Rhode Island fishermen up for challenge to find market for this plentiful but bony fish
By JOYCE ROWLEY/ecoRI News contributor
PROVIDENCE — Like a good fish stew, Johnson & Wales University brought together all of the right ingredients for a sustainable fishery: an underutilized fish caught off the shores of Rhode Island, local fishermen who know how to harvest the species, a fisheries-based nonprofit that is helping develop the fish’s marketability, and chefs to create new recipes that will inspire a market.
Stir in 130 people to test the recipes, and you have the second Rhode Island Seafood Challenge, held April 10.
“Chefs should know where they're getting their food. If they’re buying local, they’re bringing a higher quality and fresher food to the table,” said chef Bill Idell, department chair in the university’s College of Culinary Arts.
Idell leads a four-course academic track, “Wellness and Sustainability” to seniors at JWU that introduces students to local farms, fisheries and food artisans. “We can help support our local fishermen and our local economy,” he said.
“Our local fisheries are under a lot of pressure for harvesting popular species,” said Dennis Nixon, executive director of Rhode Island Sea Grant. “But tough new fishing limits prevent that.”
R.I. Sea Grant, one of the event’s sponsors, is a nonprofit research and education partnership housed at the University of Rhode Island.
Nixon said redfish in the Gulf of Mexico were plentiful but unmanaged when New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme created his famous Louisiana blackened redfish. As the demand for blackened redfish grew, the species quickly became depleted because there were no rules in place to control its harvest.
That's not the case for scup, Nixon said. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council regulates fish quota for scup under its summer flounder, scup and black sea bass fishery management plan.
“A sustainable fishery is one that has strong science at its center, sound management and energized fishermen,” Chris Brown, head of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen’s Association, said during a fishermen’s panel discussion.
Brown, founder of the Brown Family Seafood company, is a proponent of seafood traceability. “When we have the next generation involved, we'll have a sustainable fishery,” he said.
Fisherman Chris Robeck said he works with Cornell and Rutgers universities researching ways to avoid non-targeted species, in addition to fishing on his vessels the F/V Carolyn Elizabeth and F/V Yankee Pride. His comments were echoed by Don Fox, fleet manager at Town Dock, a fishing company and fish processing plant at Point Judith.
“I spent 25 years learning how to catch fish and spent the last three to five years learning how not to catch fish,” he said.
Aaron Williams, captain of the F/V Tradition, one of two trawlers in his family-owned fishing business, said the problem is the market.
“I avoid putting scup down (in the hold) because it's not worth the labor,” he said. “Hopefully, we can begin to use it more because it's a good food source."
Williams said scup prices fluctuate widely between ten cents a pound and a dollar a pound.
Creating a market
Scup, also called porgy, is a medium-sized fish with white meat, usually reaching 20 inches and sold whole. Rhode Island lands the most scup in the Mid-Atlantic and has historically fished it. But most of the fish is shipped to New York City or to the South, where there are existing markets.
The biggest problem is finding a way to remove all of the bones mechanically, said Peg Parker, executive director of the Kingston-based Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation (CFRF). Individual filleting adds time, and cost, on to the price at restaurants. And retail customers may not want to buy a whole fish.
Founded in 2004, the fishing industry-led Foundation funds research in the science of fisheries and their markets. A sponsor of this year’s Seafood Challenge, the CFRF has been researching processing equipment to help develop a marketable scup fillet.
“For the past eight or nine months, we shipped scup to companies that create fish processing machinery, as far away as Iceland and Norway,” Parker said. “We said, 'We have this fish. Do you have equipment to debone it?’”
Ultimately, it was a Michigan-based fish processor that said it had a fish with a similar bone structure that it processed. Although it could produce fillets, there was still a “pin” bone present. A salmon deboner to the process, and now the processor can produce boneless fillets for market.
But is the market ready for scup? Local foodies are familiar with cod, haddock and flounder. But scup?
Parker and CFRF board member Fred Mattera, a former trawl fisherman, met with John Riendeau of Commerce RI and then with Idell to make scup this year’s challenge.
“It’s became a dialogue about presenting the fishing industry, the types of fish caught in Rhode Island, and culminated in the seafood challenge,” Parker said. “There can be a lot of negativity and confusion about the fishing industry. This is a way for fishermen to say, ‘This is who we are. We really do care about the ocean and being sustainable harvesters of the resource. We would like to be considered as part of the food system in Rhode Island.’”
Parker said Johnson & Wales University, both a culinary and a business school, makes it an ideal place to market a fish like this.
And the winner is
JWU’s three culinary clubs worked for the three months on their technique on how to handle, prepare and create unique and distinct recipes using scup, Idell said.
Three 400-pound batches of “fresh-out-of-the water” scup came from Point Judith for preparation and testing before the final test at the April 10 Challenge. Each club also performed an activity with their recipe, ranging from a live demo on filleting, to a video of scup being unloaded at Town Dock in Narragansett, to a brochure on scup’s high protein-no salt nutritional value, with a description of how to buy fresh scup.
The competition was fierce, but Cooking Asia’s “Porgy in a Pouch” — scup en Papillotte — won the Challenge with a steamed parchment-wrapped fillet using zero added fats. The dish was loaded with aromatics so that opening the wrapper released a cloud of flavors.
The Club for Culinary Excellence had a beer-batter fillet that used all of the fish and ingredients in the accompanying compote, and the Nutritional Society created a scup bouillabaisse reminiscent of an old-fashioned New England fish stew, complete with smoked mussels.
Steven Carlson, a JWU freshman in the audience, said he judged the dishes based on the flakiness of the fillets, its flavor, and the presentation and the skills of the chefs.
Carlson, who had worked at two restaurants and a Washington, D.C., catering business prior to being accepted at Johnson & Wales, said he hasn’t seen scup in local stores.
“There's no reason we shouldn't be using it in restaurants,” he said.
Alex Coccese, a junior who was part of the team that won last year’s clam chowder challenge, said he judged the entries based on how well it would work in the industry, and how well the scup was utilized.
“Could I see this in a restaurant? Does it flow well, and does it make sense cost wise?” he said. “Do the other ingredients in the dish work well flavor wise?”
For Cooking Asia, it was yes, yes and definitely yes.