Jared Auerbach stands with a box of monkfish livers at his feet. They are pale pink and streaked with blood, each one packed in plastic and nestled on ice.
Behind him on the processing floor at the Boston Fish Pier, an ice machine releases an avalanche of cubes at two-minute intervals. Dozens of gloved and aproned workers mill about, offloading, packing, and filleting. They work with the usual suspects: blue mesh bags of oysters, live scallops, and lobsters with banded claws in plastic crates.
But plenty of other local species fill the floor. There’s the monkfish, of course, plus a box of conch. There are halibut bellies and skate wings and whole black sea bass.
“On our busiest day, we unloaded 376 different boats,” says Auerbach, who founded fish distributor Red’s Best in 2008 to connect fishermen with wholesalers and retailers. He deals that catch around the world — to buyers as close as the Boston Public Market and as far as South Korea.
The shellfish stand a good chance of staying within New England, he says, finding a home at a local restaurant or fish market. But the finfish may still have a long journey ahead of them.
In New England, the diversity of native species is rarely reflected at the seafood counter, and some of the most abundant local fish are routinely eclipsed by consumer favorites with better name recognition. (Meanwhile, as a 2011 Spotlight investigation revealed, even many of the fish labeled local are actually imported and frozen.)
In 2017, Rhode Island-based seafood equity nonprofit Eating with the Ecosystem launched a citizen science project that deployed nearly 90 seafood lovers to fish markets across New England. The amateur researchers found that the seafood counters were dominated by just five species, which showed up more than 50 percent of the time: cod, haddock, lobsters, clams, and scallops. Of the 52 species researchers looked for, the 47 others appeared less than 50 percent of the time, and 30 appeared less than 10 percent of the time.
To an outsider, these findings might indicate a significant imbalance in our management of marine resources. They might even be a warning sign of overfishing for certain species — a particularly heavy accusation in New England, where the term “overfishing” is a sort of trigger word. Massachusetts owes much of its wealth to cod, a species and an industry that was once on the brink of collapse due to mismanagement.
And while environmentalists are quick to sound the overfishing alarm, many industry producers, researchers, and educators worry that the panic is misplaced, and could have adverse effects on small, local fisheries. Auerbach is among them, as is Eating with the Ecosystem director Kate Masury. They agree that US fisheries are sufficiently regulated by legislation such as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, first introduced in 1976.
Sean Lucey, a biologist who works on ecosystem-based fishery management for the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, says our strong regulations on commercial fishing are pretty much working. The Magnuson-Stevens Act mandates the biological and economic sustainability of marine fisheries, helping to build a more resilient industry less likely to rely on individual species or targeted harvests. In other words, our fisheries tend to fish “through the food web,” he says, better reflecting the biodiversity in the water.
No, the real threat to our seafood supply is not overfishing. It’s a warming climate.
At least three of the five consumer-favorite species that dominate New England’s seafood counters are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. According to the 2022 State of the Ecosystem New England report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lobster and sea scallop populations are seriously threatened by climate drivers like the disproportionate warming and acidification of the Gulf of Maine and nearby Georges Bank. As for cod, climate change is projected to increase habitat loss in Georges Bank, making it harder for the stock to rebuild from past overfishing.
And while congressional regulation and climate change are forcing fisheries to harvest a greater variety of species, the citizen science study reveals how New England’s taste buds haven’t quite kept up. What isn’t being distributed throughout New England is either being wasted or exported — hundreds of millions of pounds of fish each year. In 2021, commercial fisheries exported nearly 43 million pounds of seafood out of Boston valued at $117,753,365, according to NOAA.
Masury says Rhode Island’s top four most-caught fish — whiting, butterfish, squid, and scup — are almost all exported out of the region to bigger US cities and other countries where there’s greater demand. When butterfish was at its peak, for example, she says the state exported the majority of it to Japan.
“We land enough seafood in New England that we could feed our region and beyond, so [exporting] is not necessarily a bad thing,” she says. But the benefits of eating local, wild-caught seafood extend beyond the individual. It cuts down on fossil fuel emission in shipping, she says, plus it supports smaller, community-run fisheries that know their home ecosystems and are invested in their continued well-being.
For the region’s chefs, maintaining an active relationship with local producers — farmers, butchers, fishers — is central to building more sustainable menus. Chris Cronin is head chef and co-owner of Union Flats Seafood Co., a restaurant in New Bedford. He says he cherishes the ongoing dialogue he shares with local fishermen, who periodically call him at 5:30 a.m. to ask if he can use, say, a 10-pound halibut head.
“For years, the conversation’s been going the wrong way,” Cronin says in a phone call. “It’s been chefs telling fishermen and farmers what they need, but it should be the other way around: It should be farmers and fishermen telling chefs what they have, what’s seasonally available.”
