We all know something is broken when 91% of all seafood consumed in the U.S. comes from outside the U.S, and over two-thirds of all seafood we eat is shrimp, salmon, tilapia (almost all farm-raised under dubious conditions) or canned tuna. Our vast oceans offer a cornucopia of species, and we only taste four of them.
The United States, with its long coasts, has the world's largest Exclusive Economic Zone, with our protected ocean areas almost twice as large as our land mass. There are literally hundreds of different wild, sustainable, delicious fish swimming in American waters, yet we buy farmed fish from abroad. There are underappreciated, underutilized species abundant at docks all around the country. Some call them trash fish, they're anything but; they are simply underloved.
Everyone is becoming aware of the incredible health benefits of wild fish, and underloved fish may answer many problems. Creating better markets for underloved fish provides badly needed income to independent fishermen and the traditional fishing communities they support. Targeting lesser known species lessens fishing pressure on more popular fish, and because they do not have the market demand they cost less. Lower cost means better profit for chefs and restaurants, but the real secret about underloved fish is how delicious they are. When diners finally taste the diversity available next day from the dock, they are amazed.
While New England cod have fled to colder Greenland waters, their close cousin Atlantic pollock substitutes perfectly in flaky white fish recipes. Gulf of Maine redfish used to be used as lobster bait, and now is a healthy, delicious, cost-effective replacement for tilapia. Atlantic spiny dogfish used to be almost entirely exported to Europe for fish and chips, and now is a low cost MSC-certified species that constantly surprise chefs on their versatility and great taste. Blue Channel catfish have invaded the Chesapeake Bay in vast numbers, and have only recently been discovered to be excellent eating. Jacks and mullet have long been appreciated around the Gulf of Mexico, are now finding their way into kitchens around the country. California sardines have made a great comeback, and are a treat full of omega fatty acids. Wild Alaska salmon consist of five distinct species, with keta and pinks having all the health benefits of the others at a much lower price point.
Chefs are the gatekeepers. They need to exert their influence. Underloved species create great value for both fishermen and chefs. We need to spread the love.
Tarpon Springs, Florida cast-netter Gary Reilly with Red Roe Mullet
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