The Trouble with Trash Fish – Building Markets

“We have an idea what we might get, but we won’t know for sure until the day of the event,” said chef Stephen Phelps in an article published Wednesday in the Herald-Tribune. He was talking about the fish that will be featured at Monday’s Trash Fish Dinner in Sarasota, Florida, and his comment speaks to some of the trouble with building markets for so-called trash fish.

I’ve been following the news of the upcoming Sarasota Trash Fish Dinner as part of my ongoing reporting on invasive lionfishes (P. volitans/miles) in the western Atlantic. Building markets for lionfishes is one strategy the State is employing to help deal with the invasive species, and I was curious to know if lionfish would be on the menu in Sarasota Monday. If so, it would certainly be a boost for the lionfish market, given the buzz that has surrounded the Trash Fish dinner initiative.

I’ve attended a Trash Fish Dinner, and I can say from first hand experience how invigorating the event can be. It’s easy to get people excited about novel but abundant species prepared by award-winning chefs at trendy restaurants, especially when the entire experience is couched in the context of sustainability. But getting people excited about so-called trash fish is only half the battle.

Phelps, who is organizing Monday’s Trash Fish Dinner in Sarasota, likens the event to a potluck because sourcing under-appreciated and underutilized species can be a real challenge…even for a well known, award-winning chef. It’s the reason event organizers could not confirm that lionfish, an abundant invasive species, would be on the menu Monday night when I reached out to them back in June. Now, less than a week before the event, the menu is still not set.

The commercial fishing industry that sources much of the wild fish provided to restaurants and fish mongers targets tried and true species. With some regional variation, these are the species with which consumers are familiar, and for many, that familiarity begets comfort. Getting people excited about unfamiliar seafood species through an initiative like a Trash Fish Dinner or through the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Out of the Blue program is important, but if the consumer can’t source the species after the event, they likely will go back to what’s available and familiar.

Several species have succeeded in going from unknown to coveted but not without some bumps along the road. Think monkfish (Lophius americanus), a species that, largely through marketing, went from being little more than bycatch prior to 1980 to the Northeast’s highest valued finfish in the 1990s. By 1999, however, fisheries managers determined that monkfish were overfished. They put a fisheries management plan in place and, in 2008, declared the fishery rebuilt. In 2012, nearly 21.5 million pounds of monkfish were landed in the U.S. with a value of more than $27 million.

Few so-called trash fish have seen the marketing success experienced by monkfish, and even monkfish remains on the fringe of the popular consumer seafood choices, especially in the seafood case at your local grocery. In fact, numerous studies have shown that many Americans are somewhat fearful of cooking fish altogether, and a disproportionate amount of the seafood consumed in the the U.S. is consumed either as a product like canned tuna or in restaurants.

Changing the dynamics of commercial fisheries is a job that may seem well-suited to progressive restaurants, but most restaurants taking on a Trash Fish Dinner do not have the purchasing power of a nationwide grocery chain–they don’t have the heft to truly shift the fisheries landscape. “If you’re going to mess around with bycatch,”said Jason Delacruz in the same Herald-Tribune article referenced above. “You need to use it as a chalkboard special.” Delacruz is the executive director of Gulf Wild in St. Petersburg, Florida. “You have to be flexible.” 

And therein is the central conundrum: Besides the restaurant with the chalkboard special and limited purchasing power, who in the chain from ocean to table has that flexibility?

When it comes to commercial fishing–expensive fishing boats rigged with costly species-specific gear, federal fisheries management plans, and established commercial markets–flexibility isn’t always the easiest thing to achieve. When it comes to commercial fisheries, it’s not enough for commercial fishers to proactively land underutilized, sustainable species, for without sufficiently large markets, the price of landing the fish can quickly exceed its market value. It’s not enough for wholesale buyers to take the initiative to purchase under-appreciated species, for without sufficient retail demand, the wholesaler can be left with surplus product that can only be sold at a significant discount. Of course it’s also not enough for retail chains to invest in species unfamiliar to their customers, when they end up throwing away unpurchased product.

Some have advocated the government subsidize underutilized species from sustainable fisheries. While this has worked in the case of salmon, other less familiar species have proven problematic. This past March, for example, the government made a commodity purchase of surplus Alaska pink salmon to the tune of $20 million. This wild salmon, one of the healthiest seafood choices commonly available to Americans, is currently being distributed through government food programs.

The reason for the salmon purchase, however, wasn’t primarily to subsidize sustainability, rather it was to stabilize a market in trouble. When it comes to subsidizing sustainability, the best current example is the government’s ongoing consideration of making a surplus purchase of spiny dogfish landed in New England. Unfortunately, recent studies have confirmed that dogfish, like most sharks, is a species high enough in mercury to make distributing it through a government program such as the National School Lunch Program a really bad idea.

Building sufficient markets for abundant but underutilized and under-appreciated species–so called trash fish–is one of the biggest hurdles we face in an effort to change the fisheries landscape. While isolated initiatives at all points along the supply chain from ocean to table are important, to really affect the necessary sea change, an informed and comprehensive approach will be necessary.

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About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
This entry was posted in Chef's Collaborative, Forida, Groundfishing, Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), Human Health, Invasive Species, Mercury, Overfishing, Southeast Fisheries and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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