EAT AN UNDER-UTILIZED FISH!
There are hundreds of species available to the American consumer. Some are just a little harder to find than others. There are plenty of advantages to seeking out underutilized fish. They are often very cheap. They can be delicious and adventurous. You can help improve the health of the oceans by eating these underutilized fish instead of overfished species. I personally get a lot of joy from cooking food that is otherwise wasted. It’s an added bonus if it also looks really crazy. If you can save money, save the world, and eat better, why not give one of these a try?
In the United States, we turn our noses up at a wide variety of foods for one reason or another. Most of the reasons are not particularly valid, especially regarding seafood. Sometimes it is a marketing failure. For example, the orange roughy is a popular fish. It is so popular in fact, that it is currently overfished and needs a break. This was not always the case. Until the mid-1970s this fish was known as the slime head due to a series of mucous canals distributed around its head. Since most people didn’t want to eat something called a slime head it was a market failure. It was rebranded as the orange roughy. The Chilean seabass, which is known for being outstanding table fare, was once shunned because of its name, Patagonian toothfish. It gained popularity after being rebranded for US consumers.
Sometimes we just think a food is too ugly to eat. I love sculpin. It is one of my favorite fish. It has a flavor similar to lobster and a great texture. It cooks up nicely on a grill, in a fryer, or in a skillet. It is also super cheap. It is abundant and not overly exploited, but it is really creepy looking. I personally think it is a beautiful fish, but it is spiny and oddly shaped and people don’t bother to try it. The same can be said about the geoduck. Yes, we all know what it looks like, but I assure you, it will taste fine.
Sometimes the problem is economic. Some fish are difficult to target and commercial fisherman are not very interested in trying to sell a half a dozen oddball fish when they have a ton of snapper to try to sell. Fish that are caught in small numbers are generally not marketed, and consumers ignore them, so they are often tossed back. In many cases the survival rates of these released fish is quite low. That means that many underutilized fish are wasted.
Other times, the fish are inherently fragile or difficult to transport. If the fish deteriorate too quickly to make it to mass market, they are often not targeted. This is why you won’t find bluefish in markets outside of the Northeast. By the third day, these fish are virtually inedible because of the high oil content in the meat. It quickly becomes a heavily fishy flavor. Fresh from the water, they are a pretty good fish.
Another way that fish fall into the underutilized category is the way that Seafood Sherpa is committed to working against. It is simply that the public is unaware of a particular species of fish. When we focus too much on a species like salmon or shrimp, we inevitably damage that population through overfishing. Every time we go outside of the common market offerings and eat something new, we take a little pressure off the major fisheries, especially when we eat fish that are otherwise wasted. Branch out and eat something new from what many people call the “trash fish” group. It can be fun. It can be interesting. It can be great for the oceans.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Sea Robin – These fall into the ugly fish category. They are oddly shaped and low yield, but they are fun to work with and the meat is just wonderful. These are sometimes sold on docks in the Northeast. If you have a relationship with a seafood specialty retailer, they can often put in a request with their fisherman to retain some of these, which are often caught as bycatch and thrown back.
Atlantic Croaker – These are an often-ignored fish because they aren’t very big and they are not prone to schooling in huge quantities, so they are tough to target. They are mild and easy to work with in the kitchen. Pan fry them or grill them with the skin on.
Ocean Whitefish – This fish is not really commercially viable because about 1% of the specimens can have an unexplainable bitter flavor that is impossible to identify until you cook it. It is an outstanding fish otherwise. I like this sautéed with shallots and butter.
Lionfish – These are even better than an underutilized fish. They are an invasive fish released into the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico through the pet trade. They have taken over throughout the region, outcompeting small snappers and other desirable reef fish with their voracious appetites and fast growth rates. Every time you eat one of these, you are helping to eliminate a huge ecological problem. I’ve bought these at Whole Foods occasionally. They are readily available in the gulf states.
Paiche - Also known as arapaima, these fish can grow to 400 lbs. They are not doing well in the wild. Populations are believed to be overexploited in 93% of their habitat and the local governments lack the funds or the will to do much about it. Locals will not stop eating them. So why would I call this fish underutilized? The short answer is that the cause of this problem is economic and Whole Foods is leading an effort to save this fish through aquaculture. If they can make this fish commercially viable in the US, their investments in breeding programs for this fish can help fulfill local consumption needs and also reintroduce fish into the wild. It is counter-intuitive, but eating this fish may be the best way to save it from extinction. The full article on this program is here: Whole Foods Pushes Consumption, Conservation of Paiche
Ask your local seafood dealer for other recommendations. If you find something you don’t know what to do with, I’d love to hear from you. I’m always looking for new seafood items to experiment with and I’ll be happy to try to find a way to make it enjoyable for you.