Andrew Knowlton, reastaurant and fish editor for Bon Appetit, explains that the main commercial fish in the Gulf are snapper, grouper, and codfish, but there are thousands of other species in the same water that end up on the same lines and in the same nets as commercial species.
In the commercial fishing industry, these fish are called “bycatch” — also known as “trash” fish — fish that are inadvertently caught while fishing for another, larger, commercial fish.
These fish — pink sea bream, longtail sea bass, almaco jack, and blackfin tuna — are eaten by people in the US and different parts of the world.
Knowlton points out that instead of the standard fare of snapper and grouper on seafood menus, Houston restaurants regularly serve “bycatch” on the menu.
When Houston chef Bryan Caswell initially tried to create a market for “trash” fish, the industry was so dominated by traditional commercial fish that he couldn’t purchase bycatch even if he wanted to.
Until he met a man named PJ Stoops.
Stoops began selling bycatch about five years ago out of coolers in the back of his truck. Within couple of years, he started delivering to most of the best chefs in Houston and launched a weekend bycatch market called “Total Catch.”
“We get people at the market who had eaten at the restaurants and gotten used to eating the bycatch species,” Stoops says, “but we also get people who come because it’s fresh fish at low, local prices.”
Food writer Alison Cook writes:
“Shoppers never knew what they would find at Total Catch. There might be meaty Barrelfish, or perhaps Triggerfish, Blue Runner, Porgy, Blackbelly Scorpion fish or Vermilion Snapper, depending on what the fishermen were catching along with their bread-and-butter species.”
Knowlton notes that beyond the economic and eco-friendly concerns, chefs love the challenge and unpredictability that using bycatch fish poses in the kitchen.
Justin Yu, at Houston’s Oxheart restaurant, has been using bycatch since he opened the restaurant.
Yu recently served cured and smoked sand trout with sweet potato greens, smoked pine nut puree, and a sofrito made with dried bycatch shrimp.
“I got to use stingray wing recently, which gets a gelatinous texture to it if you cook it for a long time,” says Yu. “But you put that with something super crunchy in a richer sauce, and people get really into this new thing.”
“Houston home cooks could pick up a bony, delicious sheepshead (long and unfairly derided as a trash fish) or a batch of curlicued shells containing oyster drills, a shellfish that preys on oysters and can be an unintended part of the catch (therefore “bycatch”) when the oysters are harvested,” says Alison Cook.
Cook adds that Stoops has made it his mission to coax consumers to broaden their horizons from the easy stuff, and five years after he first started showing up the back doors of local restaurants, he’s had significant success.
Eat Gulf Seafood at Your Own Risk
While I admire PJ Stoops’ economic and eco-friendly effort, I strongly advise consumers to refrain from eating any and all fish from the Gulf, where eyeless shrimp and fish with lesions have become common.
Gulf of Mexico fishermen, scientists and seafood processors are finding disturbing numbers of mutated shrimp, crab and fish that they believe are deformed by chemicals released during BP’s 2010 oil disaster.
Along with collapsing fisheries are horribly mutated shrimp, fish with oozing sores, underdeveloped blue crabs lacking claws, eyeless crabs and shrimp – and among all those interviewed, BP’s oil pollution disaster is named as being the cause.