The Total Catch

By Kelly Yandell 
Photography of pier (below) by Kelly Yandell
Photography of fish, courtesy of  P.J. Stoops, Louisiana Foods

I am a fishing kid. Or rather, I am a 40-year-old version of a fishing kid. My mother and father were both raised fishing, and they raised my brother and me to fish, as well. I knew how to pull out a backlash on a casting reel before I turned seven. I knew as a mere toddler that at 6:30 a.m., a Texas lake is prettier than almost any spot on earth. But my decent vocabulary of freshwater game fish—the various bass, crappie, catfish and bream to name a few—belies my landlocked ignorance.


I have traveled to the Gulf to take my own children to the beach, but never ventured to think about what was swimming in the water other than people and jellyfish. As a cook, I have rarely given a thought to where my saltwater fish comes from prior to gazing at it through the glass, lined up in neat little boneless, mostly skinless rows. A recent trip to the Gulf Coast changed my outlook completely.

In February, I attended my first Foodways Texas event in Galveston. Foodways Texas is a celebratory, academic, nonprofit organization with a goal of documenting the historical food cultures of Texas. It also hosts symposia that allow Texas food communities to discuss current topics of interest. At the Galveston gathering, the discussion that really caught my attention was the one on trashfish and bycatch led by fishmonger P.J. Stoops of Louisiana Foods, Chef Bryan Caswell of Reef in Houston and Chef Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due Supper Club in Austin.  

Trashfish and bycatch are highly ironic monikers that relate to how a species of edible fish has been treated commercially. It is an assessment of economy, not gastronomy. When commercial fishing boats enter the Gulf, they each have a goal, or a “target” species. They are looking for a haul of snapper or shrimp or whatever species they are able to most successfully market. As the lines and nets are brought in, numerous other species of fish are pulled in with the target species. This is bycatch. With no readily available market for these varieties, they are considered trash and thrown back. Sadly, many are already dead or significantly injured at this point.

Trashfish doesn’t sound very appetizing, but certain experts, like Stoops, Caswell and Griffiths, are convinced that this is the new wave of ethical and sustainable seafood consumption. The only requirement is that we consumers have to learn a bit and look past the marquee fish of which we have been so enamored for the past two decades. Among them—the swordfish, the legendary bluefin tuna and the true red snapper—swim hordes of little-known and altogether ignored species that are plentiful, delicious and basically wasted. These are fish that are highly valued in foreign markets, and some are considered true delicacies.

Technology and improved methods have made it easier, relative to 100 years ago, to harvest massive quantities of not only shrimp, but the highly sought after apex predator species. These are the species at the top of the food chain. The over-harvesting of these large fish with long reproduction cycles is fraught with risk to each of these species. Where fishermen once boasted of reeling in 2000-pound swordfish, they now routinely catch 200-pounders. The old ones are increasingly gone, and the young fish cannot develop into adulthood before being caught. These converging issues make the acceptance of —and education about—alternative species in the Gulf all the more important.

It is easy, upon first glimpse of this issue to immediately point a finger at commercial fishermen for these phenomena. But, ever since we heard about dolphin getting caught in tuna nets, great strides have been made in creating fishing technology that minimizes bycatch. Fishermen bring to dock what they think they can sell. We, the consumers, are the ones who create the demand. If we demand big slabs of boneless fish and are willing to pay dearly for it, we will be sold just that. If we gravitate to the exact same “popular” fish each time we order at a restaurant, that is what we will be served. However, if we ask our fishmonger or chefs to educate us about other types of smaller, less-known fare, perhaps we too can take part in a new way of looking at Gulf seafood. Expanding our palates and celebrating the Gulf will take the pressure off of the arguably overharvested fisheries and help open a viable market for the species we now refer to as only bycatch and trashfish.

pier

An exciting Saturday market in Houston aims to change the way we look at Gulf seafood. Louisiana Foods is a large Houston-based seafood distributor. Its founder, Jim Gossen, is a true advocate of Gulf Coast seafood and the health of its fisheries. He gave P.J. Stoops and Billy Tellez the green light to start the Total Catch Market. For years, Stoops had been trying to convince boat captains that they would not be “wasting ice” by keeping the bycatch. Time spent working in kitchens in France and Thailand had given him a window on the exceptionally diverse palates in other countries. He took his curiosity about the Gulf and his culinary awareness and started trying to source and market new and interesting fish to chefs. The result, several years since he began in earnest, has been the vibrant, new Saturday market at Louisiana Foods. Using social media such as Twitter and the Total Catch Market website, Stoops puts out the word to his customers. He produces a weekly list of the bycatch being brought in for the Saturday markets, and he is on hand to educate his customers about filleting and deboning the fish, if needed, and cooking ideas.

The given names of these fish are colloquial delights: sheepshead, barrelfish, spinycheek scorpion fish, tilefish, pink porgy, triggerfish. The diversity of the offerings is a dream for any adventurous cook, but the real lesson of bycatch is that we have a backyard overflowing with obtainable, ample, healthful and beautiful food about which those outside the commercial and recreational fishing industries know virtually nothing. Ironically, several of these fish are only considered “trash” in our specific part of the Gulf. In the eastern Gulf, triggerfish, tilefish and pink porgy are targeted, and the pink porgy has even been overfished in the south Atlantic fisheries.

Houstonians of various cultural backgrounds are excited that they now have access to fish that they haven’t been able to source since they lived in their native countries. “In the Mediterranean, the spinycheek scorpion fish is considered a requirement for bouillabaisse,” says Stoops. “Here, you normally can’t get it.” Several customers have asked to be immediately alerted any time the scorpion fish is available. And, while the aptly named Total Catch Market does not restrict its market to only the Gulf fish and bycatch, Stoops has been excited to see that every Saturday the local fish is what sold first.

Fish-Montage

At the Foodways symposium, Chef Tim Byres of Smoke, a Dallas restaurant devoted to sustainability, teamed up with Louisiana Foods to create a meal from a bycatch species for attendees. As the fog rolled over a cool Galveston evening, Byres stood over a bed of glowing orange coals and prepared an elegant meal of grilled black drum. It was a substantial, meaty and satisfying fish. He served it with a traditional boiled shrimp and a decidedly nontraditional ash salsa made from chilies charred on the coals.

What P.J. Stoops knows, and what Tim Byres showed us that evening, is that chefs and local fish shops will be the vanguard of widespread acceptability of bycatch and trashfish. When a respected chef introduces us to a new type of fish and shows us that it can be prepared well, we then turn around and try to achieve those results in our own homes.

There is no better regional example of chef-driven food acceptance than Paul Prudhomme and the popularity he brought to the redfish. Gossen recently asked Prudhomme why he chose the redfish. Prudhomme related to him that it was good, and it was available. Prior to Prudhomme starting a veritable craze over blackened redfish, it was not used much commercially. The irony of the notion of bycatch is that once we see the value in these fish and help create a viable market for them, they become a valuable target species. Now, because of incredible response from diners, the redfish has game-fish status and is protected.

However, the total-catch concept is more attractive because it focuses on the emergence of a whole array of species and not just one. As “total catch” implies, we need not restrict our palates to achieve this, but merely expand them. That is a winning proposition for anyone who loves seafood.

This new way of looking at Gulf seafood is blossoming in the Austin area, too. Chef Ned Elliott of Foreign & Domestic changed his menu to read simply “Third Coast fish” to describe the fish of the day so that he could serve what is available each week. “We want to support the fisherman of the Gulf, particularly with the drought and the oil spill, and it’s fun to see some new things like queen snapper and speckled trout come in,” says Elliott. “It’s interesting for us and a good selling point that when it is bycatch we know where it came from. There is a backstory for us.”

Not surprisingly, Perla’s Seafood and Oyster Bar features regular bycatch specials as part of their extensive seafood offerings. And these less well-known fish are also showing up on the menus of Wink, Vespaio, Olivia, La Condesa and Péché, and as part of the seafood dinners hosted by Dai Due Supper Club. In November, Slow Food Austin and Foodways Texas presented a bycatch dinner and will offer more in 2012.

As stories abound about food safety and the unknowable provenance of some of the fish that comes to market, the idea of getting our fish from our own local waters becomes all the more attractive. It is also a matter of jobs, economy, safety and good old-fashioned local eating. This move to utilize these excellent Gulf resources is locavorism in the name of an exceptional product. We will always have our favorite non-locally sourced fish, but it is time that we celebrate what we already have. As a cook, I am excited and challenged, and I will never look into the fish case at my local market the same way again.