Cassady Pappas Harvest on the Harbor

Here’s a way to keep restaurant traffic up in a poor economy — take advantage of under-utilized seafood species to keep price points at a level customers can sink their teeth into.

At the annual Harvest on the Harbor event in Portland, Maine, on Thursday, chefs and fishermen came together to promote and raise awareness of local, under-utilized seafood.

The Ultimate Seafood Splash event saw four prominent Portland chefs use species from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s (GMRI) under-utilized fish program, which seeks to promote some of the fish they believe are under-valued in the marketplace.

“From a pure business perspective, there’s a price point that’s great. And from an environmental perspective, doing this saves something versus using something else that’s not as sustainable,” said Cassady Pappas, chef at Portland’s Havana South. “It’s a great untapped resource.”

A steering committee comprised of local Maine fishermen and chefs as well as GMRI members pinpointed species that qualified as under-utilized.

“We had this long list of species from the Gulf of Maine. We took into consideration if there’s only a small percentage of the TAC harvested, is there a really low ex-vessel price for the product, is there a market differentiation between what people are going to eat here in New England and over in Europe or foreign markets, [and] can we look at those ideas and develop the same sort of market here,” said Sam Grimley, GMRI sustainable seafood project coordinator.

Pappas was joined by Sam Hayward of Fore Street, Mitchell Kaldrovich of Sea Glass, Adam White of The Salt Exchange and Maine native and New Orleans-based chef Michael Ruoss. The chefs prepared dishes featuring whiting, northern shrimp, redfish and Atlantic pollock.

“We sort of had an idea of what we thought was under-utilized by judging how much is the TAC and how much is actually caught. Pollock and reds we don’t even come close to catching the TAC, so we figured they’re not as fully exploited as they could be,” said Bob Odlin, a Maine fishermen who participated in the steering committee. “Mackerel we catch like 2 percent of the TAC, and whiting we don’t catch hardly any.”

Pappas, who prepared fish tacos using pollock, said he doesn’t get the reaction from customers he would expect over the rarely used species.

“I would have though people would go ‘oh pollock, ew,’ but people have been ‘alright fish tacos,’” he said. “I think [the tacos] are a good way to introduce it to people. We’re also got redfish as an entrée and it’s worked out really well. People are realizing it’s a good thing, and in this economy price-wise it’s a big thing. If I did the same dish with haddock it’s twice the price. Is it any better? I don’t think so.”

Raising public awareness of these under-appreciated species, as well as supporting the growing global movement toward demand for local food, were the goals of Harvest on the Harbor.

“Once you talk about environmental sustainability, then you bring in the idea of economic sustainability as well,” said Grimley. “You’re supporting your local economy when you’re buying these local products — supporting local restaurants and local fish. Seafood is one of the largest trade deficits that we have. But we have this resource, so rather than importing you can support the local economy. It’s just one reason to buy local.”

“[Raising public awareness] is why I got involved,” said Odlin. “The more people know about the good seafood that Maine has to offer, the more I’m going to make a price and make better money.”

Click here to view more photos from the Ultimate Seafood Splash event on the SeafoodSource Facebook page. And don’t forget to “like” us if you haven’t already.

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