Trash Fish: It’s What’s For Dinner

Obscure fish are becoming the increasingly trendy eco-choice meal.

At Houston’s Total Catch Market, fishmonger P.J. Stoops sells an array of unusual species, from the tunalike Almaco jack to the Pixar-worthy bigeye. The shop specializes in the “trash fish” Gulf Coast commercial fishermen catch inadvertently, and its offerings are proving popular: On a typical Saturday, Stoops sells out of up to 300 pounds of fish by 10:30 a.m.

Although bycatch remains a dirty word for many, because of the rampant waste in the industry, Stoops is part of a national movement to shift attitudes about seafood. Expanding people’s palates to include local fish promotes sustainability. Without Total Catch Market, dozens of captains would instead dump the bycatch overboard. “We have the second most productive fishery on the planet,” Stoops says of the Gulf. “The point is to approach it rationally.”

Beth Lowell, of environmental group Oceana, doesn’t object in principle to selling these fish. “For the most part,” she says, “the fish are already dead. So it doesn’t make sense to dump them overboard.” Trawl nets can scoop up nontarget fish, birds, and more; Oceana and other groups advocate counting each animal caught, and setting catch caps for each species.

Popularizing so-called trash fish extends beyond the Gulf. From New England to California, a growing number of fishermen are participating in community-supported fisheries (CSF). As with community-supported agriculture programs, local subscribers receive weekly shares. Since the idea was hatched in 2007, about 20 CSFs have been formed, and more are in the works. In turn, consumers are learning to embrace obscure species, says Sean Sullivan of the nonprofit Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. “Initially, people did not want what was seen as trash fish,” he says. “Now we’re seeing a huge change in the way people are eating.”

The shortened supply chain helps to alleviate another problem: fraud. Up to 70 percent of popular fish sold in the United States and Europe is incorrectly identified and labeled, according to a recent Oceana report. “Demand plays a large part,” says Lowell. A Senate bill introduced this year would strengthen federal agencies’ efforts to address seafood safety, labeling, and fraud.