Seafood Lovers on a Mission | Exploring New England Markets
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to eat local seafood once a week for 26 weeks.
Every Sunday, you and 88 other individuals will receive an assignment containing four randomly generated New England seafood species. No two lists are the same.
You will each have seven days to visit up to three retail locations where seafood is sold. At each location, you must record whether or not the four species are present.
If you find one of your four species, you must buy it and take it home. If you find more than one, you must make a choice.
Once home, you must prepare your purchased seafood, feed it to your family, and closely monitor your enjoyment of the dish.
Should you or any of your family members feel particularly delighted with the seafood you devoured, you shall share a photograph of it on social media for everyone to admire.
Thus began a six-month adventure for a group of 89 intrepid strangers who volunteered for the “Eat Like a Fish!” project coordinated by Jeremy Collie at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography and the nonprofit organization Eating with the Ecosystem.
The rationale for the project was both economic and ecological. New England’s marine ecosystems are home to an astounding array of species, but only a thin slice of these can be found in our seafood markets. Some are not harvested due to lack of demand, while others are harvested and shipped elsewhere. Disproportionately selective harvest patterns can disrupt ecosystem dynamics, while seafood export can mean a loss of potential economic value to the region.
These concerns prompted the research team to wonder: What local species are found in the marketplace? Why do shop- pers choose certain species over others? And most importantly, when people take the time to try new local seafood species, do they like them?
Recognizing that no one is better qualified to answer these questions than shoppers themselves, the research team rounded up an eclectic group of New England seafood lovers and sent them on a mission.
Participants included a children’s book illustrator from Rhode Island, a student from Maine, a carpenter from Connecticut, and an ice-cream production manager from Massachusetts. But they all had one thing in common: a curiosity to learn more about New England seafood. Armed with a wallet and a shopping bag, they set off on a fishing trip—not at the beach or from a boat, but at seafood shop counters, in grocery store aisles, and under the tents of their local farmers markets.
Between May and November 2017, citizen scientists made almost 3,000 visits to over 300 markets around New England. They cooked and ate over 1,000 fish, representing 50 different local species.
Their “data” was mouth-watering. Kelp noodles with white wine. Whole poached weakfish with lemon and garlic. Grey sole on couscous. Parmesan-encrusted striped bass. But it also provided important observations that together tell a story about the New England seafood retail marketplace. And for participants themselves, the experience was transformative.
A Successful Expedition Requires an Expert Guide Seafood Counters Favor Monotony Over Exploration
The delivery of each week’s “fish list” was an exciting moment for citizen scientists, and they reveled in the prospect of tasting unfamiliar local species like cunner, John Dory, butterfish, and skate. But all too often, they found nothing local at the seafood counter but cod, haddock, and lobster.
One week, after searching for blue crab, swordfish, spot, and conch—and encountering blank faces at the seafood market—Debbie Proffitt of Rhode Island exclaimed, “It’s really been enjoyable to research the different species, but it’s too bad I can’t find them to try them!”
Zachary Miller-Hope, who lives along the Saco River in Maine, echoed this sentiment, after striking out on his fish list several weeks in a row. “It is disappointing that I have so few options available to me,” he said, “when I live and work within minutes of the Gulf of Maine.”
A Successful Expedition Requires an Expert Guide
Participants who got the most out of their adventure were those who formed close relationships with knowledgeable fishmongers. The best fishmongers were able to answer questions about the type and origin of the seafood on sale at their counters and were eager to provide tips on preparation. Some even saved citizen scientists’ contact information and notified them when interesting species arrived at market.
“Asking the fish counter about where their fish comes from was an adventure in itself,” said Jayne Martin of Connecticut, who discovered that the evening-shift seafood sales person at the Big Y was a New York City fish buyer by day, a post which had equipped him with a wealth of information about the fruits of the local sea, which he was keen to share with fellow enthusiasts.
Daryl Popper Stumbled Across a Similar Treasure in Massachusetts
I went on an adventure to Cape Ann with my mom in celebration of Mother’s Day, and we had a blast cruising through Gloucester in search of whiting, weakfish, striped bass, or swordfish.
We met locals along the way who pointed us in the direction of Turner’s Seafood, just outside the town center. We met with the team at Turner’s and discovered that their swordfish was fresh from off the coast of Cape Cod.
They were excited to learn about our project, and they encouraged me to return so they could share more local information about the boat and the fishermen that work hard to provide native fish to their markets.
Not All Sales Teams Were as Animated or Informed
“Fish is a big part of my diet and my life,” explained Taylor Feuti of Maine, a former commercial fisherman. “One thing I am surprised by is the actual lack of knowledge of some of the shop workers I buy the fish from. None of them knew what tautog was (which I find is common north of Cape Cod) or conch, which is one of my favorites and another one I have trouble finding.”
Nor did many vendors know where their fish was from. “I have been frustrated by the inability of our local grocery stores to tell me anything beyond country of origin for the fish that they sell,” lamented Barbara Rotger of Massachusetts. “Much of it may be from New England, but they are unable, or unwilling, to share this information.”
Advancing into Uncharted Territory
For many participants, the citizen-science project was an opportunity to step outside their seafood comfort zones. They found new favorite fish, gained confidence in their seafood cookery, and even overcame previous bad experiences and negative perceptions about certain species by giving them another try. For some, this project was the first time they had ever tried cooking seafood at home.
