In an upcoming episode of Andrew Zimmern’s show Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel, the eclectic epicurean host visits Bayou LaBatre, Ala., a well-known Gulf Coast fishing town, and its surrounds.
In one segment, he interviews Dustin Mizell, a Gulf Shores charter boat operator who has established a niche for sport-fishermen to bowfish skates and rays at night. (He encourages his clients to use a variety of tools in what Mizell calls his Blood Box to process their catch. Every fisherman knows how to jury rig, but this guy has the notion branded. Now that’s the spark of marketing genius.)
When I think of skates, I think of the Northeast trawl fishery. When I imagine Gulf Coast recreational fishing, I envision snappers and groupers, of course.
This show illustrates how members of all fishing sectors can capitalize on underutilized species. When rec fishermen go to the Gulf Coast, they want to bring home a gorgeous red snapper. But wouldn’t it be just as exciting to try something off the wall like spearing skates and rays? There’s a big push in New England to help the commercial groundfish fleet by increasing the demand (and therefore, price) of the less popular (but plenty populous) fish in the multispecies complex.
Regional advocacy groups have been working with white-table restaurateurs and chefs to promote so-called trash-fish dinners (for more thoughts on that, be sure to visit the Lobsters on the Fly blog, penned by the eloquent and delightfully wry Monique Coombs), making use of once-discarded or under-marketed species.
Once upon a time, monkfish and lobster were in the “trash fish” category. Skate wings have been sold as mock scallops (both legitimately and fraudulently). You never know when you’re going to strike a hot iron when it comes to food marketing. Imagine the progress we could make if the recreational and commercial segments were working toward the same goals and developing the same markets.
But in the meantime, can we come up with a better term than “trash fish”? Hidden gems? Secret seafood? Market-free fish?
As an industry, we’ve been far more inclined to use the collection of tools in the jury-rigger’s Blood Box rather than stepping outside of our comfort zone to reach the consumer at white-tablecloth restaurants. And in many ways, it has worked for us. Where would the “Deadliest Catch” be without an edge? But when it comes to seafood — the resulting product, not just the image of fishing — we’ve let processors, chefs and retailers do the marketing work for us.
It’s possible that we can walk a fine line between exposing customers to the Blood Box and cleaning off our hands to delve into the world of white tablecloths, but it’s going to take some careful handling either way.