Creating a market for under-valued fish

By

Melissa Wood, SeaFood Business assistant editor

Published on
October 10, 2011

In the book and recently released movie “Moneyball,” Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball club, develops a strategy of going after players whose abilities help win games but are under-valued in the marketplace. Boston’s Kevin Youkilis, for instance, has a bulky build overlooked by scouts in favor of more athletic-looking players, but he gets on base a lot — a critical factor in winning games.

What does this have to do with fishing? Like those overlooked but talented baseball players, there are also good fish being ignored by the marketplace: For instance, though it cooks up into a white fillet, fresh Atlantic pollock’s gray tinting makes it less attractive to customers at the fish counter, especially compared to a perennial favorite like haddock. In 2010, Gulf of Maine fishermen landed only 5,150 metric tons of pollock’s 19,800-pound allowable catch.

“When you think of the economic value that you’re leaving in the water it doesn’t make a lot of sense, particularly with so many fishermen struggling,” said Jen Levin, sustainable seafood program manager for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, Maine. “This is an opportunity to keep more boats in the water.”

GMRI’s under-utilized fish program seeks to promote some of those fish that they believe are under-valued by the marketplace, like Atlantic pollock, Atlantic mackerel, northern shrimp, redfish (ocean perch) and whiting (silver hake). The “winning game” would be to improve the public’s perception of the fish, create a demand that then raises their value and ultimately gives local fishermen another source of revenue. 

To get these fish onto the menu, GMRI has paired local fishermen with chefs, creating a dialogue between the two groups to hopefully allow them to better understand the other’s needs. 

“The reason we targeted restaurants is that they can respond to highly seasonal products, raise awareness in the general public and drive that demand in general,” said Levin. But creating that demand is only half of the equation: “The viscous cycle is [chefs] say, ‘Sure I’ll included redfish on my menu, but it’s never available and it’s beat up.’”

GMRI is hoping to bridge that gap by hosting a “trawl to table” event this spring, where chefs can talk about the restaurant business and requirements for restaurant-ready fish. Likewise, fishermen can explain to restaurant folks about the latest developments in fishing gear and management, giving them practical knowledge to better understand the complex issues surrounding seafood’s sustainability. 

Those partnerships will also receive a public unveiling at Portland’s annual foodie event, Harvest on the Harbor. At the Ultimate Seafood Splash event on 20 October, local celebrity chefs and fishermen will both be on hand to cook up dishes featuring those under-utilized species.

One fish that could be a breakout star — though it won’t be on the Harvest on the Harbor menu because it isn’t available this time a year — is mackerel. The strikes against its gaining popularity are its smallness, boniness and the fact that it doesn’t freeze well. It is so under-valued that only 1 percent of its 103-metric-ton quota was caught in the Gulf of Maine this season.

“Mackerel is one of the lowest valued fish as far as ex-vessel price; guys are getting around 20 cents a pound,” said Sam Grimly, the project coordinator for GMRI’s sustainable seafood program. But it also happens to be loaded with heart-healthy omega-3s, can be canned or smoked, and is sought after in the European market. 

“In Europe they do table-size deboning with small fish such as mackerel,” said Grimly. “Could we make that a trend here?”

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