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I’ll have the trash fish, please

The history of fishing in Massachusetts is in large part the history of cod. But the future of fishing here will be on display Sunday, when fishermen, chefs, environmental advocates, and political leaders sit down to a meal of redfish, pollock and dogfish.

We are calling it a "Trash Fish" Dinner because for far too many years tons of these delicious fish were tossed overboard as waste, ignored in a marketplace that stuck resolutely to cod, haddock, flounders, and not much else. Years of inadequate conservation and management measures, and now climate change impacts, such as rising ocean temperatures and decreasing salinity, have combined to push some groundfish stocks down to a point where we must tightly restrict the catch. This will give the fish a rest, and allow them to rebuild so that both fish and the fishing industry have a future here. We know that stocks can rebuild if given a chance because redfish, dogfish, haddock, and others have done just that. Now we must re-introduce the public to fish that weren't available in the market in recent years.


Thus, the "Trash Fish" Dinner could not come at a more opportune time. Just last month, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to significantly reduce catch limits for cod and other groundfish species. Stock declines and the reduction in catch limits are hitting fishermen and fishing communities throughout the region extremely hard. But, our focus on these under-utilized species previews what sustainable seafood consumption might look like in the future while offering a promising path forward for the New England fishing industry.

The good news is that we know people are willing to try new fish. As recently as the early 1990's, fish that were previously cast aside, like monkfish, became wildly popular as people looked beyond their traditional favorites. The bad news is that when this happened, we didn't know enough about these "data poor" stocks and might easily have depleted them too. Luckily, fishermen and scientists working together were able to learn enough about monkfish in time and implement management efforts. But we don't want to roll the dice with other species. Data collection and innovation in fishing methods will be key to healthy fisheries.


Additionally, new survey data from the University of Massachusetts support our experience that the public is open to lesser-known fish species and that consumers are willing to try new types of seafood, particularly if it helps advance sustainability and support local fishermen. The data also illustrate that education and information about different fish types are critical to successfully market lesser-known fish.

Armed with this knowledge, eight of New England's favorite chefs — Rich Garcia, Larry Leibowitz, Evan Mallet, Mary Reilly, Jake Rojas, Michael Scelfo, Derek Wagner, and Drew Hedlund — will join us at Area Four in Cambridge to cook a multicourse meal focused on underutilized species.

The purpose of tasting and experiencing so-called trash fish goes beyond identifying new fish to eat. We want people to understand the challenge of our dwindling fish stocks, to continue to learn from one another as we craft a more sustainable seafood landscape, to communicate the excitement and possibilities of underappreciated species to a larger audience, and to help provide solutions to these environmental and economic challenges that take into account the needs and desires of the stakeholders involved.


If we're successful, we won't need to call them trash fish anymore. Like cod and haddock, they'll come to be known as a staple of the New England seafood landscape.

Johanna Thomas is director of the New England and Pacific regions for Environmental Defense Fund's Oceans Program. Michael Leviton is the board chair of Chefs Collaborative, chef/owner of Lumiere in Newton and Area Four in Cambridge.