For U.S.-caught flatfish, still room for growth

Peter Birk, head chef at an iconic Seattle restaurant specializing in Pacific Northwest seafood, understands that there are certain fish his customers expect to see on the menu.

“The demand for salmon, sablefish and halibut is so strong,” says Birk, who is the executive chef at Ray’s Boathouse, which has been a Seattle institution for more than 50 years. “I think when you go into Ray’s there’s an expectation that those fish are there. When you go into our summer season, it’s all about the salmon.”

But even though they’re local too, the West Coast’s flatfish species — including Dover, flathead, petrale, rock and yellowfin sole and Alaska plaice — don’t play as much of a starring role. Birk uses flatfish as a pinch hitter, serving it when the big players are between seasons, usually in November, December, February and March.

“We’ve never had it on the menu, just as a special,” says Birk. “It’s kind of a stop-gap fish.”

But the folks at Alaska Seafood Cooperative in Seattle would like to see sole and other West Coast flatfish species join those exalted ranks. While salmon and halibut may be the superstars of Alaska’s finfish fisheries, the state is also home to the largest flatfish fishery in the world — several hundred thousand tons of harvested product, according to Bill Orr, president of the cooperative and Iquique, a member company in Seattle.

“I think it’s a bit of a hidden fishery, but it’s certainly one of the major fisheries in the United States,” says Orr.

Since the flatfish fishery received Marine Stewardship Council certification last June, Alaska Seafood Cooperative has held events to promote the fish, bringing in chefs and other members of the seafood industry.

“At first there’s a resistance to using frozen fish, but I think once [chefs] start to use it and see it’s fresh — we catch and freeze it within hours — they find it to be a product that can be easy to use,” says Orr. “You can keep it frozen until you need it.”

Click here to read the rest of the feature on flatfish, which was written by SeaFood Business Assistant Editor Melissa Wood and appeared in the magazine’s May issue. 


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