BOSTON — Cod has been king for centuries in New England. And for generations, it sustained a vibrant fishing industry here. But in recent years, federal regulators have imposed strict catch limits on cod and other groundfish, and fisherman say they can’t even meet those quotas because it’s getting harder to find cod in local waters.
So with a shortage of local cod, there is an effort underway to lure diners away from the revered species and steer them towards new types of fish that are abundant. But it’s not easy to increase consumer demand for what’s long been considered “trash fish.”
At a fundraising dinner at the Cambridge restaurant Area Four, diners were not eating the usual fare. Redfish, surf clam and dogfish — sometimes known as “trash fish” — were on the menu.
Michael Leviton, chef and owner at Area Four, said the species are hardly household names. The point of the dinner was to highlight overlooked fish that are abundant in local waters. One of the offerings was lionfish ceviche with ruby grapefruit and a candied lemon zest.
“We’re hosting a dinner tonight that brings together nine chefs, each who are cooking a different fish to show our customers so many of these fish that are available in New England really are tasty,” Leviton said. “And we’re trying to get them to look beyond the traditional cod and haddock.”
That’s because cod and haddock, which have been New England’s money-makers for generations, are in short supply.
“I’ve never seen cod fishing this bad,” said Greg Walinski, who has worked as a fisherman in Chatham for 30 years. “It looks to me like it’s over.”
Walinski has made much of his living by catching cod and other groundfish, but last year he and other New England fishermen could not find enough cod to meet their shrinking quotas.
“We’ve tried our best to look just about everywhere,” Walinski said. “In my mind, right now, they’re gone.”
John Pontius, the owner of Finely JP’s, a popular seafood restaurant in Welfleet, said his restaurant is like most places on the Cape — he has always served local cod. But the shortage caused prices to skyrocket, so he stopped.
“We did have people come in and say, ‘Do you have codfish on the menu?’ You know, people come to Cape Cod thinking, ‘Cape Cod, lets get some codfish, that’s why they named it Cape Cod.'”
Pontius began serving cod that was imported from Iceland. And he is not alone.
“Everybody up and down the road has got the same cod from Iceland right now. If it’s on the menu, it’s most likely from Iceland,” he said.
To deal with the shortage, New England fishermen are turning to other types of groundfish. Specifically, dogfish. But dogfish, long considered a “trash fish,” has virtually no market here in the U.S.
Gloucester was once the busiest fishing port in the world because of cod. But Chris Duffy, manager at the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange, a fish wholesaler right on the dock, said those times are long gone.
“This fishery has been declared a federal disaster,” Duffy explained. “The difference this time is there’s not another play, there isn’t another road to go down.”
In his warehouse, Duffy showed off vats of freshly caught whole dogfish packed on ice. Virtually all of it will be shipped overseas to Asia and Europe.
“This under section here is called the belly flap,” Duffy explained. “Those go to Germany and they get smoked, they take the skin off of this, and you have the dogfish backs. They’re big in Europe. They will chop it up in cutlets and fry it up, or you can filet it. It’s so popular elsewhere. It’s just, in America, it’s not.”
Duffy and other fish wholesalers are trying to build a local market for dogfish.
“It’s a great opportunity for people, forward thinking people, to develop a business based on a fish that is cheap, affordable, local, sustainable and it supports and puts a lot of guys to work.”
But dogfish is a hard sell.
“I know what they do with dogfish, they send it to England mostly, and the English use it for fish and chips and I believe that’s why they put vinegar on their fish and chips,” said Romeo Solviletti, manager of Connolly’s Seafood, located just down the block from the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange. “I mean, I’m sure there are people who eat dogfish around here, but we don’t sell any.”
This is the kind of resistance that dogfish converts are up against. But the firm white fish is slowly making its way into markets here. Some hospitals and universities in the region have agreed to buy dogfish for their dining rooms. And there’s a push by local lawmakers to get the federal government to order millions of pounds of dogfish to supply prisons, military bases and schools.
Chef Pontius said he would prefer serving local cod instead of getting it from Iceland. But he’s not sure his customers are ready for dogfish.
“You know, I don’t know how many people would say, ‘Wow, that sounds good, dogfish, let’s try that.'”