For centuries there have been fish and shellfish that fishermen sold, and others that they brought home to eat. In fishing communities this has been summed up with the expression of “not eating money.” Fishermen have known since time immemorial, that there are plenty of delicious fish out there beyond what is seen at the fish market. In New England, haddock has always been more popular than cod in fishing families. Since the cod brought a better price at the market, it was sold, and the haddock, pollock and hake were brought home. In the South of France, the world famous bouillabaisse of Marseilles has roots as a poor fisherman’s stew, traditionally prepared with species that didn’t sell well. Beyond the well-loved species, there have always been other fish caught, no matter the method, with little to no commercial value, long known as “trash-fish.”
Although not necessarily seen as food, some of these fish are caught for industrial purposes like fish meal, fertilizer, fish oil or pet food. Caught in the thousands of metric tons, little of this bounty is harvested for human consumption. Other species are incidentally caught, some are hardly caught at all, in spite of large, healthy stocks. With seafood popularity at an all-time high, combined with decades of over-harvesting popular species, and obvious issues with climate change, it is time that the consuming public became aware of these tasty, plentiful and for the most part unknown fish.
All of these various types of fish and shellfish are no longer seen as “trash” by those who work in the seafood industry. It has been realized for some time now, that what these species represent are an underutilized resource that, if managed correctly, could help our world-wide seafood dilemma on several fronts. We live in a time when any seafood that is nutritious and plentiful should not be considered “trash.” Hence the use of a new term over the last few decades that accurately describes these fish and shellfish as “underutilized.”
What are Underutilized Species?
What makes seafood underutilized varies, but generally has to do with estimated health of a particular stock and current fishing pressure versus the price, demand and visibility in the market. Some of these fish are discards from a more profitable species, others are only consumed locally or are seen as an industrial fish. What most underutilized species share is a lack of visibility due to a perception that the public will not buy it.
Fishermen, especially those running small, independent vessels, have a very thin profit margin and expenses and fees typically run high. It is a matter of economic survival that determines what fishermen bring to market. The wholesale price paid to the fishermen can be drastically lower than what consumers pay at the fish counter. The crew, for the most part, don’t get a wage, they get a “share” of the catch after expenses are paid. If you target a species that cannot cover the trip, let alone pay the crew, who would work on your vessel? Then again, with high mortgages and expensive permits, you would not have a vessel to fish on for long following this formula.
For fishermen to target underutilized species there has to be an economic incentive, otherwise we as consumers turn these men and women into indentured servants. Due to the nature of the restrictions many fishermen face, which often include hard quotas on target species, it can be difficult for smaller fishing boats to make a living off traditionally caught fish. Meanwhile there are other species on the same grounds that could be sustainably caught in numbers that would keep the family fishing boat alive and competitive.
The best way to help fishing communities and depleted fish stocks is to learn about these underutilized species of fish and shellfish and request them at your local fish market. The more consumers that request healthy, delicious but underutilized fish, will have an affect on the wholesale price, which gives fishermen incentive to target underutilized or even invasive species.
Underutilized Seafood Versus Sustainable Seafood
Keep in mind that underutilized does not necessarily mean sustainable. Many underutilized species are sustainably harvested, but not always. Also consider that certain species (underutilized or otherwise) are considered sustainable only at current fishing levels. As different species gain in popularity, increased fishing pressure can affect sustainability.
When it comes to sustainable seafood in general, there are differing opinions from fishermen, government regulators and environmental groups. In my personal opinion, based upon a life surrounded by a fishing industry in flux, all of these suggestions must be taken with a grain of salt. The science behind fish monitoring is far from exact, and survey vessels and fishermen often disagree about what they are finding on the fishing grounds. All of these groups have a vested interest in their stance, with the truth probably somewhere in the middle. I tend to side with independent fishermen because that’s who I know, and today’s fisherman here in the United States are not hunting down the last fish.
Regardless of where you side on these issues, for underutilized species to work as a real alternative at the fish counter, good management practices have to be in place. Sustainability is good for everyone, but remember that it will always be a moving target.
Examples of Underutilized Species In US Waters
This is just a small sample based upon what I know and what I could find online for the United States. However many of these fish have ranges that make them available in other parts of the world, but at this time I cannot say much on their status as “underutilized seafood.” However I’d like to know more so feel free to add to this list in the comments.
I would like to thank Kate Brogan and Jennie Lyons of NOAA Fisheries for giving me a list of suggested species. While NOAA/NMFS does not have an official list, they provided me with good information to work with. All images are public domain, sourced from either the NOAA Photo Library or from their Fishwatch.gov website.
