Why so-called trash fish are actually a secret treasure—and why it matters
Clockwise from upper left, fisherman David Seefeldt bringing in vermilion rockfish, chef Jeremy Tummel with a grenadier and a vermilion rockfish in the chef ’s kitchen
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COX
Perhaps you’ve heard the term “trash fish” before and assumed, as its derogatory name suggests, that it refers to unappetizing or even inedible fish. Or maybe you’ve heard it in a more positive context, like a celebrity chef dinner. While there is no definitive list of species, I have come to think that the best answer to the question, “What is trash fish?” is the most literal. Trash fish is the portion of a fisherman’s catch that has little or no commercial value and is treated as disposable. Fishermen either throw the fish back into the ocean, enjoy them for dinner themselves or pass them around the commercial sphere, where they frequently go rotten in shops or restaurant coolers because guests refuse to order items they are unfamiliar with.
But as seafood sustainability becomes an increasing concern, and consumers seek out not just economical but ethical products, so-called “trash fish” are quickly becoming recognized as a delicious and valuable alternative to more popular species. For example, the company Trashfish based in Los Angeles is touting its bimonthly seafood boxes on its website as “the freshest and most exclusive seafood in Los Angeles.”
Clearly, one man’s trash is another’s treasure, and this isn’t the first time a fish once discarded on the dock became a story worth telling!
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PATAGONIAN TOOTHFISH
Lee Lantz, an ambitious young fish purveyor from California, traveled to Valparaiso, Chile in the 1970s, searching for a new fish to bring to the American market. Species that had been market staples, like halibut, were getting more expensive and boats were making longer trips and fishing deeper waters. Lantz, like many other fish buyers, was forced to travel around the globe. A few years earlier, he had begun importing a fish called congrio from Chile, and this time, the fish that caught his attention was a gruesome-looking black sea monster with bulbous eyes and a prominent lower jaw lined with jagged teeth. The species was considered too oily to eat, but when Lantz came across the same mysterious fish at a second market, he took a piece back to his apartment to try. The result was anticlimactic. The meat was flavorless with an oily consistency, yet Lantz knew this was perfect for the American market! The American palate enjoyed fish that had a neutral flavor, something that could hold up to being battered and fried into fish sticks and eaten with pungent sauces.
Lantz knew that Bacalao de profundidad, or “cod of the deep,” the fish’s colloquial name, wasn’t one that would appeal to his buyers; nor would its formal name, Patagonian toothfish. After some deliberation, he settled on Chilean sea bass—which associated the fish with a familiar flaky white meat and had just enough of an exotic flair for modern marketing. Over the following decade, interest in Chilean sea bass soared from an initial export price of 45 cents per pound paid to the fishermen to five-star treatment by iconic restaurants such as the Four Seasons in New York City. As demand continued to grow and the public grew aware of this fashionable fish, Chile permitted larger international trawlers to target wider fishing zones and increase their annual catch. As we are now aware, the Patagonian toothfish takes upwards of 17 years to reproduce, so by the early 1990s, when the catch was up to 34,000 tons, the entire adolescent population had been decimated. By the time conservation efforts caught up, the species was on the brink of collapse and since then, the recovery process has been long and arduous.
Today, the Patagonian toothfish is still listed on the Seafood Watch Avoid List, joining the likes of slimeheads (orange roughy), whore’s eggs (uni) and other marine species that ultimately became victims of overly successful marketing.
LOCAL TRASH, INTERNATIONAL SALES
A family-operated fishing fleet in Monterey can routinely catch more than 33,000 pounds of local groundfish (such as lingcod, rock cod and petrale sole) in a single trip. Where does it go? Ask Sheila Bowman, a veteran of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in charge of culinary strategy for the Seafood Watch program, and she will tell you, “These are some of the best fish on the planet, but almost nobody has heard of them, suppliers don’t carry it; it’s all getting exported!” And groundfish aren’t the only export from Monterey. Squid, spot prawns, black cod and other delicacies are whisked away in unmarked trucks to far-flung destinations.
With such demand, is it any surprise that the prospect of a single cash transaction on the dock appeals more to a hardworking and small-scale fishing operation than schlepping across Monterey to chefs who might buy a couple of fish while complaining about price and consistency? This is why I have such respect for fishermen who, after a fishing marathon, make the effort to sell their fish locally.
Jerry Wetle—who over the last 31 years has worked tirelessly to build up a small fleet of fishing boats from the Channel Islands to Moss Landing—is considered by many Monterey chefs to be THE resource for local fish. When I send Wetle a text to get his thoughts on the topic of trash fish, his response is characteristically short and to the point. “I think everybody would agree that grenadier is one of the most underutilized fish and is extremely cheap. It’s ugly, although the flavor is amazing.” Also known as “rattail” fish, this deep sea dweller has a monstrously large head and a long slender body tapering into a tail.
However, grenadier is only the common name for a whole family of fish, with dozens of species found across the world’s oceans.
Alan Lovewell, founder and CEO of Real Good Fish, a Moss Landing-based, community-supported fishery program that connects fishermen and consumers in the same way that CSAs connect farmers and their customers, has been providing locally sourced Pacific grenadier (and Pacific rockfish) to Bay2Tray, a program that works with the USDA Farm to School program to place local fish on school menus.
