August 11, 2012

Maine Voices: Redfish by any other name is ... just not as appetizing

There's chicken in dog food, yet we don't call chicken 'dog food.' So why call redfish 'bait fish'?

By MONIQUE COOMBS

The Gulf of Maine Research Institute is promoting some of Maine's lesser-known fish through a campaign called Out of the Blue.

Acadian redfish was the first species highlighted, and currently the institute is wrapping up a promotion for mackerel.

Each species is featured on menus in restaurants from Kennebunk to Bar Harbor for 10 days.

The Acadian redfish promotion was so successful, that it is remaining on the menus at The Salt Exchange Restaurant and Fore Street, both in Portland.

Unfortunately, in reporting on this successful marketing campaign by the research institute, the media has used the phrase "bait fish" to describe redfish.

Andy Warhol said, "Jewelry doesn't make a person more beautiful, but it makes a person feel more beautiful."

Like jewelry, language does not actually change a person or an object, but it can make a person feel differently about something.

Words can lend a person a presence they don't have by themselves. The same goes for how we describe our food. Broccoli is just broccoli, until we describe it as organic, sustainable or local. Then it becomes superior, and more desirable.

Or, in this example of redfish being described as bait fish, it becomes less desirable.

Redfish may just be a victim of its own versatility. The Acadian redfish is used by many lobstermen as bait, and lately the redfish has been turning up on many menus.

Fishermen, organizations like the research institute, and groups that act as stewards of the ocean are working to develop markets for some of the lesser-known species like redfish.

Americans consistently seek out familiar fish like cod and haddock, but it is important to eat a variety of fish species in order to protect all of the fish stocks and support commercial fishermen.

If we can consume a variety of fish, such as redfish, pollock, whiting, hake and flounder, we can ensure that we will have an abundance of all fish species. So, the promotion and marketing efforts of fish such as redfish are notable not just for the benefits to the fishermen, but for the environment as well.

Unfortunately, given that people are intrigued by descriptive labels, the phrase bait fish is ruining the appetizing distinctiveness that is redfish.

Besides, calling redfish bait fish is incorrect.

In a fisherman's vernacular, bait fish is used to describe fish that is caught at sea for rod and reel or hand-line fishing, and not fish that is in a trap. Bait fish is caught at sea to catch larger sport fish, like Atlantic Bluefin tuna, and usually refers to small forage fish.

Fish in a lobster trap is lobster bait, or just bait.

It is also incongruous only to call redfish used in lobster traps bait, because most fish can be used as bait. Herring, haddock, cod and tuna heads are also used as bait in lobster traps.

After many fish have been filleted, and the fillets are set aside for human consumption, the racks of the fish are then sold for bait. The racks are the leftover parts after a fish is filleted: the bones, guts and sometimes the head and the tail.

At a time when less waste and nose-to-tail cooking are growing principles, the fact that an entire fish is being utilized should be appreciated, not considered unappetizing and regarded as something ill-fit for human consumption. Chicken is found in dog-food, but we do not describe chicken as dog food.

Unfortunately, lately there is one other species that has been saddled with ill-fitting descriptive language.

Lobster is delicious, elegant, rich, sweet, fresh and anything but "cheap." The efforts of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council and the Maine Lobstermen's Association to promote lobster and highlight its delectable qualities are diminished when lobster is referred to as "cheap."

Lobster may be inexpensive right now, but the goal is for the price to rebound to a fair price for our fishermen who are bringing in a high-quality product.

Cheap implies that the product is inferior, substandard and cut-rate, and we all know that Maine lobster is not those things.

Words are like our foods' jewelry, to use Andy Warhol's metaphor; they describe a food and make us feel differently about it. Organic, local, sustainable, and fresh are descriptive words that intensify our craving for broccoli, carrots, kale and kohlrabi. Bait fish and cheap, on the other hand, do not create a hankering for more seafood.

As stewards of the ocean, supporters of commercial fishermen, and educated consumers, we should leave the phrase bait fish to the fishermen, and instead describe our seafood as sustainable, local, fresh, and, of course, delicious.

And, only use cheap to describe fish sticks.

Monique Coombs of Orr’s Island is chair of the Maine Seafood Marketing Network.

 

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