Acadian Redfish (Sebastes fasciatus)
Other names: Ocean perch, redfish, rosefish,
Where caught: Northwest Atlantic
This is a type of rockfish, a group of fish more commonly found in the Pacific. The story of redfish was a gold rush of the sea. The early otter trawlers of the 20th century first caught them in significant numbers. With dwindling cod and haddock stocks, redfish was marketed as ocean perch and began being processed on a large scale. It was a major boom for ports like Gloucester, Massachusetts, followed by a big bust. Today, landings are up thanks to better management and improved gear that helps save smaller fish. This very affordable fish is sold in fresh or frozen fillets, but larger whole fish are sometimes sold fresh at market. The bulging eyes on whole fish have to do with being caught in deep water, not freshness. Redfish/ocean perch has white flesh with a firm texture and sweet taste.
American Butterfish (Peprilus triacanthus)
Other names: Atlantic butterfish, butterfish
Where caught: Northwest Atlantic
It is a shame that this underutilized fish has to share its name with one used to sell escolar. These small silvery fish are very thin but well regarded for their flavor. Tuna and other creatures love to eat them, and much of the commercial catch is used as bait instead of food. In the summer months you may see them sold fresh along the coast or a dinner specials in restaurants. Much like mackerel, butterfish at times, can be easily caught from shore.
Arrowtooth Flounder (Atheresthes stomias)
Other names: Arrowtooth halibut, turbot (not to be confused with real turbot)
Where caught: Alaska/Bering Sea and Pacific Coast
This species of flounder has a shape reminiscent of a halibut. Arrowtooth has delicate white meat with a mild, slightly sweet taste. Although they are a long-lived species, which take years to mature, populations are sustainable and the fishery is highly regulated.
Atlantic Herring (Clupea harengus)
Other names: Herring, sardine, Labrador herring
Where caught: US Atlantic coast
Although this same species is historically popular in Europe, Americans eat very little of this very healthy fish. Much of the American catch of herring is used for lobster bait or exported. Herring are loaded with Omega-3 and vitamins, but the dark, soft and oily flesh has not appealed to the domestic market much. Small herring are often sold as canned sardines, and the coast of Maine was once “sardine land” until the American public switched to canned tuna. However herring is a fish that is gaining in popularity so don’t be surprised if you see more of it in the near future.
Atlantic Pollock (Pollachius virens)
Other names: Boston bluefish, green cod, pollock
Where caught: Northwest Atlantic to Mid-Atlantic
Pollock is another cod relative. It has mild white flesh, but not as white or a mild as cod, haddock or Alaskan pollock. It has never been as popular either, historically prepared by fishing families by either salting or smoking. It can be used as a cod substitute, but can also be used as an alternative to stronger tasting fish as well. American stocks are healthy and other stocks in its range are recovering very well from past overfishing. While less pricey than haddock at the market, the fishermen usually get a price that makes catching pollock worthwhile. Atlantic pollock can usually be found as fresh and frozen fillets, but occasionally sold whole or in steaks.
Bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix)
Other names: chopper, tailor, shad, elf
Where caught: Nearly world-wide
Bluefish is a regional favorite in the New York/New Jersey area and has been the target of commercial fisheries in other parts of the world. It is a hard-fighting summer sport fish that is sought by fishermen along the Atlantic coast. Populations are cyclical, but formerly depleted stocks are recovering or are already at high levels. The dark, oily meat is not popular in most of North America. It can be an acquired taste, but those who love bluefish, tend to really love bluefish. If you enjoy bluefish, or just curious to try it, many recreational fisherman will willing give them away after the fight is over. They are not sold frozen and due to their oil content, should be cooked the same day as purchase. A well-bled bluefish is excellent for smoked fish, and makes for a healthy and unique alternative to farm-raised smoked salmon.
Cobia (Rachycentron canadum)
Other names: Sergeantfish, lemonfish, ling
Where caught: Gulf of Mexico/US South Atlantic
Cobia is more popular as a sport fish, and is not heavily targeted by commercial fishermen. Wild cobia is often caught as a by-catch in the shrimp and mackerel fisheries. Although not a target species, cobia’s white, firm, and sweet meat is becoming popular among chefs. Farmed cobia is showing up more and more in US markets because it is a very versatile fish that can be grilled, baked and makes an excellent crudo or sashimi.
Columbia River Shad (Alosa sapidissima)
Other names: Shad, American shad
Where caught: Columbia River, Washington
These anadromous members of the herring family were once a major fishery on the East Coast. The Founding Fathers were well aware of the vast annual shad runs and over time, shad planking events evolved into political sounding boards still held today. Overfishing and habitat destruction has drastically reduced these fish in their native range. However shad were introduced to Washington’s Columbia River in the 1880’s and have thrived. While salmon and steelhead runs are diminishing, the shad still run in the millions annually. Today this invasive species is very popular for recreational fishermen, but the fish is bony, so there is very little that gets to market. Shad are larger than typical herring, and have a similar oily meat that is great smoked. However shad is more traditionally cooked beside a fire on cedar planks. Shad roe on the other hand went from being a common breakfast food in the Mid-Atlantic states, to a delicacy, commanding a high price in the foodie world.
