When you visit a Rhode Island restaurant or fish market, you commonly see a menu of local seafood items: scallops, littleneck clams and oysters, squid, lobster, and maybe black sea bass if you’re lucky. Depending on the species, the price tag may be a little high, but you need to eat, so you commit.
What you likely won’t see is monkfish, skate, sea robin, scup, tautog, or any of the 40 plentiful species that are landed in Rhode Island every year. Even if these fish are available, you’ve likely never heard of them, so you may ignore their name and less expensive price in favor of a more familiar or more popular variety.
This complicated fracture in the supply-and-demand landscape poses a significant challenge for the Ocean State’s $103 million seafood industry and the small businesses within it. Consumer demand largely determines what restaurants and markets serve, leaving fishermen and harvesters who are catching lesser known fish in the crosshairs. But advocates argue that the opposite should occur so consumers eat more sustainably and locally. They believe that what the ecosystem produces should determine what fishermen and harvesters should catch and what restaurants and markets should sell.
It’s a common disconnect between consumers and what is fresh and available, said Molly Ogren, chairwoman of the RI Seafood Marketing Collaborative. Rhode Island consumers are largely unaware how much seafood is native to the state, or don’t know how to prepare it at home, she explained, so they don’t request it at restaurants or markets. Meanwhile, plentiful species like sea robin, monkfish, and skate remain an untapped resource, hiding in the shadow of lobster, scallop, and cod that get all the consumers’ attention and dollars. This could otherwise be profitable to fishermen if there were a stronger local marketplace.
To create a more consistent, sustainable fishery, organizations like the Rhode Island Seafood Marketing Collaborative, Eating with the Ecosystem, and Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island educate consumers in local seafood species, availability, accessibility, and cooking methods. Learning guides teach consumers how to fillet a whole fish or prepare a grilled oyster. Ogren said the instruction combats cultural gaps in understanding which parts of the fish are edible and how to prepare them to eat. Annual events, like Quahog Week in April, allow consumers to try new seafood.
It’s also important to know where to source these fish, so consumers can return repeatedly over time and drive demand, said Eating with the Ecosystem executive director Kate Masury. She partnered with Ogren and Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island executive director Fred Mattera to help consumers rediscover diverse native seafood species through an online free Seafood Finder map and the Fish Line app, both of which connect consumers with fishermen and markets directly, ensuring they know how to access the freshest daily harvest. Masury organizes Cook a Fish, Give a Fish cooking classes online with fisheries experts and professional chefs who teach anyone who is interested how to prepare a simple and delicious meal with local species. Recent offerings included Japanese sashimi crudo and seared scallops with chef Youji Iwakura, as well as seafood stew with Sly Fox Den Too chef Jade Galvin, daughter of James Beard award-winning indigenous chef Sherry Pocknett of Charlestown.
“Consumers buy what they’re familiar with. One example is salmon. People understand what that is, and they know it’s delicious and fairly easy to cook, as opposed to a local species like scup or bluefish that are just as delicious, readily available, fresh, and easy to cook too,” Ogren said. “But what about quahogs or scup? Maybe consumers know quahogs, but they’ve only had clam cakes or stuffies and may not know there are other ways to eat it. Scup are some of the easiest to catch but you never see it in restaurants or markets unless it’s a whole fish.”
Masury agrees that the majority of local consumers may know a few native species, but many don’t know the wide diversity of seafood in Rhode Island waters. “Plus, most of our markets, menus, and plates generally do not reflect the diversity of seafood produced in our local ecosystems and caught in our fisheries,” she said.
“We actually import more than 90 percent of the seafood we eat and then we export around two-thirds of the seafood caught in our local waters,” Masury said.
Customers absorb that cost, especially for quality seafood, but they won’t try something new if it costs too much, said Charlie Holder of Newport’s Midtown Oyster Bar. He said their menu is approximately 75 percent native fish and shellfish, and to maintain that consistency year-round, he fields calls nearly every day from local fishermen offering their freshest haul. Yet Holder knows he can pay less but charge more for imported Chilean sea bass than for local monkfish because customers don’t recognize the lesser-known whitefish, which has a similar flavor and texture to lobster.
“Skate and monkfish are two perfect examples of fish, especially in the summer, that we use all the time. And they sell. But not as well as swordfish or a more known entity. We’ll usually put them on as a special,” Holder explained. “But people trust us, and know we’re not putting out a garbage piece of fish in order to make money.”
Mattera, who has been a commercial fisherman and industry advocate for 50 years, said this supply and demand system is unfortunately just the way it is here. It’s problematic for fishermen, who transition to different fish species depending on what’s in season, and he said prices fluctuate so wildly that they have to catch high volumes of fish to even make the trip worthwhile.
“With fuel costing $4 a gallon, is it worth catching 5,000 pounds of scup if they sell for $.25 per pound? … In the ‘70s, we were getting as much or more money than we are now. It takes an awful lot of scup landed (to break even). Yesterday they were $.50 a pound, today they’re $.40 and tomorrow they’re $.25 based on size. … It’s a problem,” Mattera said. “That’s where the discouragement is to even go and harvest them at that price. So you can see these peaks and valleys of pricing based on supply and demand.”
Fluctuations also are due in part to regulations and quotas, Mattera added. These restrictions limit the amount of a specific species that fishermen can catch, and vary based on state.
“Due to climate change the fish are shifting north, so we have these explosions of sea bass and scup (in Rhode Island), but we don’t have the (higher) quota to correspond with the shift,” Mattera explained. “There are boats from Carolinas or Virginia that in order to get their 10,000 pounds of fluke they steam up to Rhode Island to catch their fluke and then steam back. We need to make a shift in (our) regulatory process.”
Advocates said that continued education and exposure remains critical. Holder said they teach their servers about the daily catch, so they can share with diners what the dish is, and how its texture and flavor compare to other familiar fish. They even offer wine and beer pairings to complement the meal. Many fish markets include online and in-person listings of species provenance, to let consumers know where their seafood originates.
“Not every fish market carries all of these local species, so depending on the species and where someone lives, it can be hard to find,” Masury said. “But that’s one of the reasons we do this education work, whether it’s classes or other events, cooking demonstrations or talks. We want people to help create demand for these local species that are abundant and productive and we should be eating more of.”