeted fish.
Since the 1960s, Atlantic halibut stocks have been extremely low due to previous overfishing, and while the species is still caught regularly in Canada, here in New England fishermen do not go out with the express purpose of catching halibut. Some is caught, though, as bycatch when fishermen are targeting other groundfish such as cod. Fishermen working in federal waters are allowed to land one halibut per trip. (The largest flatfish found in the Atlantic, caught halibut can weigh from 30 to 80 pounds.)
Smelts are small fish, topping out at about seven inches long, that have traditionally been an important winter catch in the saltwater mouths of rivers in New England. Scientists have tracked a decline in the local rainbow smelt populations over the last 20 years due in part to impeded access to natural spawning areas. Smelts live in estuaries and offshore waters and spawn in shallow freshwater streams each spring. When new roads are paved across these streams, the fish can’t reach their spawning areas. The 2014 smelt season was the worst on record. So there were very few local fish to be gutted and fried whole.
Scientists also suspect extremely cold weather has played a role in this year’s abysmal recreational smelt haul. In order to allow Maine’s smelt fishery to recover along the southern half of the coast, the Maine Department of Marine Resources in March announced the closure, through emergency rulemaking, of the state’s spring smelt fishery from Stonington to the New Hampshire border to help facilitate spawning.
Whiting, mackerel, and pollock may seem tame choices for fishermen who have ready access to all the wet and wonderful delicacies of the sea. When pressed about tales of eating Anthony Bourdain-style exciting and bizarre seafoods, fishermen mention succulent cod cheeks, slippery sea urchin roe (also called uni), and raw scallops.
Togue Brawn is founder of Maine Dayboat Scallops, Inc., in Scarborough, an outfit that connects scallop harvesters with restaurateurs. She says she has seen most of the scallop fishermen she works with feast on raw scallops while out on their boats. “Fresh and sweet. That’s all you taste,” Brawn says.
Ben Hasty, chef-owner of the Thistle Pig in South Berwick, serves scallops raw in a spicy citrus vinaigrette. Since consumers don’t have the same right-out-of-the-water access that fishermen do, he recommends grabbing diver scallops that come off day boats if you want to consume them raw, making sure they are firm and smelling briny, as opposed to fishy.
Goethel does enjoy a good raw scallop. But he draws the line at eating seafood organs. He won’t touch the livers or the hearts of fish that he knows other fishermen to eat, nor is he a fan of scallop coral, the culinary term for the darker orange organ that curves around the scallop muscle.
Before he took to fishing full time, Goethel earned a degree in biology from Northeastern University in Boston. “And I fully understand what those parts of the fish can contain,” Goethel says. “I take enough chances with my life just going out on the water. I don’t need to take any unnecessary chances with the parts of the fish I choose to eat.”
Cod cheeks—and tongues—used to be a treat that fishmongers and cutters kept for themselves as they sold consumers the delicate, flaky fillets. The cheeks and tongues are cut out from the sides of a cod’s head after the whole fish has been filleted. Some fish markets will have these in stock fresh or frozen for the daring consumer. The taste is slightly stronger than the standard fillet, but the texture of the cheeks gives it a nice bite. Fishermen warn that the cheeks need to come from a pretty big fish to make eating them worth the effort.
Uni is a delicacy that has long been prized overseas before our avant-garde chefs took on the challenge of obtaining it. The roe must be removed with care from each spiny sea urchin shell; it’s contained in delicate little sacs of a deep orange color and lends a bright briny taste to many dishes.
Advice for Eaters
Fishermen are highly aware of how the laws of nature and the quotas set by regulatory bodies affect which fishes end up on their plates, because it’s their business. But for the rest of us, navigating sustainable seafood waters can be complicated. There are retail guides—including Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, Blue Ocean Institute’s Seafood Choices, and NOAA’s FishWatch—that consumers can tap into to see which species have been given the green light as the most sustainable to eat.
“Those are good starting points for seafood selection,” says Barton Seaver, a former Washington, D.C., chef who has been a champion for sustainable seafood for over 15 years. Seaver currently is Sustainability Fellow in Residence at the New England Aquarium and director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.
The primary criterion for deciding if a fish species gets a green, yellow, or red light for consumer consumption under those schemes is environmental, focusing on the health of the ocean ecosystem. Seaver argues that for any seafood to be truly sustainable, consumers must factor in economic viability for the fishermen, cultural underpinnings of seaside communities, and health implications for eating any kind of fish.
In New England, that means supporting what local fishermen haul in, when they haul it in. “We have to go back to a fish-of-the-day mentality,” Seaver says. “When we ask our neighbors to wet their gear for cod, the fish we know, we also must be willing to buy the other fish that comes in with it, the ones we don’t know all that well but still are really delicious.”