Rex Sole (Glyptocephalus zachirus)
Other names: Threadfin sole, witch sole
Where caught: Alaska to California
Rex sole, like the more well-known Pacific Dover sole is not a true sole, but a flounder marketed as sole. Rex sole has mild, white meat with small flakes that could be a good substitute for more expensive flounders and sole.
Northern and Southern Rock Sole (Lepidopsetta billineta/Lepidopsetta polyxystra)
Other names: Rock flounder, white bellied flounder, roughback
Where caught: Alaska to California
The rock soles are mostly caught in Alaska and are not subject to overfishing. The fish is known for a sweet tasting, cream colored meat, which is the reason it is also known as white bellied flounder.
Sablefish (Anoplopoma fimbria)
Other names: Black cod, butterfish, coalfish
Where caught: Alaska to California
Sablefish is not unknown, it’s buttery, velvety, flaky meat is loaded with omega-3 and it is not cheap. However what makes it so tasty, all that good fish oil, also makes it very perishable. This delicious fish, with a short shelf life, is currently the most valuable finfish, by the pound, in Alaska’s fishery. It’s debatable if sablefish is truly an underutilized species, but strict management of the species has seen populations reach sustainable levels according to NOAA.
Scup (Stenotomus chrysops)
Other names: Porgy, ironsides
Where caught: US Atlantic coast
Scup is a historically popular “pan fish” that is cooked whole like many of its relatives in the “sea bream” family. Although bony, scup has meat that is mild, white and flaky. Americans tend not to cook whole fish, preferring fillets or steaks. However there is a world of unexplored seafood like the scup that are delicious and easy to prepare. All we have to do (myself included) is start buying more whole fish.
Sea Robin (Prionotus carolinus)
Other names: Northern sea robin, common sea robin
Where caught: From Nova Scotia to South Carolina
A very interesting looking bottom fish that is accidentally caught by recreational fishermen, lobstermen and commercial trawlers alike. In nearly all cases these fish are thrown back or used as bait. However, the tail meat is firm and has been used in Europe for centuries. Sea robins and the very closely related gurnards are types of fish ideal for a traditional bouillabaisse.
Silver and Offshore Hake (Merluccius bilinearies/ Merluccius albidus)
Other names: Whiting, Atlantic hake
Where caught: Silver: Newfoundland to Mid-Atlantic. Offshore: New England to Caribbean
Silver hake and the related offshore hake are long, thin members of the cod family. Both species have nearly identical mild tasting white meat and are sold as whiting. The meat is softer than cod or haddock and the fillets are long and thin, but the flavor is very similar and can be used in any dish that calls for either. The smaller fish are delicious fried and eaten off the bone. Whiting is available fresh in the summer and fall, and frozen year-round. Due to it’s price, white flesh and mild taste, whiting has been used in “value added” and other processed seafood. However it should not have the stigma of other fish considered cheap by the market. Whiting on it’s own can stand up to its cod cousins, but for a fraction of the price.
Skate (Leucoraja ocellata)
Other names: Winter skate
Where caught: Mid-Atlantic and New England coast
Skates are more of a valuable by-catch than a target species. In the past they were discarded, or brought home to eat. As markets opened, fishermen started bringing them to market. Harvested skates are sold either as lobster bait or the wings are sold for human consumption. The mild but meaty wings have a taste similar to scallops, but have a different texture. Stories abound of cutting imitation scallops out of cheaper skate wings, but today skate is starting to be appreciated on its own by Americans.
Southern King Croaker (Menticirrhus americanus)
Other names: King whiting, sea mullet, southern kingfish
Where caught: New York to Texas
It goes by many different names, but this fish is related to the fish known as croakers or drums. They are not a large fish and they like shallow water, making them popular as a gamefish. There is no commercial fishery for these southern kingfish, but make up a portion of the bycatch from Gulf shrimping. Southern king croaker are known for being a good-tasting fish with mild, but firm, white meat.
Spiny Dogfish (Squalus acanthias/Squalus suckleyi)
Other names: Dogfish shark, cape shark, rock salmon/salmonette (UK/EU)
Where caught: Atlantic and Pacific coast
Dogfish is another example of a fish that has been popular in Europe, and one of the traditional fish used in British fish and chips. However it did not hit American fish counters until relatively recently. Dogfish are voracious predators of cod and other valuable fish and reproduce quicker than most shark species. They were a scourge to fisherman as schools would clog nets with a fish that had no value. Dogfish were protected for a long time (which in my opinion is counter-productive to other rebuilding stocks) but a quota based fishery now exists along with those brought in from the monkfish boats. Pacific dogfish are not directly targeted and are an incidental catch. Dogfish may be starting to show up on American menus, but most consumers have yet to try its sweet, but firm whitish meat.