Conversions and revelations were common. For example, Connecticut participant Deborah Mager’s feelings towards scup (also known as porgy) changed from skepticism to fanaticism as she got to know it a little better. “Porgies have the reputation of being called a trash fish and being bony.
A woman standing next to me when I asked for the fish gave me a look that made me feel like I was buying ‘trash fish,’ and I have to admit I felt a tinge of embarrassment for purchasing it.” But after overcoming her doubts and taking it home (where her husband valiantly scaled it), she wrote, “I have to tell you, this is a ‘trash fish’ that you should be eating right now! Porgy meat is white, meaty, mild and very similar to flounder meat, and tastes great!”
A Lifelong Quest
Returning to daily life after a challenging journey sometimes leaves adventurers feeling hollow. But for this corps of citizen scientists, the mission doesn’t need to end just because the project is over.
Reflecting on her experience, Rhode Island participant Sherri Darocha “spent a little time looking back on all of the fish recipes that I’ve prepared so far, the new-to-me species that I’ve been lucky enough to find, and all of the great little seafood shops I’ve been introduced to as my search region has expanded.” This prompted her to feel a mixture of fondness and unquenched yearning:
At the inception of Eating with the Ecosystem, I had no doubt that I would find, prepare, and marvel at my brilliance with new, exotic, local species of seafood each week! It would be a great excuse to seek out specific ingredients and expand my culinary horizons.
I never dreamed that most weeks it would be so challenging to find even one fish on my list. I’ve got lots of pent up fish envy that will only be soothed by finding species that have eluded me, like cunner and red hake (and dozens of others). I have no doubt that I will continue the quest even after the study has concluded.
Eating with the Ecosystem will be using the results from the project in ongoing work to educate consumers about eating a diversity of species
Oven-Steamed Whole Black Sea Bass
Oven-steamed Whole Black Sea Bass
by David Ford (citizen scientist, Rhode Island)
. 1 whole black sea bass, about 2-3 pounds, gutted and scaled . 1 cup rice wine vinegar
. 1 cup low-sodium soy sauce
. 1⁄4 cup fish sauce
. 1⁄4 cup sesame oil
. 1⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
. 2-inch piece ginger, minced
. 6 garlic cloves, minced
. 3 jalapenos, sliced
. 1 bunch scallions, green parts only, roughly chopped
. 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
. 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
. Sea salt and black pepper (Tellicherry preferred) to taste
Set oven to 450 degrees.
- Prepare the steaming sauce. In a bowl, whisk together rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil, 1⁄4 cup olive oil, ginger, garlic, jalapenos, half of the chopped cilantro, and half of the chopped scallions. Pour into an ovenproof casserole dish. Liquid should cover the bottom at least half an inch deep.
- Heat casserole dish on stovetop until sauce begins to bubble. Remove from heat.
- Place fish in casserole dish and let marinate for 10 minutes.
- Remove and shake off liquid. Set a rack large enough to hold the fish over a casserole dish. Rub rack with olive oil. Place fish on rack.
- Cut two diagonal slits on each side of fish. Spoon sauce into slits, and place a few chopped scallions into each slit.
- Form a loose tent with aluminum foil over casserole dish.
- Steam fish in oven for 10-12 minutes. Cooking time will vary with thickness of the fish. Flesh should look opaque, there should be no pink at the bone, and there should be little resistance when flesh is probed gently with a table knife.
- Remove fish from oven and place on platter. Reserve steaming sauce for serving on the side.
- Make the topping. Place a skillet or wok over high heat and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. When oil looks hazy, add remaining scallions and toss to coat. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Stir-fry until slightly charred, about 2 minutes. Set aside for serving
- Using two forks, separate fish from carcass. Remove and discard skeleton.
- Scatter charred scallions, remaining cilantro, and toasted sesame seeds over fish.
- Serve steaming sauce on the side.
Check that all the steaming liquid does not evaporate while in the oven. Add water if needed. This recipe would work well for any small whole fish.
Roasted Mahi Mahi with Lemon, Parsley, Garlic Oil, and Garlic Scapes
by David Ford (citizen scientist, Rhode Island)
. 11⁄2 pounds fresh mahi mahi fillets
. Olive oil for baking and frying
. Sea salt and black pepper (Tellicherry preferred) to taste . 1 bunch garlic scapes, ends trimmed
. 6 garlic cloves, minced
. 1 lemon, juiced
. 1 bunch parsley, chopped
. 1 lemon, cut in wedges
- Set oven to 450 degrees.
- Brush fillets with olive oil on both sides. Liberally sprinkle salt and pepper on each side and rub into the flesh with the backside of a soup spoon.
- Lightly coat a baking sheet with olive oil, and arrange fillets and garlic scapes on sheet.
- Roast for 10 minutes or until reaching desired doneness.
- Meanwhile, pour enough olive oil in a pan to cover the bottom and heat until just shimmering. Add garlic and gently cook a few minutes. Do not let garlic brown. Stir in half of the lemon juice. Remove from heat.
- Lay roasted fillets on a serving platter. Scatter chopped parsley on fish and drizzle with remaining lemon juice. Place garlic scapes on top.
- Serve with leftover cooking oil and lemon wedges on the side.
The garlic sauce is served on the side to allow spooning the desired amount on the fish when served. The garlic scapes add crunch and visual appeal to the fish. This recipe would work well for most fresh filets of fish.
— By Kate Masury & Sarah Schumann