Cafeterias, prisons and federal food programs may soon be serving a high-mercury fish in an innocuous form
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It’s Thursday morning at the Portland Public Schools central kitchen on Riverside Street in Portland, Maine. A crew of white-coat-clad kitchen employees is preparing locally landed Acadian redfish fillets topped with oyster cracker crumbs and seasoned with Old Bay for more than 2,000 elementary school students. This facility prepares local seafood once a month as part of the district’s commitment to the local food movement.
“We’re either doing redfish,” says Ron Adams, the director of food services, “or sometimes, we’ll get the haddock coming off Georges Bank.” Although Adams prefers the haddock, he’s pleased with the redfish, especially since it helps support beleaguered local fishermen.
Species like Acadian redfish, scup and sea robin have earned the moniker “trash fish” in commercial fishermen’s eyes because demand is so low that the price per pound makes them hardly worth landing.
Some of these species are so abundant that they can interfere with harvesting money-making species, such as cod. But cod and other iconic New England seafood species are disappearing because of overfishing, and fisheries managers have drastically limited the amounts fishermen can catch. So trash fish are now getting a makeover.
Numerous campaigns by environmental groups are looking to rebrand trash fish. But some New England politicians think the process is too slow — and the markets too small — to provide the immediate assistance fishermen need.
In the past year, some politicians have begun looking to federal food programs as customers for one of the most abundant and despised species: the Atlantic spiny dogfish. But proponents of serving dogfish in school lunchrooms, food kitchens, prisons and disaster shelters seem to have missed the simple fact that the mercury levels in the fish mean that serving it to these populations could be a risky move.
New England fishermen have hated dogfish for a long time, and there has never been a significant domestic market for the species. New York Times articles penned more than a century ago bemoan the dogfish as “cussed,” “ferocious” and so thick “it’s good-bye fishin’.”
In the mid-20th century, dogfish gained some goodwill as European demand drove up New England exports. Since the 1950s, the dogfish has been the default choice for fish and chips across the United Kingdom, where it’s commonly called “rock salmon.” In Germany and France, the fish is sold as “small salmon” or “sea eel.” Dogfish fins have found a home in Japanese-Chinese cuisine.
Today, the dogfish population in the western North Atlantic is as large as fishermen can remember. The Marine Stewardship Council recently certified the population as a sustainable fishery. Unfortunately, as dogfish numbers have boomed in recent years, international markets have slumped, owing to a rebounding Northeast Atlantic cod fishery and changing tastes.
New England now finds itself with a glut of dogfish and few willing buyers, and at the same time, catch limits on other species are being drastically tightened. It’s estimated there are 23 times as many dogfish as cod in the Gulf of Maine right now, but dogfish earn only a fraction of cod’s price. To make matters worse, dogfish both compete with cod for food and directly prey on cod.
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