by Chris Chase
Coastal Journal staff
BRUNSWICK — Several local restaurants and the dining halls of Bowdoin College now offer a bit more variety than usual, thanks to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s (GMRI) efforts to bring lesser utilized fish species to the forefront in their “Out of the Blue” program.
The program, centered on bringing underutilized fish species to the forefront of Mainer’s palates, will be highlighting whiting from September 21-30.
Whiting, also known as silver hake, is classified in Maine records as a groundfish and shares that category with Atlantic cod, flounder, American plaice, and Atlantic wolffish.
Due to overfishing in the 1960s, the catch of whiting was limited to rebuild the waning population, and the popularity of and demand for the fish subsequently fell. Recent studies have shown that the fish has been bouncing back, with a steady increase in biomass since 2005, according to the GMRI. However, the increase in available fish has not led to an increase in demand, leaving the Whiting population to be classified as “underutilized.”
“It’s sort of an emerging fishery,” said Heidi Bray, who manages the data on commercial fish landed in Maine. “Until there’s a market and it has more demand, dealers will be less apt to buy those fish.”
In 2011, groundfish made up only two percent of fish landed commercially in Maine, with just over five million pounds being landed. Of this, whiting was just a small part, considering the majority of the catch is made up of more popular fish such as cod. Compared to lobster, which took in over 100 million pounds in 2011, the whiting industry is barely on the radar.
The numbers are so small, in fact, that it’s impossible to get them, due to confidentiality laws.
“We had less than three dealers that reported buying whiting from fisherman,” said Bray. When the number of dealers is under three, the state can’t report on the exact numbers by law.
According to Bray, this small representation is not uncommon for fish like whiting.
“It’s not unusual for a couple of dealers to handle the entire fishery,” said Bray.
Out of the Blue plans on changing that. Started thanks to a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the program established a task force of local fisherman, chefs, and researchers, known as the “steering team,” to target certain fish for promotion.
“We had chefs to make sure that they could work with the fish chosen, and fisherman to make sure it was a feasible idea,” said Sam Grimley, project manager of the sustainable seafood program at GMRI. “One of the really cool things was to sit in the room and listen to the dialogue going on between the chefs and the fisherman.”
Based on the feedback from the steering team, the program aims to establish whiting, as well as other underutilized fish such as redfish and Atlantic mackerel, on the local menu. The next fish to be featured in the program has yet to be announced.
Currently, 21 Maine businesses and restaurants have agreed to carry whiting in efforts to heighten awareness of the species, as well as to help support the local fishing industry.
“You see the same thing with local foods on the agricultural side, they want to support local farmers,” said Grimley. “It’s only natural to want to support local fisherman as well.”
According to Grimley, obtaining participation in the program was much easier than expected.
“I fully expected to have to go out and pound pavement and knock on doors,” said Grimley. “Instead we had a whole bunch of places calling us up and asking about how to get involved. Word just got out and a lot of restaurants reached out to us.”
As noted above, Bowdoin College is also participating in the program, bringing whiting as well as other fish to their dining halls to be served to students and other members of the campus community.
“We’re very proactive at observing local products,” said Ken Cardone, Associate Director and Executive Chef of Bowdoin’s dining services. “Maine seafood has been such a large part of our menu for so many years, we took it as an opportunity.”
According to Cardone, the response to the fish has been overwhelmingly positive from the campus community, and attributes that to the unique nature of the campus.
“We have such a variety of people from around the country and all over the world,” said Cardone. “Having a customer base that is well-traveled, people are exposed to flavors that we typically don’t eat.”
Cardone feels the program is a great step in the right direction for bringing quality seafood to both restaurants and the surrounding markets.
“It’s not farm-raised, it’s not frozen out at sea: It’s a fresh, local product,” said Cardone.
Although the events are short-lived, Grimley and other members of the program hope to establish some awareness of the underutilized fish species in Maine, as well as to help facilitate connections between fisherman and restaurants in the state.
“If we were to continually do it every whiting season to get the word out, that would be the next step,” said Grimley.
Although the efforts have exceeded expectations so far, with some restaurants even continuing to carry the fish past the promotion, Grimley is still cautious about making too great a claim for its success.
“I don’t think a 10-day promotion will skyrocket the whiting industry,” said Grimley with a chuckle. “But it will help raise some awareness of this and other underutilized industries in Maine. Everyone knows about lobster, cod, haddock, et cetera, but not as many people know about whiting.”