When it winds up in the wrong net, it’s called bycatch. To frustrated anglers hoping to hook something more prized, it’s trash fish. For fisheries experts, it might go under the gentler, more technical tagline of underutilized fish.
But to Gray Granata, all of this instead is “the bountiful catch.”
“The bountiful catch is all the delicious stuff we could be eating, but that now gets thrown back,” explained Granata, leader of Slow Food New Orleans, the local chapter of the global food advocacy group. The handful of fish “that you see all the time, that’s the limited catch.”
Whatever you call it, more of the gulf’s prodigiously varied harvest is making its way to New Orleans diners. Sometimes, it appears on restaurant specials boards. But increasingly, it’s also the star attraction at events designed specifically to showcase the seafood that is now routinely discarded because there isn’t a strong commercial supply chain between the boat and the plate.
Advocates for the Gulf say casting a wider net for local seafood types has many upsides. It can reduce pressure on the most popular fish stocks, it puts more money in the hands of local fishermen, who can sell more of their catch, and it brings something different to the table for consumers.
Talks and tastings
These are core issues for Slow Fish, an offshoot of Slow Food that supports local fisheries around the world as they grapple with concerns about sustainability, habitat loss and industrialization. Slow Fish has held biannual fairs in Genoa, Italy, and next year it will meet in New Orleans for the first time.
Planned for March 10-13 (during Lent, fittingly), Slow Fish will include an international conference at the Old U.S. Mint aimed at fishermen, chefs, researchers, advocates and others and events for the public at the adjacent French Market.
While details of Slow Fish take shape, on July 13 its organizers will hold a seafood tasting happy hour, dubbed Fish Tales & Cocktails, as the first in a planned series of events leading to the conference.
Chefs Dana and Christine Honn will host the tasting at their Warehouse District restaurant Carmo, along with guest chefs Alex Harrell, of Angeline, and Michael Doyle, of Maurepas Foods (see sidebar for details).
Carmo held a similar event earlier in June, as part of the citywide Eat Local Challenge. Some examples served that night were ceviche made from dense chunks of porgy, nigiri made from blue runner (a rich-tasting, velvety-textured fish that compares well to tuna), raw b line snapper and croquettes made of Gulf squid, a common bycatch in shrimp trawls but a rarity at local markets.
Guests were lined up waiting before the doors opened, and within an hour they had gobbled up hundreds of sample portions of each. This eager response to the unfamiliar catch was a good sign to John Fallon, project coordinator with Gulf United for Lasting Fisheries, or GULF, a sustainable fishing initiative from the Audubon Nature Institute, which took part in the event.
“I think it’s part of the focus on getting what’s local and adding diversity to your diet, of tapping into more of what’s really out there,” Fallon said. “The trouble with serving this kind of seafood is the consistency. You don’t always know what you’re going to get because, by its nature, it isn’t a targeted catch. But when there’s more of a market for different types of fish, more fishermen will take care of what they catch and people can get better access to it.”
Baiting the hook
That is beginning to happen, albeit slowly, said Benny Miller, owner of Louisiana Seafood Exchange. The Jefferson-based seafood distributor keeps all manner of Gulf exotica on its product list (under the categories “miscellaneous inshore” and “miscellaneous offshore”). Miller said boats that target popular catches like snapper or grouper are now returning with a greater variety of other fish to sell, as their captains see a niche market for demand developing at local restaurants.
“It’s become a good sales tool” for restaurants, Miller said. “You have to be versatile to offer this kind of thing, because getting certain fish is very hit or miss, and you have to know your fish to serve it. Your everyday fry house isn’t going to do that, so it helps some chefs differentiate themselves.”
One of those chefs is Tenney Flynn, co-owner of the elegant French Quarter seafood restaurant GW Fins. Lionfish, barracuda and almaco jacks are some examples that have turned up blackened, grilled or cut into raw crudo on Flynn’s menus lately.
“It’s not like trying to convince people to eat nutria or Asian carp,” Flynn said. “A lot of this is pretty tasty fish. People are just much more adventurous now than they were 20 years ago. People have culinary bucket lists now.”
Next week, on June 30, GW Fins will hold the second annual edition of its “spear fish dinner,” serving a range of fish that Flynn plans to catch himself on a gulf spear fishing outing (he’s licensed to sell his own catch to his restaurant). The exact menu will depend on the fish that end up on the wrong end of his spear gun, which is par for the course when serving seafood away from the primary commercial species.
At Carmo, Dana Honn has learned to roll with the uncertainty; he’s been able to use blue runner, b line snapper, scorpion fish and lion fish on his specials list recently. The key, he said, is building a clientele that’s curious about these catches and keeping open lines of communication with suppliers.
“We work with people who know what we’re looking for now, and they know that we’ll use some of this stuff,” Honn said. “It’s getting to where the boats will let us know what they’ve caught in advance while they’re still out there, which is great because then we can start research recipes in advance.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.