Photo: mccun934, Flickr
If you look solely at the fish we consume here in America, we're a predictable crowd. Since at least 2001, shrimp, canned tuna and salmon have placed first, second and third on the "Top 10 Consumed Seafoods" list published by the National Fisheries Institute every single year. Yawners. (Plus, tuna used in canning, other than albacore and skipjack, is overfished.) But according to a Wall Street Journal story, chefs are increasingly turning to undervalued species as a way to keep the menu interesting, and possibly quell demands placed on other overfished species.
Take cuttlefish, for example, which is cut into strips and paired with a flatiron steak at Miami's Area 31, while sheepshead (a fish known for its human-like teeth) is on the board at nearby AltaMare. Other chefs are turning to finfish like pompano, golden tilefish, triggerfish or hogfish. The BP oil spill played a role in the fish swapping as well. At New Orleans-based Cafe Atchafalaya, North Carolina rockfish was used as a substitute for their traditional redfish and crawfish-stuffed flounder.
"In general, expanding the base of fish from which we choose from is a very good idea," says Tim Fitzgerald, marine scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. "One caveat, though, is if we switch a lot of our sourcing to less common or overfished species, or those that are farmed in destructive ways, that's not a good thing. But if we can identify species of fish that have healthy populations and can withstand the extra demand, that's wonderful."
Giovanni DeGarimore, owner of Giovanni's Fish Market in Morro Bay, Calif. says that's exactly what happened to black cod.
"Up until a few years ago, black cod, also known as sablefish, was less well known, but we've seen a huge influx on menus. It's much more mainstream because it's what's in abundance. The restaurant industry follows the fishing industry, and for the last few years, we haven't had a salmon season in California."
Skate also started out the same way, says Fitzgerald. "Chefs often have to deal with shortages of preferred fish, and have to fill those gaps accordingly. In New England, redfish is becoming more popular because quotas for traditional species like cod and flounder are very low. But we have to be careful with redfish and other 'underexploited' species. Redfish, for example, can live up to 60 years and can be depleted quickly if the fishing pressure gets too high. It's important to have good management in place to keep that from happening."
For more information and handy regional guides to seafood visit the Montery Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch.