With abundant biomass, US fishermen look to expand post-pandemic market for scup
U.S. commercial scup, or porgy, landings peaked in 1981 at 21.73 million pounds, but dipped to 2.66 million pounds by 2000. In recent years, commercial fishermen have not landed the commercial quota, but there have been industry-wide efforts focused on closing the gap.
The commercial fishery runs year-round, and mostly in U.S. federal waters during the winter and state waters during the summer. A coastwide commercial quota is allocated between three quota periods: winter I, summer, and winter II. Total ex-vessel value in 2018 was USD 9.7 million (EUR 8 million), resulting in an average price per pound of USD 0.73 (EUR 0.60). NOAA data shows landings from October to the end of December 2020 are below last year’s landings.
Despite being highly abundant and not considered overfished, the industry has grappled with achieving a harvest of the full quota every year, in part because commercial fishermen often do not fish for scup when the dock price is depressed. Advocates for the fishery said they believe if market demand were increased, prices and opportunities for fleets to harvest the fish would follow.
Dave Aripotch, a commercial scup commercial fisherman in Montauk, New York, said 2020 was decent, but that he pulled in less volume than previous years.
“A lot of times with scup, if you catch them, you catch a lot of them. This year, there were a lot of small- and medium-[sized scup] around, and this means the market gets plugged even for jumbo,” he said.
Aripotch has fished since 1982, and most of his scup ends up at the New Fulton Fish Market in New York City. He said he has seen wide fluctuations in price and demand over the years.
“A few years ago, scup was booming – we caught a huge amount of them, but there were fewer guys doing it,” Aripotch said.
In 1985, Aripotch said jumbos were worth USD 3.00 (EUR 2.48).
“Now, we get USD 2.00 [EUR 1.65] for jumbo, and jumbos were USD 1.00 [EUR 0.82] or USD 0.75 [EUR 0.62] at times,” he said.
Aripotch said in his area, a lot hinges on squid, since given the opportunity, many fishermen switch over to squid and move off scup.
The COVID-19 pandemic added another layer. Freeman Wong of Aqua Best Seafood, a family-owned business in New York City’s Lower East Side and with locations in Massachusetts, says scup is a popular staple item for Caribbean restaurants, which serve it fried whole.
“This year, it’s hard to say on scup because everything is out of the norm. Throughout the pandemic, the retail market was open, but I think that the porgy market by itself is always impacted by other fish that are more abundant,” Wong said.
He said prices in the past year have been, overall, similar to previous years, and recently on the Aqua Best Seafood website scup were going for USD 4.99 (EUR 4.12) a pound.
“This pandemic has screwed up our timing, but we’ve been working hard,” Scott Bode of Pier Fish, a large processor and distributor in New Bedford, Massachusetts, said. “This year has been slow for scup, and prices have been higher due to lack of fishing. The boats aren’t going after it, that’s the biggest thing. People are focused on the species that make them money.”
Fish like fluke that are likely to be bought in the retail settings have fared a bit better than species like scup, which require more preparation or knowledge from at-home cooks.
According to Meghan Lapp, general manager of Seafreeze Shoreside in Point Judith, Rhode Island, scup markets had volatility even before the pandemic.
“For scup, it’s par for the course. In the past number of years, prices fluctuated between USD 0.20 [EUR 0.17] and USD 1.50 [EUR 1.24] a pound, and that’s not unique to now,” Lapp said.
She attributed some loss of market interest in scup to a generation of immigrants getting older and younger Americans eating less whole fish.
“But I feel like millennials are a really good market to target this to,” Lapp said. ”They are now more inclined to try something they haven’t tried before.”
Bode and Lapp both said they remain hopeful scup can move beyond its status as an underutilized species – and to that end, both have participated in industry initiatives looking to expand markets for scup. One of those initiatives is with the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation, based in Rhode Island, a collaboration of scup fishermen, scientists, processors, and chefs.
“Our projects have all tried to increase consumer and public awareness of scup and increase the processing efficiency and capacity for local markets, which in turn will hopefully lead to increased market demand and increased value back to the boats and fishermen who land scup,” Michael Long, a research biologist at the foundation, said.
But processing remains a major challenge for scup, Long added.
“Their small size, pin bones, and fat lines have definitely given us plenty of challenges with processing,” he said. “One full project was dedicated to testing processing techniques and involved shipping whole scup from Rhode Island to Michigan to get filleted by a salmon processor who could remove their pin bones, then they were shipped back to Rhode Island for us to conduct culinary evaluations.”
Since then, the initiative has shifted processing trials to a local Rhode Island-based company.
Long said the upside of the initiative is that culinary trials reveal the general public and chefs like the taste of scup.
“There’s a lot of room for growth. It’s not going to be as cheap as we wanted it to be, but we are working it out,” Bode said.
“I’m always optimistic,” Lapp added, “but I think it’s going to take some effort on behalf of marketing for a wider audience. If there was a targeted campaign, you know, 'It’s a poor man’s snapper, try this!'”
Fisherman Dave Aripotch urged more seafood-loving eaters to try the fish, which he said is cheap and abundant compared to other options.
“Scup is excellent; there is plenty of it. We have people in Montauk who’ve lived here their whole lives [and] have never even tried it,” Aripotch said.
Reporting by Caroline Losneck
Photo courtesy of NOAA