Underappreciated seafood moving from lobster bait to dinner plate

Posted Aug. 05, 2012, at 12:35 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Redfish is going from lobster bait to the dinner plate.

Twenty Maine restaurants from Kittery to Bar Harbor put Acadian redfish dishes on their menus in June, and 23 eateries served up menu items with Atlantic mackerel in July as part of an effort to raise public awareness — and demand — for unappreciated seafood species.

Redfish at one time was a popular food fish, but is now best known as a source of lobster bait. Mackerel is popular overseas, but demand is low in the U.S. because Americans tend to shun its strong, oily flavor.

But redfish and mackerel dishes sold well when featured on the menu at The Salt Exchange, an upscale restaurant in Portland, said Charlie Bryon, who owns the restaurant with his wife.

Bryon’s chef devised a dish of pan-roasted Acadian redfish, with fresh English peas, house-cured bacon, sweet onions and pea sauce, a chi-chi creation for a fish that’s often thought of as lowly. With mackerel, the fish was grilled and served with a house-made potato salad, arugula puree and a tomato jam.

“We had some of the old-timers come up and comment, ‘Oh, we used to catch this as a kid, but it’s just bait fish now. I love seeing it on the menu,’” Bryon said.

Promotional efforts involving underutilized ocean products aren’t new. The seafood industry once successfully petitioned the federal government to allow the plentiful and low-value dogfish to be sold under the more consumer-friendly name “Cape Shark.”

The latest promotions are part of a program called Out of the Blue coordinated by the Portland-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute, which formed a team of fishermen and restaurant owners and chefs last year to devise a plan to build markets for underutilized and undervalued seafood products from the Gulf of Maine. The project was funded through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Saltonstall-Kennedy Grant Program.

Five species were selected, with participating restaurants putting them on their menus during 10-day promotional periods. Redfish was featured in June and mackerel in July.

Additional promotions are scheduled from Sept. 28-Oct. 7 and Oct. 26-Nov. 7, but organizers aren’t saying which species will be featured. The dates of the fifth promotion have yet to be scheduled.

Building markets for underutilized seafood species will give fishermen more options and diners more choices, but nobody’s thinking the effect will be so strong as to result in less fishing pressure on some of the beleaguered fish populations in New England waters, such as Gulf of Maine cod, said Jen Levin, the institute’s sustainable seafood program manager.

Individually, the restaurants serve relatively small amounts of the fish. In all, they served an estimated 500 to 600 redfish dishes during the redfish promotion, a drop in the bucket compared to overall fish harvests.

But the program hopefully will make the public more aware of the underappreciated fish in the ocean and, in time, drive up demand, she said. With more demand and ready buyers, fishermen can target the fish, which for the most part have a low value because of low demand.

Restaurants account for 70 percent of the seafood that’s consumed in the U.S.

Levin expects the promotions to continue in the years ahead.

“Although we started with a list of five species, certainly the need to promote products that are bountiful in the ocean but need a little help on the marketing end will continue,” she said.

Any promotion for low-value ocean products can help, especially with lobster prices at rock bottom, said Dan Harriman, a sixth-generation fisherman from Cape Elizabeth who goes after lobster, mackerel and squid, among other things. Harriman as of late has been catching his fair share of mackerel, most of which is shipped to New York and other out-of-state markets, but some of which has gone to Maine restaurants participating in the promotions.

“We have a wonderful product, but there hasn’t been much demand,” he said. “The restaurants are starting to become aware of fairly inexpensive ways to do wonderful dishes.”

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