Customers have had different reactions to the appearance of redfish on The Salt Exchange’s menu.
One raised his eyebrows and wondered aloud why the upscale Commercial Street eatery would feature something used as fish bait, owner Charles Bryon said.
Another customer said he had grown up with redfish and was happy to see it.
“It really boils down to where they are from and what they are used to, which is unfortunate,” Bryon said.
Maine restaurants and fishermen are hoping to change that by persuading consumers to veer away from the known and discover the joys of lesser-known fish species.
In the past year a group of chefs, restaurants and fishermen have been working with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute to put under-used fish species on consumers’ radars. The idea is not only to take the pressure off over-fished species, such as flounder and haddock, but also to open up new markets for Gulf of Maine fishermen.
“Generally it is a cultural thing. We have gotten really used to white, flaky fish that doesn’t have a lot of taste,” said Jen Levin, sustainable seafood program manager at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
The group, officially known as the Gulf of Maine Research Underutilized Steering Team, identified five species that are under-fished or under-valued: mackerel, whiting, redfish, Atlantic pollock and northern shrimp. The group is working to help more restaurants feature the five species, while the fishermen are working with restaurants to provide them with the freshest fish.
They will promote the five species on Oct. 20-22 at Portland’s Harvest on the Harbor, an annual food event. The chefs will prepare the fish and the fishermen will talk about how each species is caught and harvested.
Some species, such as redfish, are under-used because people got out of the habit of eating them after they disappeared from the mass market due to over-fishing.
“The problem is no one knows about them any more,” said Justin Libby, a Port Clyde fisherman who fishes for redfish, northern shrimp and Atlantic pollock.
Some species have gotten an unfair reputation, such as Atlantic pollock, often confused with Pacific pollock, the fish used for imitation crabmeat or fast-food fish filets.
Customers also may not know how to prepare the product, such as delicate northern shrimp which need only a few seconds to cook. Some species, such as mackerel and northern shrimp, present a marketing challenge because they are only seasonally available.
But Ken Cardone, executive chef at Bowdoin College food services and a member of the steering team, said it doesn’t take long to win over appetites. Last year, Bowdoin diners went through 3,000 pounds of northern shrimp. The last time whiting was offered at the Brunswick college, which prepares about 1,100 dinners daily, 350 portions of the fish were sold from a selection of four different entrees.
“Pan fried in brown butter, it presents nicely,” Cardone said.
The first time he served mackerel to diners he sold 150 portions, and the second time an additional 100 were sold.
Both fishermen and chefs say they have no doubt that the market for lesser-known fish species can be expanded.
“It is just a matter of educating us Americans to eat this nice fish” that now gets shipped overseas, Libby said.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: