CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — In the basement of the posh Inn by The Sea, executive chef Mitchell Kaldrovich conducts a fish fry.
He fillets a piece of white fish in a skillet as flames shoot up all around. The “nice, flakey fish” turns a golden brown and the chef plates it on a bed of quinoa tabbouleh with an artistic dash of yogurt lime sauce.
Moments later, as diners at Sea Glass restaurant overlooking the Atlantic Ocean delve into this succulent pollock entree, they nurture themselves and at the same time help sustain a healthy seafood ecology.
The Cape Elizabeth resort, along with a handful of other restaurants across the state, recently committed to feature at least one responsibly harvested fish species from the Gulf of Maine on their menu.
The intent is to relieve pressure on once plentiful but now sparse cod and haddock fisheries by focusing on fish such as dogfish, whiting and redfish, long considered understudies for the stars of the sea.
“We are changing people’s tastes so they will broaden their palates and be ready to eat what the fishermen bring in,” said Rauni Kew, public relations manager for the eco-conscious inn. “Because if they only have cod to bring in, they are all going to starve.”
This year, the commercial cod quota in the Gulf of Maine, which includes Massachusetts and New Hampshire, is 78 percent lower than last year. The term “overfishing” gets bandied about, but the culprit is as vast as the Atlantic, says Jen Levin, sustainable seafood program manager for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
“Fish populations have a dynamic and natural ecosystem that influences food and water temperatures and affects where they like to live,” said Levin. “Scientists are reticent to say, ‘Here’s the answer,’ there are so many different things going on with fish stock populations.”
To take the spotlight off fish that aren’t available and create demand for those that are, the institute went straight to the source.
In February, it launched a culinary partnership with Sea Glass and several Portland eateries such as Local 188 and Five Fifty-Five as well as The Jordan Pond House Restaurant on Mount Desert Island.
“We focus on restaurants because they can change their menus a little more nimbly,” said Levin. “Restaurant owners and chefs are major thought leaders on this. It’s a way to try something in a restaurant setting, instead of buying at a store and cooking at home.”
Prices for underutilized fish are not as high on the open market. At the Portland Fish Exchange, a display auction for wholesalers, the average bid price for large cod one day this week was $3.15 a pound versus pollock, which was 99 cents. Large haddock was $2.40 and mixed redfish 93 cents.
But at the Inn by the Sea, a pan-roasted pollock entree served with gourmet flair is no bargain. To dine in the serene waterfront ambiance, customers shell out $23 for the local dish.
“We are trying to raise the prices for the fisherman at the dock,” said Kew.
Their commitment to serving underutilized seafood sprang from the Out of the Blue sustainable seafood dinners. Now in its second year, this collaboration among fishermen, restaurants, chefs and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute is an ongoing push to give cod and haddock a break and promote what’s bountiful.
The weeklong series of dinners, funded through a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant, showcases whiting and dogfish, among other fish, in their best light. So far the series has attracted 39 restaurants and food service programs from L.L. Bean to Bowdoin College.
Kaldrovich, who sat on the steering committee for Out of the Blue, has taken it a step further. He serves only 100 percent Gulf of Maine seafood. That means pan-seared whiting with cauliflower raisin quinoa and citrus sauce, instead of baked cod or haddock, is coming out of his kitchen this time of year.
The goal is to create change through smarter — but every bit as tasty — choices, said Kaldrovich.
“Why serve something from the Mediterranean when I am here?” he said.
“Here it’s so rich, the ocean is so wide,” said the Culinary Institute of America graduate, who has cooked in resorts from Lake Tahoe, Calif., to Florida.
To develop appealing dishes from available harvests, Kaldrovich works closely with local fishermen and members of the institute.
As a result, fish tacos made with dogfish in a smoked paprika, cumin, thyme, coriander and pepper rub served with pineapple salsa have been a lunchtime draw.
He has turned mackerel into an amuse bouche bruschetta and makes a mean dogfish stew. Throughout the process, the Argentinean thinks of his partners on the sea.
“The fishermen have one of the worst jobs around,” said Kaldrovich, gently touching a plate of just-caught dogfish. “This is the fish that the fishermen eat at home … The more we can help, the better.”
That means elevating the price of these species — often called bycatch, that fishermen would normally toss back — through demand.
At Port Clyde Fresh Catch in Tenants Harbor, the partnership has made an impact.
“It’s boosted sales for hake and redfish,” said Glen Libby, who owns the seafood processing and wholesale retail business.
His collaboration with The Jordan Pond House Restaurant has generated interest for lesser-known species in a way that would be hard to do on his own. Cod just isn’t around, he says.
“We have to focus on the stuff that’s abundant and not so much on the stuff that isn’t,” said Libby.
Just as the “eat local” movement has helped farmers thrive, sustainable seafood is the next wave. Hospitality professionals say it complements travel trends.
“Everybody is interested in locavore and local food. When people are traveling, when they come from away, they want to eat local and enjoy the connection to the local fisherman,” said Kew.
At Sea Glass that connection is manifold.
If a guest requests halibut or cod, staff members bring over colorful flash cards to explain why dogfish is better when it’s in season and why it’s underutilized. They host wine dinners with the research institute to showcase these fish in a lavish setting.
Still, it’s hard to turn a public, weaned on New England classics, around.
“Sometimes people say, ‘Eh, it’s not what I expected, I like just halibut.’ We try to teach them. This is the thing we have to live by and if you don’t like it, I’m sorry,” said Kaldrovich. “This is what we sell, what we push, what we have and this is the best for you and the nation.”
The more diners buy into the program, the more fishermen can be sustained and threatened fish stocks replenished, he said
“By eating this, we help the other species grow,” said Kaldrovich. “So maybe in the next 10 to 15 years halibut is back, like tuna.”
The next Out of the Blue dinner series is Sept. 13-22. Whiting is the featured fish. To find a participating restaurant, visit www.gmri.org.