Underutilized Species Growing in Popularity

Food sustainability has become part of the public conversation about responsible consumerism in America, elevating chefs to influential positions as cultural intermediaries. Seattle’s Renee Erickson, award winning chef and restaurateur, often features underutilized, underappreciated, local “trash fish” species on her menus. New marine species offer opportunities for skilled chefs to create new conceptions of haute cuisine while saving money, and providing more value to fishermen for catch that would normally receive little to no value at the dock.

 

Warner Lew, fleet manager at Icicle Seafoods and fisheries scientist, sells a few “trash fish” products to Chef Erickson and has been impressed with their popularity:

Underutilized and invasive species winning awards in food contests? Yes, judges selected both my canned, smoked Togiak herring and Columbia River shad as Finalists in the 2017 Good Foods Awards in San Francisco, the Togiak herring earned distinction as a Winner.  Pretty high praise for a fish that is targeted for the dwindling Japanese roe market, with most of the carcasses ending up as fish meal (for use in feed for poultry, etc.) And my canned, smoked herring also won First Place at the 2016 Alaska Symphony of Seafood (retail division). Seattle’s famous restaurateur, Renee Erickson, winner of the 2016 James Beard Award, has been my customer since 2011, and her creative chefs have used my canned, smoked herring in dishes that have been mentioned in Bon Appetit several times.

After seeing how well people liked my canned, smoked Togiak herring, I knew that people would also enjoy Columbia River shad if I prepared it the same way. I canned a batch, gave it to Renee Erickson, and she actually prefers the shad over the smoked herring, so I know I’m on to a good thing. As I develop markets for the canned, smoked Togiak herring, I hope to bundle Columbia River shad along with it.

For an underutilized fish to be brought to market, it must taste good and be easy to eat. Simply being abundant is no reason for a fish to be harvested and processed. You could freeze each Togiak herring and stock it in every grocery store in the country, but unless someone knows how to make that fish taste good and easy to eat, those herring will sit in the freezers for eternity.  We’ll see in time if my crusade for herring and shad succeeds, or if pig feed is really the highest use of these fish.

Togiak herring and Columbia River shad aren’t exactly “trash fish” species, but they are certainly underutilized relative to abundance. Lew’s point about getting these fish to market as only the first step in the process is pertinent. Indeed, Americans don’t eat a wide variety of seafood species. It is one thing for a few fine dining restaurants in Seattle to feature herring and shad; getting the public interested is a different kind of challenge.

What sustainability benefits and challenges would arise if more “trash fish” species were demanded by mainstream consumers – should Americans be eating more seafood species?

Proponents of a balanced harvest fisheries management approach, which would (theoretically) facilitate a greater diversity of species to enter the market, would point to Lew’s example and the growing awareness of underutilized species as reasons to adopt that approach. What do you think?

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