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Bring on the Bycatch

Bycatch is a term that very few people who are not directly involved in fisheries are familiar with; however, a growing number of us are now seafood consumers and, as such, need to start learning about the protein we are putting on our dinner tables and into our bellies.  That’s not to say your average seafood department shopper at the super market should be able to wax poetic on the merits and pitfalls of a quota-based management system versus days at sea versus catch shares (more power to you if you can); however, peeling off just one more layer beyond what’s written on the laminated card stuck into the crushed ice in the case will bring you a long way toward a healthier ocean and a better dining experience.

Bycatch is an easy one.  If you walk down the dock in New Bedford or Montauk or Stonington, CT or any one of the redoubts of the New England ground fishery and ask what each boat is heading out for, you’d probably get the same one word answer depending on the time of year (and not just because fishermen are generally men of few words).  It could be scallops, it could be cod, pollock, haddock, whiting, you name it, but because of seasons and catch shares it certainly wouldn’t be a long list of species per trip.  In reality, though, it’s hard to pick and choose the fish you are catching in a net 180 feet below the surface.  The ISABEL S. may be steaming out of New Bedford in search of whiting, but on a multi-day trip she’ll haul in thousands of pounds of other sea creatures (both edible and not) that her crew will have to throw back, dead or dying, either because they truly shouldn’t be caught (read: porpoises, sea turtles) or frequently  because well-intentioned regulations simply don’t allow her to land perfectly good fish legally.  These discards, my friends, are bycatch and last year in the Northeast alone, there was 156 million pounds of it.

Part of this problem is the nature of the gear that commercial fishermen use and there are successful efforts in progress to change this both here in New England and elsewhere.  While activists and industry alike are trying to change fishing methods and regulations, though, we as consumers can do our part to eat fish that makes sense—fish that isn’t necessarily something you’ve heard of before.

Whether it’s because of cultural history, ignorance, or particular marketing (or anti-marketing) campaigns I don’t really know, but seafood eaters are in lockstep marching into restaurants and grocery stores looking for the same old fish—cod, snapper, bass, tuna, salmon.  As a result, these are the species that are most threatened by overfishing.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing quite like a hunk of wild salmon on the grill or cutting a steak from a huge bluefin; however, there are, excuse the pun, other fish in the sea.  And here’s the thing: they taste good (and are often much lighter on your wallet and on our ocean).

Chefs in Houston are getting a lot of press these days for being a little more adventurous with their fish offerings; their businesses and reputations are benefitting.  They are considered the seafood avant garde, though, when really they should be the norm.

Earlier this year, the Boston Globe’s exposé on fish mislabeling caused quite a stir after alerting New Englanders to the fact that much of the local, traditional fish appearing on menus was in fact nothing of the sort—cod dishes contained hake, snapper was actually perch.  This piece was long overdue as such a scandal is bad for local fisherman and consumers alike.  Unfortunately, it missed out on a huge opportunity by focusing on the outrage of being served less flashy fish without making the subsequent point that lots (not all) of those fish should actually be on menus anyway–without all the subterfuge.

Consumers absolutely deserve to know what they are buying and in certain cases like escolar they are in fact getting a raw deal (and potentially an upset stomach).  But the bad rap that the media give these B-list and farmed species (whether they are actually bycatch or just cheap, plentiful alternatives) is the very reason chefs and suppliers have resorted to re- and mis-labelling them in the first place.  Essentially, mislabeling is just covering up a truth that the market has already revealed: A-list, wild fish is good, but it is prohibitively expensive because it’s scarce and is being overexploited.  The corollary to this truth is that when it actually hits the plate diners  frequently can’t really tell the difference between the marquee species and their lesser-known stand-ins.

In the end, it took DNA testing to identify which fish were actually mislabeled because they are so gosh-darn similar.  So, let’s loosen our centuries-long death grip on the poor, besought cod.  Make like a Mainer and give pollock and whiting a warm embrace.  And bring on the bycatch—its good for the fish, good for local fishermen, and most importantly good for you.


★ Chris Sherman is Island Creek’s vice president.  He wants you to know he is one with the sea. Follow him on Twitter: @moresaltplease 


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