Seafood for Thought

The Gulf of Maine, a diverse watershed stretching from Cape Cod to the southern tip of Nova Scotia, has historically been one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. Its famously plentiful codfish sustained early settlers—the Pilgrims survived one winter thanks to stockpiles of cod landed on Damariscove Island off Boothbay—and became a staple of New England cuisine. The cod population today, already depleted from overfishing, faces a newer challenge. A 2015 study led by Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) in Portland, found that cod stocks were a fraction of sustainable levels, despite dramatic restrictions on the catch put into place in 2010. The study reveals why: the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans.

Fishermen say the gulf ’s deep blue waters still hold plenty of fish, but conservation efforts—including catch quotas and the closing of some fishing areas—often leave them and environmentalists on opposite sides of the table. “The Gulf of Maine is incredibly productive,” says Marty Odlin, whose family has fished from the Portland waterfront for three generations. “Yes, warming is an issue; but because of the tides, and the shape of it— there’s going to be plenty of fish there.”

On a bright but wind-whipped late-fall afternoon, it doesn’t take me long to locate the black-hulled, 85-foot-long Teresa Marie III tied up along the concrete pier. “When I was a kid, the boats were stacked four deep; there were hundreds,” says Odlin, who has an engineering degree from Dartmouth and established a factory in Ghana to manufacture bicycles out of bamboo before joining the family business. He manages Atlantic Trawlers from the Portland Fish Pier, where his three boats are among the handful left in a once-robust fishing fleet. “It used to be simple. You’d just go fishing and sell the fish. Due to the regulatory environment, we’re now fighting in a market with one hand tied behind our backs.”

After an unexpected return to port to repair a broken satellite antenna (a key component of the Vessel Monitoring System required by the federal government on all commercial fishing boats), the crew of the Teresa Marie III is readying her to head back out into the Gulf of Maine, where they will cast their nets for redfish. Flake ice shoots from a tube overhead into the boat’s hold. The noise is so loud, Odlin jokes, he can hear it from his house across the harbor in South Portland. “We weren’t bringing in redfish until about five years ago,” he says, after we’ve retreated indoors to the quiet of his boat repair shop. “We knew they were there, but we didn’t have a market. We’ve done a lot of work building that market up, and now it’s going really well.” Restaurants in the South use redfish as a substitute for red snapper, Odlin says, while in the Midwest it appears on menus as ocean perch.

Redfish are one of seven species of fish that GMRI has targeted as “verified,” meaning they exist in sustainable abundance in the gulf. That’s great news, but if no one is interested in eating these species, the fishing industry is not going to benefit from catching them. Through its Sustainable Seafood program, a multi-pronged initiative that encourages the harvesting, high-quality handling, and consumption of verified fish, GMRI hopes to preserve both the ecosystem and the economic future of the gulf ’s fishing community.

“My ultimate goal is for the Gulf of Maine to be to seafood what Italy is to shoes,” says GMRI’s Sustainable Seafood senior program manager Jen Levin, talking with me inside the organization’s headquarters on Commercial Street overlooking Casco Bay in Portland. “Our efforts are focused on raising awareness of the fish and shellfish that are bountiful— how well-managed and sustainable they are—and then working with chefs and others to show just how good they are.”

In addition to redfish, GMRI’s verified species list includes mackerel, haddock, dogfish, white hake, pollock, and whiting (also known as silver hake). Maine lobster and sea scallops are also on the list, but they hardly need promotion. To encourage people to try, say, whiting or dogfish, GMRI launched Out of the Blue, an initiative that puts lesser-known, sustainable varieties of fish on menus at restaurants and institutions.

Out of the Blue attempts to do for seafood what the locavore movement has done for other foods. “People used to know exactly where their fish came from, buying at local markets by the docks, but [they] got their meat and produce shipped across the country. Now it’s the total opposite,” Levin told Bon Appetit in 2012, the inaugural year for Out of the Blue.

In 2011, GMRI established a brand, Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested, encouraging shoppers to buy fish that meets the organization’s sustainability standards. A new initiative takes it one step further, using a system now in development that will transmit data from the fishing boat, through the fish auction and the fish processor, to the supermarket. “When people are at a retail market, like Hannaford, they will be able to see which fisherman actually harvested that fish,” Levin explains.

Restaurants who participate in Out of the Blue are on a longer list of GMRI’s Culinary Partners, who commit to keeping Gulf of Maine seafood on their menus throughout the year. One of them is Sea Glass at Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth, where chef Andrew Chadwick has featured whiting, pollock, and redfish since he joined the staff last July. “I think redfish is fantastic,” he says. “The clean flavor reminds me of grouper, but it’s more delicate.” Chadwick plans to include pan- roasted redfish on his winter menu and says serving less-familiar varieties of fish is a win- win. “If we can support our local fishermen and give people a true taste of Maine, that’s what it’s all about.”

Restaurants may introduce their guests to unfamiliar varieties of fish, but institutions, such as schools, colleges, and hospitals, are key to the success of the program, says Levin. “They have a captive audience of people, especially on college campuses, where the students want to know where their food comes from,” she says. “They want to know not only what the environmental impact is, but the social impact of that food. There’s an opportunity to tell a story.”

