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underutilized fish Photos courtesy of Sea to Table

Underutilized fish stories, tips and things to know: from dock to dining hall

Why you shouldn’t call it “trash fish,” which underutilized species are making a splash right now, tips for cooking and more.

Storytelling is a vital part of getting underutilized fish onto menus. More people eating underutilized fish or “trash fish” (more on that later) is a good thing for not just the oceans and the planet, but for the people who make up the fishing industry.

Part of Travis Riggs’ job is talking to fishermen, hearing what’s going on at the docks, then going into kitchens and sharing that story with chefs. Riggs, who grew up on Florida’s Gulf Coast hanging out on fishing boats, has cooked in the New York City kitchens of Chef Ben Pollinger (Oceana) and Chef Floyd Cardoz (North End Grill). Now, he works for Sea to Table, an organization that connects restaurants and college dining operations to fishermen. Riggs uses his chef cred to get into kitchens and tell the stories of underutilized fish to chefs.

He says the biggest story right now is Sea to Table’s dogfish project.

The story of the cod and the dogfish

“On the East Coast, cod is in their blood,” Riggs says, describing fishermen whose grandfathers’ grandfathers’ grandfathers valued cod so much they gave names to places like Cape Cod. “But we’d been fishing cod really hard for a long time, to the point of collapse.”

So for the past decade, cod fishing has been managed more closely, and the affect on cod fishermen and their communities has been profound.

“It’s not just the fishermen, it’s everyone who works in the city,” Riggs says, underscoring the economic impact of the cod collapse. “These communities have been built solely around the fishing industry, and they’re getting even more endangered by foreign seafood.”

Dogfish to the rescue. Sea to Table found that dogfish were filling the biological void left by cod, and in fact there were too many dogfish, “making it hard for cod to rebound,” Riggs says. “So we put together a campaign to get people more aware of dogfish.”

Last fall, Sea to Table brought foodservice directors, dining managers, chefs and students from Ohio State University, SUNY, UMass and Yale on board—literally. The group tested their sea legs on the waters near Chatham, watching fishermen catch dogfish and bring them back to the pier. They saw the dogfish processed at a packaging plant in New Bedford and then feasted on dogfish at local restaurants.

UMass has been working with underutilized fish via Sea To Table for several years, most notably with a dogfish taco that’s a big hit each time it’s on the menu. UMass has already ordered more than 2,000 pounds of dogfish this year. Yale is no slouch, either, ordering 3,000 pounds of dogfish since November, and even putting it on the Thanksgiving menu. 

PBS “NewsHour” followed the UMass dining team on its voyage last fall into the ocean and back into the dining room, where the next generation is learning to eat dogfish and loving it. See the video here. 

Large noncommercial operations like UMass are in the position to really move the needle on not only making dogfish more familiar but also by ordering so much of it. The economic impact is real.

“A group of dogfish fishermen may be just scraping by, getting 50 cents a pound and saying, ‘I can’t afford my gas to even go out and catch this,’” Riggs says. “So when we say, ‘Let’s get this into chefs’ hands.’ Then the price will go up and we can go to the fishermen and tell them, ‘We’re going to try and sell this and get you a dollar a pound,’ which is still so much cheaper for the chef [than more popular fish species].”

Don’t talk trash

When we’re talking about underutilized fish and telling its story, it’s important to think about how we refer to it. While the “trash fish” movement is definitely doing a lot of good, there are voices in the fishing and food industries calling for an end to that trashy term. 

“So-called trash fish dinners have become popular, but the term does a disservice to the ocean, and to fishermen,” writes Maria Finn in her article in Civil Eats, “Chefs: Please Stop Calling It ‘Trash Fish.’” 

“’Trash fish’ sounds catchy, but it hurts more than it helps,” Finn continues. “The term devalues the role of the animal in the ecosystem and it kills any other market for them. In fact, it creates a problem for vendors that sell local seafood and community-supported fisheries.”

Bruce S. Mattel, CHE, senior associate dean of culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), strongly agrees. The culinary students regularly eat dogfish in the CIA’s dining halls, and it’s not referred to as “trash fish.”

“I’m not a fan of the term ‘trash fish,’” Mattel says. “Every fish that is handled properly can be really, really delicious. It’s a matter of having enough care, passion and experience to treat it in a way that optimizes the flavor.” 

Optimizing the flavor

Mattel recommends looking at individual species of fish when deciding how to approach it on the menu as “there are so many different fish and every fish is distinct in its own subtle way,” he says. 

Fattier fish have a stronger flavor, as do more muscular ones like mackerel. Mattel’s rule of thumb for fattier fish is to add a hit of acid, and points to the classic French-style fish meuniere as a great place to start for many fish. The word translates to “miller’s wife,” meaning the preparation is simple. Fish is dredged in flour then sautéed in clarified butter until it’s golden and crispy, then showered with brown butter, lemon and parsley.

Fish with a blander flavor, like redfish, can work with the lemony, buttery method as well, but they can also be seen as vehicles to carry stronger flavors, Mattel says. “It becomes just the texture and mouthfeel of a protein and you can treat it aggressively, with olives and capers, or make it really spicy, like blackened Acadian redfish.”

Mattel’s best advice for selling underutilized fish is training front-of-the-house staff on telling the stories, offering an amuse bouche to sample the fish and not being shy about marketing it as something that’s beneficial to the environment.

Mattel also recommends using websites and apps like this and this to get up to date on the latest underutilized fish that just might be the next big hit on the menu.

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