Innovators in the News
9/18/12 - Sustainable Fish Hit the Plate in Maine
(from Bon Apetit magazine, 9/17/12) - We've all seen "sustainability" promoted on tote bags, pushed in bookstores, and occasionally mentioned in politics and commercials, but the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, ME is doing something a little different: it's taking the science of sustainability--specifically as it applies to fishing--straight to the plate.
In June, 20 restaurants in Maine added redfish, a species most locals think of as little more than lobster bait, to their menus. In July, 23 spots in and around Portland made Atlantic mackerel their favorite fish for a week. And starting this Friday, 21 will have whiting (also known as silver hake) on their menus.
These fish are all the beneficiaries of the GMRI's Out of the Blue program, which is taking a more holistic approach to commercial fishing. Instead of just attacking the problem on the production end, working to make nets more efficient and boats more eco-friendly, Out of the Blue puts lesser-known (but equally edible) fish back in the spotlight (and Twitter). The idea is that once diners know that whiting is worthy of a nightly special, they might just order it again, and ultimately drive up demand. To zazz up the world of sustainable fishing a little bit, the program keeps the promoted fish under wraps until right before its big debut: They wouldn't even tell us what the next fish, slated for October, is going to be (c'mon spiny dogfish!). Talk about drama!
An Instagrammed-out Atlantic mackerel dish from July's Out of the Blue at Portland's Cantina at El Rayo (Credit: courtesy Cantina at El Rayo)
"I'm the type of chef who likes alternative cuts of meat, and it's the same way with fish," said Mitchell Kaldrovitch, chef at Sea Glass at Cape Elizabeth, ME's Inn by the Sea. "If you look at the reports, scientists are saying that by 2040 there will be no fish left to eat--it's scary! It's good we're doing this now."
Kaldrovitch, who grew up in Argentina and has cooked at restaurants around the world, was most surprised to learn that whiting, this week's fish, needed any help at all.
"In Europe, it's a very famous fish," he said, "but here it's 20 cents a pound. It doesn't make any sense."
The Out of the Blue promotions were born out of a GMRI project in 2011 that brought fishermen and chefs together to talk about what it's like working on opposite sides of the same industry. The chefs tagged along with the fishermen to auctions, to processing plants, and out on the boats.
"Closing the gap between fishermen and chefs is helpful," Levin said. "We've seen a complete flip-flop in the past 20 years: People used to know exactly where their fish came from, buying at local markets by the docks, but [they] got their meat and produce shipped across the country. Now it's the total opposite."
But, as Kaldrovitch points out, the locavore movement for agriculture can only go so far in Maine. "The farming season is so short up here," he said, "but the fishing season goes year-round, depending on the species. So the impact on the local economy could be much bigger."
The GMRI hopes to continue the Out of the Blue program next year, after seeing this summer's promotions go swimmingly (sorry). "We don't expect a 10-day promotion to change the entire market," said Sam Grimley, another manager on the Sustainable Seafood Project, "but some restaurants keep serving the promoted fish, and others pick up on it, and people keep seeing it, and the feedback loop grows."
Kaldrovitch, for his part, plans to keep active in the Culinary Partners Program. "We have to treat scarce fish such as halibut like foie gras now--it's so expensive." he said "And people like me? I just don't care. I'd rather use the fish we have here."
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