Nationally touted for its food service, Bowdoin College in Brunswick participated in Out of the Blue for two weeks in October, serving some 2,000 pounds of “under-loved” fish in dishes like redfish with jalapeno vinaigrette and pollock with cilantro-yogurt aioli. Sourcing and menu manager Matt Caiazzo says all of the seafood he purchases meets strict standards for sustainability— certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or GMRI, along with any fish from the Gulf of Maine. “I think it’s important to support the local economy when it comes to product that is at our doorstep, and sourcing local seafood fits in with a Bowdoin education,” he says.

Global food service company Sodexo, whose clients include the University of Maine System and the University of New England (UNE) in Biddeford, has made a commitment to source 100 percent of the whitefish it serves in Maine from the Gulf of Maine by 2020; UNE has already reached that goal. The company works with GMRI on marketing whiting, redfish, dogfish, pollock, and hake, says Maeve McInnis, director of Maine Course, a division launched in 2015 to connect local farmers and fishermen with Sodexo’s institutional clients in Maine. Maine Course also partnered with GMRI and sustainable seafood wholesaler Maine Shellfish to create Shahk Bites, a gluten-free breaded product, similar to fish nuggets, made with dogfish for institutional menus.

Levin is especially keen on promoting dogfish because there’s a lot of it in the Gulf of Maine. According to Odlin, “It used to be 10 to 1 codfish to dogfish; now it’s 11 to 1 dogfish to codfish.” In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, fishermen harvested just 46 percent of the quota. Because dogfish, a kind of shark, isn’t in high demand, it fetches “twenty cents a pound, sometimes less,” Levin says. It’s also tricky to handle and doesn’t keep well. “Ice on a fishing boat is expensive,” she explains. “Are you going to put your haddock on ice, or your dogfish? Even people in the seafood industry will put dogfish down, because they had so many negative experiences with it, because it’s handled so poorly.” As part of the Sustainable Seafood program, GMRI works with fishermen on handling strategies and connects them to volume distributors, to make catching the prolific dogfish more worthwhile. Odlin isn’t as concerned about the proper handling of dogfish his boats bring in; rather than selling the fish at the market, he uses it to make a liquid fertilizer called Sea Method.

A year ago, a federal grant allowed Odlin to upgrade one of his trawlers, the Teresa Marie IV, with an automated system for processing haddock. Haddock have to be gutted as soon as they’re caught. Because they are a relatively small fish, the process is time-consuming and labor-intensive when done by hand, which can adversely affect quality. “We counted it up: it was 15 to 18 times that you were touching a fish before it was unloaded,” Odlin says. “With the new project, we’re touching the fish once or twice. Everything ’s automated: conveyors, different tanks; everything’s timed, everything’s temperature- controlled. It’s been a huge success.”

The onboard processing system is an example of the innovation Odlin and Levin both say is critical for America’s fishing industry to be competitive with foreign fishing superpowers like Iceland, Norway, and Canada. “We import 91 percent of the seafood we consume here,” says Levin. “It’s the second-highest contributor to our trade deficit in a natural resources category after oil.”

A recent initiative under the Sustainable Seafood program hopes to establish markets for sashimi-grade Gulf of Maine fish—fish so high quality it can be eaten raw. In December, GMRI hosted Chris Bean, a veteran fisherman from Cornwall, England, who supplies several top London sushi restaurants. Bean is an expert on ikejime, a Japanese method of killing fish onboard the vessel. “I’m really excited about this project, because we have so many sushi restaurants, but if you ask them what’s local, very seldom do you find anything, except maybe sea urchin,” says Levin. “That’s not the chef ’s fault. It’s because we actually don’t handle the product properly to achieve that sashimi- grade product quality on vessels.”

Among the chefs participating in the project is Masa Miyake, owner of Miyake and Pai Men Miyake restaurants in Portland. “He brings in whole mackerel from Japan and pays $23 a pound,” says Levin. “A fisherman here gets paid 14 to 20 cents a pound and it typically ends up as bait. Now having said that, Miyake may need only three or four mackerel a week. That’s not going to support a fisherman who’s going out and harvesting hundreds of pounds at a time.” Levin is counting on Miyake’s expertise to help the project gain traction beyond Maine by testing the ikejime-processed fish and supplying his testimony as to its quality in order to get it into high-volume markets, along with local restaurants.

The Sustainable Seafood program reinforces what Odlin has known all his life: “If
you’re going to be in fishing, you have to be adaptable.” While he’s deeply frustrated with the complex regulations that he says make imported fish more attractive to buyers and have contributed to the depletion of Maine’s fleet, he believes “everyone should be eating local fish. It’s one of our lowest- carbon sources of protein and we should be expanding this industry as much as we can, while keeping it sustainable.”

The success of the GMRI program rests not only on sustaining fisheries, but also fishermen and their families. “You can’t have an industry that’s invested in environmental sustainability, when they’re not sure if they’re going to be able to make their next boat payment or mortgage payment,” says Levin.

Odlin has faith that the ocean will continue to provide. “The ratios and balances of fish might change, but there’s going to be fish,” he says. To fully embrace sustainable seafood may mean applying the same thinking we use at the farmers’ market to shopping at the fish market. We need to listen to local fishermen like we listen to our farmers; to be open to the kohlrabi and the husk cherry, the redfish and the pollock. Believe me, they’re delicious.