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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Rebranding Trash Fish

Chefs are trying to get diners to eat inexpensive, delicious fish with goofy or obscure names.

Monkfish - nasty looking, but very tasty
For centuries, fishermen around Cape Cod caught…you guessed it: cod. Cod and haddock. The ocean provided a seemingly endless supply of these fish — until a few years ago.

These days, there aren’t so many cod or haddock left for fishermen to catch. Now, if you go to Cape Cod and order cod, you’ll get cod from Iceland.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any fish in Cape Cod. There are plenty of dogfish, hake, and pollock. These fish are delicious and abundant. Hake and pollock are mild, white, and flaky, just like cod and haddock, and dogfish is extremely popular in Europe.

The dilemma? Nobody’s ever heard of them. And who wants to eat something called dogfish?

This isn’t the first time a table-friendly fish has been cursed with an unappetizing name. Mahi mahi is also known as dolphinfish. And nobody would buy Chilean seabass when it was called Patagonian toothfish.

Quite frankly, this is a stupid problem to have. We have an abundant supply of inexpensive, delicious fish with goofy or obscure names, but all we want to eat are fish we’re used to eating. We do this even though there are so few of them left that the government literally declared the Cape Cod fishery a disaster.

Anywhere there are fish, you’re bound to find several species that are abundant, easy to prepare, and unpopular just because nobody’s ever heard of them.

Wouldn’t you prefer a fresh-caught fish of an obscure species over a well-known one flown in from halfway around the world?

Fortunately, several chefs are taking the lead in educating American eaters on the tasty so-called “trash fish” we’ve never heard of. Since most fish in this country is consumed in restaurants, the switch to sustainably fished and farmed seafood will have to happen in restaurants to make a sizable difference.

Patagonian toothfish, a.k.a. Chilean Seabass
An organization called Chefs Collaborative began holding “trash fish dinners” around the country over the past year. “Trash,” of course, is a misnomer for these delectable species and meals. Each dinner highlights under-utilized seafood species local to that region, prepared by talented chefs who make them taste great.

These dinners can promote awareness, but they won’t save the oceans on their own. The good news is that the way to do that is by eating great seafood at restaurants of conscientious chefs.

Such restaurants can be found all over the country, like Lumière in Newton, Massachusetts, Table Fifty-Two in Chicago, and the Border Grill in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. If you can’t find a restaurant that serves sustainable fish near you, ask your favorite restaurant to switch their menu to better seafood choices.

With so many species to choose from, one complicating factor is that something that might be a more sustainable choice if it’s caught in one part of the world would make a bad option if it’s caught somewhere else. Then there are different fishing methods to consider. It’s enough to make your head spin. Clearly, it’s hard to become a responsible seafood consumer.

Fortunately, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has done all of the homework for us — and restaurants — with its Seafood Watch program, which produces a handy online and printable guide.

Next time you eat out, ask if the restaurant serves sustainable seafood. If not, point the staff toward the Seafood Watch guide. It’s a simple action and it might feel like it won’t help, but it only takes a few customers speaking up before a business changes its ways.

Eating trash fish is a win-win. It lets you please your palate while saving the planet. You may even save money because these abundant species are often cheaper than the more over-fished varieties.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.