If you’re looking for a seafood dinner anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico, chances are you’ll find menus filled with shrimp, oysters, snapper and grouper dishes. It’s the fish people feel most comfortable ordering, and are an easy sell for chefs. But spend a little time in some of Houston’s more creative restaurants, and you’ll spot what many consider to be “trash” fish.
That’s because Houston-based fishmonger PJ Stoops is changing “daily specials” boards across the city, and impacting the way chefs here think about seafood.
Stoops works with local hook-and-line fishermen, buying the bycatch they accidently bring on board when they’re fishing for more lucrative species. What Stoops peddles to chefs can vary, but on the day we spoke with him, he had a cooler full of species like queen snapper, almaco jack, grey tilefish, pink porgies, longtail bass, Southern hake and some lookdowns. (It’s okay, click here. We had to look it up too.)
When chef Justin Yu opened his restaurant Oxheart, he told Stoops he didn’t want filet of red drum or snapper; instead, he served guests drum heads, because that’s what Stoops had available. More recently, the fishmonger was only able to get his hands on some inshore sand trout.
“And that’s what Chef Yu used all week. It takes a special chef to do that,” says Stoops.
Bycatch ceviche or a dish of strongly flavored blue runners can be a harder sell for a chef, but utilizing species that would have been discarded at sea makes sense if done carefully, say environmentalists.
Indeed, while fishermen have been working to reduce bycatch by changing things like fishing gear, the problem remains. According to the first national bycatch report, conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and released in 2011, it is estimated that commercial fishing in the U.S. produced 1.2 billion pounds of bycatch. (Shrimp trawling the Gulf of Mexico produced the most bycatch.)
“There are raging debates over what to do about bycatch,” Chris Dorsett, director of ecosystem conservation programs at Ocean Conservancy, tells TakePart. “The key is, does the government have the management safeguards in place should a robust market develop for these species so you don’t run into overfishing problems.”
For the right fish, getting popular in a hurry can only spell bad news, the way it did for Chilean sea bass or the blackened redfish frenzy back in the 1980s.
Could the same happen with Chris Shepherd’s scorpion fish at Underbelly? Maybe. It recently caught the eye of Bon Appetite’s Andrew Knowlton. And even Dorsett’s interest peaked when we told him the list of fish Stoops was pushing.
“Next time I go to Houston, I’ll have to look for lookdowns on the menu,” he says.
While bycatch is really the hook here, it’s really only a component of utilizing fish wisely and of being open to variety, says Stoops.
“The whole point is being smarter about it all,” Stoops says. “It’s about changing the fisheries and making it work for the fisherman, the ecosystem and the consumer. All three are equally important.”
Are you committed to buying sustainable seafood?