Just Five Types of Fish Dominate our Fish Counters. It Doesn't Have To Be this Way.

May 12, 2019

Dozens of species of fish and shellfish are caught in New England’s waters. But only a handful show up in most seafood retailers. You can probably list them: cod, haddock, scallops, clams, lobster.

Now, it’s not just anecdotal. A citizen science initiative has found that five species dominate at New England seafood counters and that some of the species that are most common out in the ocean are the rarest in our markets.

That’s largely a reflection of our food tastes but it can have ecological – as well as economic – ramifications.

So, Eating with the Ecosystem – the group that ran the citizen science project – has also released a cookbook to help us enjoy a greater diversity of seafood. It’s called Simmering the Sea: Diversifying Cookery to Sustain Our Fisheries.

The 86 citizen scientists looked for 52 different New England species in local markets and grocery stores.

“Each week they received a fish list,” said Kate Masury, Program Director for Eating with the Ecosystem and the coordinator of the Eat Like a Fish research project. “And they were sent to up to three markets looking for their fish.”

The top five fish—cod, haddock, scallops, clams, and lobster—were found more than 50 percent of the time.

But the rest of the 47 species were found less than 50 percent of the time and 30 of those species were found less than 10 percent of the time.

Some examples of the fish that were found less than 10 percent of the time include dogfish, whiting, butter fish, mahi mahi, red hake, many types of flounder, and Acadian redfish.

“The list goes on,” Masury said.

“Having a broader diversity of species represented in the marketplace provides more security for both fishers and, it’s likely, if done properly, to have less impact on ecosystem as a whole,” said Michael Fogarty, senior scientist at the Ecosystem Research Program of NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

“So, just as a financial advisor would tell you to maintain a diverse portfolio, I think what's really important about Kate's work is this idea of actually trying to make that a reality in the seafood markets,” he said.

Take spiny dogfish. This incredibly common catch is not something usually on display at your local fish market in Massachusetts. But if you’ve eaten fish and chips in England, you might have eaten it. (Though that practice is now illegal because of dwindling numbers of spiny dogfish there.)

Some Chatham fishermen have developed a niche market for spiny dogfish because it often ends up in their nets and gets discarded.  

“It's a fish that's underutilized in a very large fraction of the catch,” Fogarty said.

To that end, they've got a recipe in the new cookbook for fish and chips using spiny dogfish.

“It's a white meat, but mild flavor. So, a lot of people who have it fried can't really tell the difference between that and cod,” Masury said.

One important takeaway is that fish sellers were willing to get different species for the customers when asked, she said.

"The fish markets were like, 'Oh, no one ever asked for that. We can get that for you.'"