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How Restaurants and Fisheries Are Saving Edible Seafood From the Trash

Bycatch is ending up on more restaurant menus — but it's not enough.

Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

As demand for seafood rises, chefs have their seafood supplier on speed dial. And while species like tuna, cod, and halibut are popular, these days, the daily catch on the blackboard might be something unfamiliar — squirrel fish or the banded rudderfish. Don't be scared off. Most likely it's bycatch or trash fish. While perfectly edible and quite tasty, these fish are so named because they might otherwise be thrown overboard or ground into fishmeal because they aren't the intended catch on commercial fishing boats.

If they had a choice, fisherman would rather not have to deal with bycatch, but fishing nets aren't particular about what they scoop up. Bottom trawlers have little discretion when they drag along the seafloor. Longlines with baited hooks extend for 50 miles or more, which attracts anything that swims by — including unwanted edible fish as well as sea turtles, sharks, and other sea mammals. Opportunistic seabirds flock to longlines in hopes of an easy meal, often getting snagged.

All in all, it's an inefficient way catch fish, and even the fisherman dislike it. The most recent tally from Johns Hopkins University estimates that in United States-controlled waters, 573 million pounds of fish are lost due to fisherman bycatch every year. This pales in comparison to the even-more striking fact that 51-63 percent of seafood is wasted at the consumer level.

To combat that waste, in the past decade, chefs have taken up the charge to give some culinary love to these lesser-known species and raise consumer awareness. Chefs say they've fallen for these sea-born rarities like jolthead porgy and Spanish mackerel. In an ideal world, this effort would become so successful that jilted fish like the jolthead porgy would be as widely desired as salmon. But while chefs like the challenge of preparing lesser-known fish, since they're incidental catches, only in rare cases will these fish become regular menu items. And experts say that smaller fish need to stay in the sea as food for other fish, keeping the underwater ecosystems healthy.

Trash Fish as Restaurant Trend

No one works harder to put the lid on the undesirable aura around trash fish than chef Kelly Whitaker, who lives the landlocked state of Colorado. The chef/owner of Boulder's Basta and Denver's Cart-Driver travels the country hosting trash fish dinners on behalf of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch sustainability program and Chef's Collaborative, a non-profit professional organization that educates chefs about sustainable food choices.

Whitaker says the "trash fish" dinners have become immensely helpful to transition some fish from a throwaway to a restaurant-friendly menu item, keeping in line with trends over the past four decades.

Most famously, in the late-1970s, "Chilean sea bass" began appearing on restaurant menus thanks to a re-branding of the toothfish — which is actually more like cod than bass. In the ‘90s, the goosefish — a gruesome-looking fish with a beautiful lobster-like taste — became known as "monkfish," and is now fished for commercial use. "Fifteen years ago, it was considered bycatch, and it's now a very sought-after fish," says Whitaker. "There are a lot of fish in transition now, but chefs are beginning to use these previous ‘trash' species, and consumers are beginning to accept them," he says.

In recent years, more fish have been moving from the trash heap to culinary celebrity status. One example is the boneless porgy (also known as sea bream or scup), popularized among diners thanks in part to Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York. Chef David Chang wraps the boneless sweet fish in lettuce and seasons it with sharp ginger, bitter turnip, soft brown hon shimeji funghi, and a delicate broth. For a few years now, diners regularly post social media love notes about the fish. Elsewhere, chefs have been experimenting with delacata catfish, lionfish, and scorpionfish — efforts that are high-profile enough to elicit a movement to move away from the phrase "trash fish" altogether.

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Cod fishing boats in Portland, Maine. Photo: Whitney Hayward/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Back to the Source

But could every unwanted fish shed its "trash fish" label? It might not matter — according to experts, chefs' efforts to highlight bycatch on menus is more of a stop-gap measure than a long-term solution. Sustainable fishery experts, fishermen, and federal regulatory agencies would like to get bycatch in general down to a bare minimum, starting at the fisheries themselves.

For commercial fisheries, bycatch is not only wasteful, it's a nuisance. Jim Gossen, chairman of Sysco Louisiana Seafood, says there is only so much space and ice on fishing vessels to keep the desired catch fresh. Decaying bycatch is a problem that no one wants — particularly if that bycatch happens to be valuable, such as the case of red snapper. Double-rig shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico are prone to snaring the young red fish when trawling along rock ridges and snapper breeding banks. Red snapper live for as long as 40 years, which means they are slow to reach maturity. Gossen says when the deep-dredging shrimp trawlers capture immature fish, those fish don't have the opportunity to reproduce. As a result, red snapper fish stocks were at dangerously low levels in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, red snapper has been strictly controlled by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to help rebuild red snapper fish stocks.

