Steph Sykes shows off a monkfish she caught off Cape Cod. The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association is promoting monkfish as an underappreciated fish species, encouraging people to eat more of the mild-flavored and abundant fish. Courtesy Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association

Hearty potato, carrots, onions, a dash of Cajun seasoning and big, tender chunks of what might be the ugliest fish in the sea.

On Friday, Maine Hunger Prevention Program treated visitors to monkfish stew, one of the signature dishes of the Fishermen Feeding Mainers program. The initiative, developed by the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association in fall 2020, helps support the local seafood industry by buying fish at subsidized prices and distributing it to food banks, schools and other groups at low or no cost, according to Executive Director Ben Martens.

To the soup kitchen’s patrons, Friday’s stew was just another entry in a long line of free, nutritious meals provided by the Brunswick nonprofit. But to the monkfish, it was the grand conclusion of a long journey.

“There’s a lot of work that goes into all the moving pieces of a program like this,” Martens said. “It’s a complicated dance.”

It all starts on the water.

Trawl fishermen pull nets behind their boats to capture fish like haddock, pollock and monkfish. Not known for its beauty, the monkfish looks a bit like a fat, squat tadpole – if tadpoles had razor-sharp teeth.


“They’re sea monsters,” Martens said. “You’ve got to be careful when you catch a monkfish, because their heads are huge – you put your hand in the wrong spot and you could be in trouble.”

Fish too small to sell go back into the ocean. The rest go up for auction at the Portland Fish Exchange.

As restaurants closed during the early days of the pandemic, flagging demand for seafood pulled down prices at docks by 70%, Martens said. Through a combination of government funds and private donations, Fishermen Feeding Mainers helped keep fishermen afloat by buying their otherwise unwanted catches at fair prices.

The seafood market has rebounded somewhat, but it remains unstable, according to Martens. Now, Fishermen Feeding Mainers operates as a safety net; the program might purchase nothing at all one day when demand is high and then buy over 10,000 pounds of fish the next when prices crater.

“Our goal is to have as much fish move through traditional channels as possible,” Martens said. “What we do is we become the buyer of last resort.”

Monkfish tails sit on ice waiting to be auctioned at the Portland Fish Exchange Aug. 4. Ben McCanna / Portland Press Herald

Fishermen Feeding Mainers hires local cutting facilities like Portland’s Free Range Fish & Lobster to clean and prepare purchased meat, most of which goes to the program’s network of partners. But the frozen monkfish fillets make an additional stop at Hurricane’s Soup & Chowder in Greene, where the signature stew was first concocted in May 2021.


Many of Fishermen Feeding Mainers’ partners don’t know how to prepare monkfish, which has a firm texture closer to lobster or swordfish than haddock or cod, according to Hurricane’s Soup & Chowder founder Phil Wilbur. Yet thanks to the family-owned soup business, they can enjoy the seafood anyway – provided they can handle the stew’s spicy kick.

“It’s much chunkier than a traditional chowder,” Wilbur said of the stew, which he regularly produces in 120-gallon batches. “This has big chunks of carrots and celery, onions and fish and red potato. It’s got a great flavor.”

Unlike most Fishermen Feeding Mainers products, the monkfish stew regularly goes to retailers like Hannaford and restaurants like the Brunswick Diner, according to Martens. The item’s success raises both awareness of the program and money to help keep it going.

Retired Freeport High School Librarian Mary Moore prepares monkfish stew during her usual Friday volunteer shift at Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program on Aug. 12. John Terhune / The Times Record

Friday’s stew went to Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program, which operates a soup kitchen, a food bank, and a network of food pantries across coastal Maine. Volunteers like Mary Moore, a retired high school librarian, staff the soup kitchen six days a week to prepare and serve to-go lunches to anyone that needs them.

“The clients that come are so effusive,” Moore said while waiting for the Monkfish stew to finish warming on Friday. “They’re lovely people, and they’re just so appreciative of anything we can do for them.”

Brunswick resident Mary Rousselle Brown stocked up on several servings of the stew for herself and husband.


“We both love it,” she said. “(MCHPP) helps us out if we don’t have food.”

While Rousselle Brown carted her lunch to The Gathering Place to eat and socialize with friends, soup kitchen coordinator Rena Pulfer loaded up a final 30 servings to the stew for delivery to elderly renters at a low-income housing development.

“For many of these folks, it is hard to get out of their apartments, let alone get to the grocery store,” Pulfer said. “Knowing that they’re going to have a hot meal ready for them every day makes a huge difference, especially for the folks on fixed incomes.”

Brunswick resident Mary Rousselle Brown packs her cart with monkfish stew and other snacks at Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program on Aug. 12. John Terhune / The Times Record

Over the course of the monkfish’s journey from ocean floor to Brunswick, the Fishermen Feeding Mainers program helped support fishermen, two local businesses and the food insecure. But it also received a little support of its own – rather than accept the stew as a donation as it did last Christmas Eve, Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program bought Friday’s batch at cost, a move Pulfer hopes will help keep the working waterfront and the local food system going strong.

“We’re all connected,” she said. “The more we can support local, the better we’re all going to be in the long run.”

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