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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!

All of the fish featured in Out of the Blue are  considered bycatch, seafood that presently have no market even though they taste  good and have sizable populations in the Gulf of Maine, a chunk of the North  Atlantic between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia.
An Instagrammed-out Atlantic mackerel dish from July's Out of the Blue at Portland's Cantina at El Rayo
 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)
"We want to reverse this  negative cycle," said Jen Levin, manager of the Sustainable Seafood Program at  GMRI. "You ask fishermen why they don't catch these fish, and they say it's  because no one will process them. You ask the processors why they won't process  and sell them, and they say it's because the fishermen aren't bringing them in.  Just getting these fish into the supply chain in a real way is enough to break  the pattern."
As we've seen in other parts of the country where bycatch is booming, chefs are  more than happy to try out something new--if it tastes good.

"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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