Study finds local seafood underrepresented in New England markets
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Dogfish doesn’t have an appetizing ring to it. The name for this member of the shark family has kept it off dinner plates, at least in the United States. In Britain, dogfish is often the key ingredient in fish and chips.
A few years ago, in an attempt to make the fish sound more appealing, the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, New England fishermen, and conservationists tried to rebrand it as “Cape shark.” The effort to create local demand for this plentiful regional species, which grew in number with the collapse of the cod fishery, hasn’t yet taken hold.
With its mild white boneless flesh, Kate Masury, program director forEating with the Ecosystem, said dogfish is less flaky than cod but just as delicious.
Eating with the Ecosystem, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit that promotes a place-based approach to sustaining New England’s wild seafood, is working with consumers, chefs, suppliers, processors, and fishermen to build a market for dogfish and the many other lower-valued species swimming off New England’s coast.
“It’s about increasing consumer awareness about what is out there and creating a demand,” Masury said.
More than 100 edible wild seafood species thrive in the region’s salty waters. But finding most of them, such as dogfish, ocean perch, scup, periwinkles, sea robin, or sea urchin, at a local market or on a restaurant menu is a challenge.
A new Eating with the Ecosystem study that used citizen scientists to track the availability of these underappreciated species documented some interesting observations about local fish and shellfish in the New England marketplace.
Unsurprisingly, the region’s seafood counters are heavily dominated by five classic New England species: lobster, sea scallops, soft-shell clams, cod, and haddock.
At the other end of the market spectrum, however, half of the 52 local species included in the recent study were found less than 10 percent of the time. Many of these species, including dogfish, whiting, skate, and Atlantic butterfish, which is often caught as bycatch in the squid fishery and shouldn’t be confused with its West Coast version, are among the most abundant species in the ocean ecosystem off the New England coast.
But despite their prevalence in local waters, these four species were found even less often, only 3 percent of the time. Dogfish was only found twice out of 198 searches, and skate 14 times (252). Both butterfish (268) and whiting (198) were found eight times.
The report’s findings are based on a research effort called the Eat Like a Fish citizen science project. The project’s 86 participants hailed from all walks of life and resided in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire.
For 26 weeks, from May to October of last year, the 86 volunteers, including 19 from Rhode Island, visited seafood markets, grocery stores, farmers markets, and seaside fishing piers in search of the 52 New England seafood species. Each participant received a weekly list of four randomly chosen local species and searched for them in up to three local markets. Upon encountering one of their species, they took it home and made a meal out of it.
“Citizen scientists found a stark mismatch between what’s swimming in local waters and what’s available on local seafood counters,” said Masury, who coordinated the research project. “This imbalance can strain the resilience of New England’s underwater ecosystems and undermine the well-being of the people who depend on them. Moving forward, we hope to see the New England marketplace do a better job of reflecting the full diversity of what our waters have to offer.”
The study’s goals were to understand how well New England’s retail marketplace reflects the diversity of local seafood and to draw on the volunteers’ lived experiences to help explain why these mismatches exist and what can be done to correct them.
As ecosystems change more rapidly because of climate change, Masury said diversity must become a cornerstone of the way we eat and market seafood. She also noted that understanding the assimilation of local species by the regional seafood supply chains is an important first step in achieving greater symmetry between ecosystems and markets, reducing impacts on ocean food webs, and positioning local fishing economies to be resilient in the face of change.
Citizen scientists who took part in the project say it was informative, challenging, and frustrating.
“At the inception of the project, I had no doubt that I would find, prepare, and marvel at my brilliance with new, exotic, local species of seafood each week,” said Sherri Darocha, a participating citizen scientist from Rhode Island. “I never dreamed that most weeks it would be so challenging to find even one fish on my list. After twenty-six weeks, I have plenty of pent-up fish envy that will only be soothed by finding species that have eluded me, like cunner and red hake.”
To assist consumers in finding these largely ignored species and help reduce the strain on the region’s ocean ecosystem, Eating with the Ecosystem offers several tips for consumers interested in expanding their local seafood options:
Seek out local species you haven’t tried before. Many citizen scientists discovered new favorite seafood species by going outside their comfort zone.
Don’t shy away from whole fish. Using every part of the fish reduces waste. The more mess you make in the kitchen, the more you will enjoy the meal that follows.
If you don’t see a particular local species available at the seafood counter, ask for it. Letting your fishmonger know you would like to buy it will help build demand.
Many fishmongers can locate hard-to-find local seafood species if you notify them in advance. Special ordering these species helps show fishmongers that there is interest in purchasing them, without requiring them to assume any risk.
When experimenting with new species, make it a social event. Team up with friends and family members who share your commitment. Citizen scientists relished the long-distance camaraderie that developed through the Eat Like a Fish project.
To help seafood lovers diversify their diets, Eating with the Ecosystem recently produced a cookbook called Simmering the Sea: Diversifying Cookery to Sustain Our Fisheries. Populated with whimsical ecological tales, imaginative artwork, and simple yet elegant recipes, the 100-page book celebrates 40 underappreciated fish and shellfish that populate the Northwest Atlantic Ocean.