You’ve heard a lot about cod lately. If you’re a fish-eating fan, you’ve probably eaten your fair share, too. But as New England stocks have been continuously overfished since the 1980s and 1990s, isn’t it time we considered some delicious cod substitutes? How about another scrumptious whitefish (and today’s fishy feature), the silver hake?!
Hungry Hungry Hake
Silver hake (Merluccius bilinearies), also known as Atlantic whiting, are medium-sized fish that may grow to be 5 lbs and upwards of 28” long. As nocturnal and semi-pelagic predators, they spend their days resting on the sandy, pebble ocean floor during the day and move up the water column to feed from around dusk to midnight.
Atlantic whiting are vital to the Gulf of Maine (GOM) ecosystem because they serve as both predator and prey species. Silver hake are so abundant and such voracious predators that they help to regulate prey populations. They are a piscivorous species, meaning they feed on other fish including young herring, mackerel, menhaden, alewives, and sand lance, in addition to crustaceans and squids. But whiting don’t just eat a ton – they also get eaten a ton! Nearly all predators in the Gulf of Maine consume whiting, especially cod, tuna, and other silver hake (so piscivorous…and cannibalistic!).
In the Northwest Atlantic, silver hake are managed as two stocks – one to the north (the Gulf of Maine and Northern Georges Bank) and one to the south (Southern Georges Bank all the way to Cape Hatteras). In the summer months, adult fish migrate to shallow waters in the Northwest Atlantic to spawn. Both stocks can be found in the Gulf of Maine from Cape Cod to Grand Manan Island, in the southern and southeastern portions of Georges Bank, and just south of Martha’s Vineyard.
Thanks to monitoring by NOAA’s New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, there is sufficient data to accurately assess Atlantic whiting stocks. And good news – both the northern and southern populations are stable with no evidence of overfishing!
NEFMC manages the Atlantic whiting stocks under the New England Multispecies Fishery Management Plan (FMP). In 2000, Amendment 12 to the FMP designated silver hake as “small-mesh multispecies.” The Amendment also established retention limits, defined “overfishing” for the species, identified critical habitat, and set fishing gear requirements. In 2013, Amendment 19 to the FMP established annual catch limits and put accountability measures in place.
Fishing requirements for “small-mesh” species are put in place to reduce bycatch of vulnerable populations, such as cod. In 2002, fishermen and scientists began experimenting with modified otter trawls, trying to determine the best way to target silver hake without impacting the benthic marine environment or other fish populations. They began using sweepless nets, trawl nets without groundgear components. These nets reduced bycatch of lobster and other benthic species to just 2%! Researchers then began testing the Nordmore grate, which prevent larger finfish (yes, cod) from being caught, while letting smaller fish (whiting) pass into the trawl nets. These designs were incredibly successful and have been adopted into portions of the management plan.
The GOM whiting fishery is open from July 1 to November 30 each year, and, if fishermen use sweepless trawl nets and Nordmore grates, they may harvest from areas closed to other fishing types. So why are New England fishermen ignoring silver hake and still overfishing cod?
A Scrumptious and Sustainable Substitute
For decades, only a handful of fish species, like cod and salmon, have ruled our plates and menus. The high demand for such prominent species has put many stocks at severe risk of overfishing and driven some to near depletion.
Meanwhile, perfectly edible (nay, delicious!) species, such as silver hake and dogfish, are not at risk of overfishing – in fact, they’re relatively ignored.
Historically undervalued and underappreciated, silver hake has long been considered a “bycatch” species, deemed unworthy of human consumption.
In 2013, the average boat price for Atlantic cod was $2.10/lb, while silver hake went for only $0.64/lb. Why the discrepancy? A total lack of U.S. consumer awareness.
Low demand means that Maine fishermen can’t afford to target underutilized species. In 2014, only 16% of the potential GOM silver hake harvest was taken. Meanwhile, other GOM stocks are struggling to maintain viable populations.
To address this imbalance, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) began Out of the Blue, a consumer awareness campaign that brings together restaurant, retail, and institutional partners to promote the consumption of five GOM underappreciated species: Acadian redfish, Atlantic mackerel, cape shark (dogfish), whiting, and Atlantic pollock. As part of the campaign, GMRI and local restaurant partners run a Seafood Dining Series to bring these species to New Englanders’ plates. Have you tried them yet?!
Red’s Best, a New England seafood network, also recently launched an initiative to improve seafood sustainability and traceability in the region. Red’s ensures that consumers are able to trace their purchase through transportation, processing, and distribution, and provides fishermen with incentive to fish underloved species.
Consumers – it’s our turn. Let’s help the fishermen help the New England cod stocks by switching to a more sustainable alternative. How good does whiting with garlic and lemon sound? We want whiting!