NOAA, Cornell Cooperative Extension hope to reboot market for monkfish

A monkfish.

From the first time television chef Julia Child hoisted a whole, ugly monkfish in front of her audience, early successes in marketing “the poor man’s lobster” showed how creative culinary and marketing campaigns could boost underutilized U.S. fisheries.

Now, a newly formed collaborative program aims to again boost U.S. domestic demand for monkfish – a stock at high population levels, and accessible close to home for Atlantic fishermen. Extending from Maine to New Jersey, it’s a regional push to “expand the audience and the markets that monkfish can fill,” said Tara McClintock, a fisheries specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Marine Extension Service in New York.

The Cornell Cooperative Extension program, based in Suffolk County on New York state’s Long Island, is leading the project, funded by NOAA’s Saltonstall-Kennedy Grant Program. This winter the project team surveyed all levels of the industry, from fishermen and dealers to restaurants to get a sense of the market for monkfish, and how to give it a boost.

The organizers will present their initial findings 13 April during a workshop at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology in New Bedford, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

“It’s mostly to get all our partners together, along with other people who have jumped on and are excited to promoted monkfish,” Cornell Cooperative Marine Extension Service Fisheries Specialist Amanda Dauman said.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and state Sea Grant programs achieved some early success at promoting monkfish as “underutilized” fish in the 1980s, aided by food media buzz around Julia Child and other chefs. Today, monkfish are still plentiful, and promoters hope to light that fuse again.

“It’s a really good fish. It’s local, it’s healthy, it’s sustainable,” Dauman said. “All of those things that people want to hear.”

A staple of seafood cuisine in Western Europe, known as lotte in France, monkfish was generally considered a trash fish by U.S. East Coast trawlers, though it was sold in limited quantities into ethnic markets in the U.S. Child’s “The French Chef” television series on public television helped broaden interest in monkfish, with episodes showing how to tackle the intimidating, toothy animal that old-time fishermen called goosefish or “allmouth.”

By the early 1990s, the boost in domestic sales brought more monkfish to the docks, and attention from buyers for other markets in Asia. Monkfish liver, prized in Japanese cuisine as ankimo, was packaged for export, along with whole, head-on monkfish for freezing and sale to South Korea.

Domestic monkfish sales had been falling even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, when exports fell victim to the overall mayhem as international markets locked up.

“The price of the fresh market has been declining for years,” McClintock said.

Meanwhile, after the disruptions of Covid-19, Chinese monkfish has replaced some of the U.S. product in the Asia export market, McClintock said.

“When you’re totally dependent on export sales, it’s a disaster when something happens,” Food Export-Northeast's Seafood Program Coordinator Colleen Coyne said.

As part of its research, the survey team visited the New York City’s Fulton Fish Market and monkfish suppliers and retailers in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The Cornell marketing group regularly does media promotion in the New York region and will look to connect the monkfish project with high-end New York City restaurants and chefs. It will also feature monkfish in its “Cook a Fish, Give a Fish” program, which produces online cooking classes that raise money to benefit communities in need. And the team is looking to spur interest in monkfish via school food programs and institutional foodservice buyers like universities and hospitals.

The Cornell Cooperative Extension has planned out the monkfish program to run two years, working with fishermen, dealers, and processors on marketing in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region. Public outreach events will use information booths and local seafood tastings to get consumers familiar with monkfish. New retail ideas are another attractive target, including value-added products. Some ideas already winning with consumers are bacon-wrapped medallions, chowders, and Chatham monkfish mac and cheese popularized on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod.

“Regionwide success in this regard will not only breathe life into a once-lucrative fishery, but also support local fishermen and businesses, reduce the carbon footprint, and reduce commercial fishing pressure on other heavily fished sought-after species,” the Cornell team said in its pitch to the industry and consumers. “With so many potential benefits attached to monkfish, this may very well be the golden goose that Northeast’s commercial fishery needs.”

Reporting by Kirk Moore

Photo courtesy of Northeast Fisheries Science Center photo


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