Union Flats, which finally opened in November 2021 after multiple false starts, has proven itself as a force for change in New England cuisine, betting on dishes that use some of the most abundant local species for its hake fish n’ chips and monkfish bibimbap, a play on Korean-style beef. Monkfish has a meaty texture that stands up well to a grill, Cronin says.
For him, cooking more sustainably is an exciting creative challenge. Lately he’s been grilling Atlantic mackerel whole as it comes into season. That halibut head, which would have otherwise been used as bait or thrown back into the water, recently became halibut barbacoa: a slow-cooked Mexican dish traditionally made with the head of a cow or lamb. By the time it reached plates in the form of a taco, the consistency of the fish was almost like pulled pork. That weekend, he and his staff sold out of both the mackerel and the halibut; in the weeks since, he’s received multiple calls from customers craving more.
In the seafood industry, demand almost always dictates the supply. But Cronin’s reversal of this pattern, creating demand for what’s supplied, may be the only way forward for seafood eaters in a warming world. Because even if we don’t diversify our palates, climate change will do it for us.
“Right around the 2000s or so, a lot of articles and science [claimed] that we’d be eating nothing but phytoplankton soup and jellyfish salads because of our propensity to fish down the food web,” Sean Lucey says, referring to our reliance on predator species like cod, which are higher on the food chain and therefore less naturally abundant.
And while phytoplankton soup isn’t likely to appear on many menus anytime soon, Lucey explains that as certain species dissipate, others come in to fill their niche. Cod may eventually be replaced by another species like spiny dogfish, for example. “The ecosystem itself is pretty resilient,” he says. It’s consumers who can be more resistant to change.
To earn customers’ trust, Cronin has had to be strategic about less-familiar species and cuts. “You have to frame it accessibly, like in a taco or something. Something that’s not going to put people off,” he says. But even with careful framing, not everyone will love every kind of fish. And that’s OK. “The American palate is trained to think fish tastes like Ritz crackers and butter,” he says. “So a mackerel with a really assertive taste won’t be for everyone.” He credits his front-of-house staff for knowing how to guide diners toward dishes, and fishes, they will love.
On the production and distribution side, Red’s Best is one of the few outlets marketing a variety of seafood to New Englanders. But still, much of what it handles will leave the region.
As CEO of a busy Boston fish distributor, Jared Auerbach has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of where certain kinds (and cuts) of fish will reel in the best profit. A 2-pound fluke might be slotted for New York City’s Chinatown, while a 4-pounder might be destined for the Midwest. Wherever it goes, it’s unlikely that it will stay here in New England, where the market for our own fish still lags behind.
“What do you do with a monkfish liver on a Tuesday?” Auerbach asks, pointing to the box at his feet.
For now, he ships it off to Japan.
Emma Glassman-Hughes is a freelance writer and editor from San Diego. She works as a digital producer for The Boston Globe and is earning her master’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Three of the best local catches to try at home
Plus, where to find them and how to cook them.
By Dylan Dhindsa
“It’s probably one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen,” says Jeremy Sewall, chef and partner at local seafood chain Row 34. “The first guy to eat it was pretty brave or pretty hungry.” Yet it’s delicious, dense and versatile enough to hold strong flavors, “like beans and bacon, and heavier vegetables like Swiss chard — all great with it.” In summer, Sewall likes to pan fry it and serve it with a shaved fennel and arugula salad.
Where to get it:
> New Deal Fish Market, 622 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, 617-876-8227, newdealfishmarket.com
> Fearless Fish Market, 425 West Fountain Street, Providence, 401-415-8905, fearlessfishmarket.com
Fluke is “very mild” and “slightly sweet,” says chef Chris Cronin of Union Flats Seafood Co., a restaurant that opened in New Bedford last year. “It takes on other flavors wonderfully.” Sewall adds that you don’t have to do much to make fluke sing: “I love it just simply sautéed with brown butter and capers and lots of parsley. It’s just a great, classic preparation.” It’s also good raw, he says, “sliced really thin in a crudo style, lightly dressed with lemon and olive oil and herbs.”
Where to get it:
> Wulf’s Fish (online only), 2 Boston Fish Pier, 857-991-1557, wulfsfish.com
> Red’s Best, 100 Hanover Street, Boston, 857-930-4831, redsbest.com
New England bluefin tuna is highly prized overseas, especially for sushi in Japan, which makes it expensive back home. Still, if you can get your hands on it, it’s “one of the most special fish that you can pull out of the ocean,” Sewall says. He likes it grilled rare with a marinade of lemon, herbs, garlic, and olive oil. “One of the beautiful things about bluefin is that you don’t need to do a lot to it. You just need to add some flavors to it to make that natural richness pop.”
Where to get it:
> Red’s Best, 100 Hanover Street, Boston, 857-930-4831, redsbest.com
> Captain Marden’s Seafoods, 297 Linden Street, Wellesley, 781-235-0860, captainmardens.com
Availability may vary, so it’s best to call ahead to confirm.