Above all, overfishing, global climate change, and habitat destruction place a heavy burden on our seas. "If we are more selective in how we fish, and value the fish we catch, there is less of an impact on the ecosystem," says Ben Enticknap, Pacific campaign manager and senior scientist for Oceana. "This level of waste places a high impact on the eco-system, which ultimately alters ecological communities." Enticknap emphasizes that smaller bycatch, like herring and sardines, are an important food source for other fish; some of it needs to stay in the sea.

In the case of the red snapper, Gossen says the use of newer extruder nets results in dramatically less red snapper bycatch. But other changes are happening at the fishery level: One is catch share, which allocates a secure share of fish or a secure area to individual fishermen, associations, or communities. The fluctuating allowable shares, including 450 species, are determined by 16 federal catch share programs and are overseen by regional Federal Fishery Management Councils, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Fish stocks are tracked and assessed by NOAA fisheries' scientists, at-sea observers, commercial fishermen, and resource managers. The organization also implements electronic monitoring, research vessel monitoring surveys, and old-fashioned telephone monitoring to determine shares.

"Catch share reduced the race for fish," said John Stein, PhD, science and research director overseeing the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA.* Previous fishery management relied on quotas, which meant fishing boats caught as much as they could snare in the shortest time possible, regardless of whether they had a market for the quantity. Now the boats can go back and forth knowing their share is secure. "We've reduced the race to catch everything today," Stein says.

"Ideally, we should eat everything we catch by finding a market for it. But if we don’t manage well, it disappears."

But scientists are constantly looking for novel ways to reduce bycatch of all types. For instance, Gossen says long lines that stretch for miles now have red streamers attached; when the sea breeze sends the streamers aloft, it scares away the birds. It's a novel and inexpensive solution that prevents seagulls from getting caught in the bait hooks.

Stein says the most interesting new bycatch solution places lights on shrimp nets. In the Northwest, a long, narrow, luminous fish called the candlefish is a frequent bycatch for shrimpers. The bycatch problem was so immense, at times the catch was a total loss. In 2014, biologist Bob Hannah of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife discovered that after putting lights on one side of a net, there was virtually no bycatch. Apparently, the light kicks into action the fish's optic-motor response and helps it navigate its way out of the net. Since then, local shrimping boats added the lights and have virtually removed all bycatch from their shrimp nets.

Major food companies like Sysco are also getting involved — the restaurant distribution giant has purchased fisheries to streamline the supply chain, reduce waste, and offer sustainable choices. In 2012, it bought Houston-based Louisiana Foods from Gossen. "Ideally, we should eat everything we catch by finding a market for it," said Gossen. "But if we don't manage well, it disappears." There is no mutual exclusivity here — it's about good business practices for the fishermen and the seas' ecosystem.

Shrimp boats in Florida. Photo: Emily Michot/Miami Herald/MCT via Getty Images

Into Home Kitchens

According to the Johns Hopkins study, the amount of seafood wasted each year would provide enough protein to fulfill the annual requirements for as many as 10 million men or 12 million women. And while NOAA, fisheries, and non-profit agencies work to reduce bycatch, it's home kitchens that pose the biggest threat to fishery sustainability. American garbage disposals and trash bins are the dumping ground for 1.3 billion pounds of uneaten, wasted fish per year.

Hopkins researchers proposed a number of solutions for less waste among at-home seafood eaters, including educating home cooks, smaller prepackaged portions, and a nationwide campaign to encourage consumers to buy frozen seafood over highly perishable fresh fish.

Whitaker is optimistic that consumers are becoming more comfortable with ordering fish other than salmon and cod. And catch share programs are helping fishermen capture just enough fish to meet market demand. But there is more work to be done. Gossen says regardless of whether you are a fishery, a chef, or a home cook, "we can't be about volume," he says. "We have to be about quality and telling a better story," he says. The story now has to be about how to reduce waste at home.

* Disclosure: Dr. John Stein is the brother-in-law of Eater contributor Kimberly Lord Stewart.

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