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Updated: February 4, 2020

Culinary events seek to build demand for Maine's underappreciated fish

A new series of events called “What’s the Catch?” seeks to build consumer awareness of Maine's underutilized fish species.

Greater consumption of species like monkfish, redfish, flounder and hake could help fishermen who primarily depend on the lobster fishery to diversify their income. And that’s an important consideration if today’s robust lobster stocks ever decline, Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, told Mainebiz.

The association is collaborating with Luke’s Lobster on the series, which features a different fish species at four monthly events and highlights fishermen and the working waterfront.

Hosted the second Wednesday of each month from January through April, the series is part social event and part educational.

The January event featured monkfish. The next event, featuring redfish, is scheduled for Feb. 12, from 6-8 p.m., at Luke's Lobster on the Portland Pier. The March 11 event features flounder, and the April 8 event will focus on hake.

The series is designed to bring together fishermen and the community for a culinary celebration highlighting lesser-known fish species caught and landed in Maine. Each event will offer several dishes prepared by Luke’s Executive Chef Zac Leeman. Local fishermen will share stories about life on the water and fighting for sustainable fisheries in Maine. There will be culinary tips and recipes and a complimentary signature cocktail.

Proceeds will benefit the families of fishing captain Arnold Nickerson IV of Arundel and his crew Christopher Pinkham of Boothbay Harbor. The two died at sea off Portland while fishing aboard Nickerson’s lobster boat, the Hayley Ann, on Jan. 23. Nickerson was the chair of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association board. 

Redfish tacos

February’s event will focus on redfish. Redfish is a species well known to Maine's fishermen but in recent years has been less known by consumers. Redfish are in fact red with orange underbellies and have a mild, sweet taste and a medium-firm texture. The redfish will be harvested by Aldie Leeman, a lifelong fisherman and father of Zac Leeman. A few of the dishes will include a “build your own” redfish taco station and Thai redfish curry over rice.

The event will also feature a display with other Maine fish species. The association’s staff and fishermen will be available to answer questions about various species and the fishing industry, anything from how fish is caught to what fishermen wear to keep warm in the winter. 

Seating is limited. Tickets are $55 and may be purchased online.

Public disconnect

Martens said the events are designed to share the importance of Maine’s fishing heritage, working waterfront and fishing future.

Courtesy / Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association
Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and Luke’s Lobster officially launched the “What’s the Catch” series, with a focus on redfish, seen here, a deepwater fish in the Gulf of Maine that has a mild and slightly sweet flavor.

The series came out of a realization that there’s a disconnect between fishermen and the general public, he said. 

“We think the best way to protect the working waterfront is the bring the general public and the fishermen together,” Martens said. “What better way to do that than over seafood?”

The events also offer a forum to talk about local seafood and diversification of fisheries, he said.

“Groundfish used to be a much bigger piece of the economic well-being of coastal communities. We in our organization believe those opportunities are going to come back around again. But we need to get people to eat species other than haddock and cod and salmon, and show off the amazing seafood coming across our docks that right now is being shipped out of state.”

Martens added, “We’re trying to drive up market demand. These are species that have been landed in Maine for a long time.”

A number of fishermen, looking to diversify their businesses, have been going after monkfish seasonally. Landings have been going up every year and the species is sustainably managed, according to Martens. However, he explained, much of the catch is bought by seafood dealers in Boston or shipped overseas. 

“There are a handful of restaurants in Maine that will serve it,” he said. And monkfish can be obtained at some fish markets, he added. “But it’s definitely not a regularly consumed species of fish. And the same with redfish. We catch redfish. We have a lot coming across the Portland docks. But it all gets boxed up and sent out of state.”

He continued, “There’s a ton of opportunity that comes with having a diverse stream of seafood products coming across the dock.”

The association and Luke’s conducted a “dry run” for the series with an event in December that featured scallops. It drew over 50 people. The monkfish event sold out, with close to 70 people.

Rebuilding fish stocks

The fisheries for species like monkfish and redfish are small compared to Maine’s once-robust groundfish fishery when, for example, fishermen landed as much codfish as they did lobster, said Martens.

In the early 1980s, Maine's offshore fleet grew to more than 300 vessels and fish landings peaked at 80 million pounds. By 1994, however, yearly groundfish landings and the number of vessels had fallen sharply from peak levels of the prior decade.

“Through mismanagement and overfishing, we drove down groundfish stocks,” he said. “But fish are amazing in their ability to recover. We’ve been fishing in the Gulf of Maine for hundreds of years and we still have fish out there.”

That’s part of the reason the association is optimistic about a future of diverse fisheries, he said. 

“We believe that, with proper management, these fish species will rebuild,” he said. “Fishermen are seeing more fish out in the ocean and those species are healthy and sustainable.”

For the future, he said, the association envisions income streams that includes everything from lobster fishing and aquaculture, to groundfish and shellfish.

“We need to be a seafood state, not a lobster state,” he said. 

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