Not only do students have the opportunity to eat local fish in their lunches, but as Lovewell explains, they are also “making a full-circle connection for children to learn that seafood is much more than fish sticks, that fish come from our backyard bay, and as benefactors, we must also be stewards of the resource.” By bringing local fishermen in to talk with them, the children learn about the commercial fishing industry and what it means to fish sustainably.
Wanting more information on grenadier, I visited Santa Barbara’s weekly Saturday Fishermen’s Market (at present, Monterey has no such independent market where consumers can buy directly from fishermen, although a new effort to boost both the supply and demand for fish landed from Monterey Bay with a “Fish Hub” could change that. (See “Fishing for a Comeback” online or in EMB’s Winter 2017 issue.)
It’s just after 6am, but there is already a line of curious buyers huddled over large tubs of freshly caught fish. The market is filled with local groundfish of every shape and size, along with several species of crabs and buckets of whelks. I pause for a moment to speak with fisherman Garrett Rose about the cooler of fish he is displaying. Inside, there is a mix of sole, black cod and longspine thornyhead. I ask Rose if he ever catches grenadier and his girlfriend Jessica laughs and exclaims, “I think you are the first person to ever ask about grenadier!” Rose goes on to say, “I actually caught two on this trip, but I took them home and ate them. They are delicious, but nobody wants to buy them.”
The story of grenadier rings hauntingly familiar to that of Patagonian toothfish. At the moment Macrouridae, or the grenadier fish family, holds a “Best Choice” rating by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and chefs and fishermen regard it as undervalued. But how long will it take to find its own spotlight, and when it does, will we have the resources in place to manage the fishery? Will some out-of-town marketing firm rebrand Pacific grenadier as Big Sur Rock Bass? Will it go the way of the rest of Monterey’s fresh seafood and become lost to international markets?
ETHICAL TREASURE HUNTING
David Seefeldt was born and raised on the Big Sur coast, where he has created a way of life and earns his livelihood from the rugged mountains and coastline that are his home. It’s not easy to get by living off the natural resources in Big Sur, but Seefeldt is a multi-talented forager who hunts chanterelles in the winter, fishes during the summer and carves jade in between. Seefeldt usually sells his entire catch either to a single buyer in San Francisco or to Monterey County restaurants. When I ask about market demand and whether he is able to get a fair price for the fish, he responds, “Vermilion rockfish and lingcod are not nearly as renowned as salmon or halibut and are generally way undervalued. They are not well known because they are not readily available due to the quotas and availability of the rockfish. Most vermilion rockfish on the market come from Canada, which has a huge rockfish industry. In my opinion, it is not sustainable—their large quotas and the type of gear that they use is usually drag nets.”
Unlike this large-scale method, Seefeldt’s fishing trips start with a drive to Monterey to load up with 1,200 pounds of ice. The next morning, he wakes up at 4am and launches a 14-foot aluminum skiff directly off the beach into the ocean. His goal is to have his hooks in the water by sunrise, and he’ll fish with hook and line at about a 1,000- feet depth for about 12 hours, targeting primarily vermilion rockfish and lingcod. Temperamental weather, as well as low hook and line quotas, limits his fishing. But Seefeldt tells me his most challenging obstacle is “educating my buyers on how fresh my catch is. I normally sell my fish the next day after being caught, which means restaurants are able to put it on their menu one day after it was caught.
“My goal is to stay self-sustained and live off sustainable natural resources that we have on this remote rugged coastline,” Seefeldt says. “This has always been my home and hopefully the next generation can call it home also.”
And there it is, the single point that makes all of this so important: There is no such thing as trash fish, only undervalued and overvalued fish, and our valuations will make a material difference to future generations. At the time of writing this article, I noticed Chilean sea bass being sold at a local market for $44 per pound; grenadier was selling for just $5 per pound.
With the seafood industry in a constant state of evolution, it is critical for consumers to educate themselves through programs and resources like Seafood Watch. You can’t assume that the guidelines or best practices of yesterday still apply today. Twenty years ago a self-respecting chef wouldn’t touch a frozen fish, but today onboard flash-freezing technology has revolutionized the industry, helping to both preserve freshness and kill parasites as soon as fish has been caught. Ten years ago, people recoiled at the idea of farmed tilapia, but after years of international pressure to improve aquaculture practices, today it is considered a sustainable seafood choice.
Just a couple of years ago putting Chilean sea bass on a restaurant menu would have been almost as egregious as serving dolphin steaks, but today there are several certified Chilean sea bass fisheries helping the population recover and trying to ensure a responsible return to restaurant menus. Bowman has many wonderful thoughts and observations on the issue of trash fish, and local seafood in general, but one of her most poignant comments is, “Let go of old stories and embrace new stories.” The story of trash fish is old; it is time to embrace seafood sustainability seriously on a global level, or there will be no story left.
The former executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar, John Cox is now pursuing a number of projects, including serving as a chef-partner at Cultura— comida y bebida in Carmel and The Bear and Star at the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos. For more, go to www.chefjohncox.com or follow him on Instagram and Facebook.
Ginger Brined Grenadier with Parsnip Purée, Bacon Beurre Blanc and Apricot Sweet and Sour Glaze.