BOO! Happy Halloween from this spooky species, the Monkfish

 

Lophius_americanus_museum_of_nature
Photo courtesy Mike Beauregard via Wikimedia Commons

In honor of Halloween, we’ve decided to highlight one of the more creepy looking fish that can be found in the waters off of New England. The monkfish (Lophius americanus), also known as goose-fish, anglerfish, and sea-devil, is considered a delicacy abroad, but until recently has been overlooked in America, perhaps due to its obtrusive appearance.

The monkfish is highly recognizable, with its brown, tadpole-shaped body, and its gaping, fang-filled mouth. These eerie-looking fish can be found from Newfoundland to Georges Bank, and all the way down to North Carolina. They prefer to dwell on the sandy or muddy ocean-floor, where they feed on a variety of small lobsters, fish, and eels. Monkfish are typically found at depths of 230-330 feet, but have been caught in waters as deep as 2,700 feet; they have also been known to occasionally rise to the surface and consume small, unsuspecting birds. Females can grow up to forty inches and males up to thirty-five inches, and both can weigh up to seventy pounds. The average market size fish is around seventeen to twenty inches long.

Before the 1960s, monkfish were considered to be undesirable bycatch. However, in the wake of the collapse of the New England Atlantic Cod fishery, the monkfish has slowly started to become a more common alternative, in part due to awareness campaigns about “underutilized species” in New England. Now, monkfish is caught to supply both international and domestic demand – the tail is prized for its firm texture and sweet taste, perfect for baking and poaching, and the liver is used in Japanese sushi.

In fact, in the last two decades, fishing has increased so dramatically that monkfish stocks started to decline. Landings peaked in 1997 at sixty million pounds. However, thanks to the quick action of both the United States and Canada, a management plan was put in place and the stock population started to increase and stabilize. Landings now average around thirty-five million pounds annually. Monkfish are caught using trawls, gillnets, and dredges. The fishery is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the New England Regional Fishery Management Council, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. These organizations do not impose annual catch limits, but do limit daily catches as well as limit access to the fishery. Nevertheless, the catch is still exceeding target catch levels in certain locations.

Current threats to monkfish are common among New England marine species: warming temperatures, ocean acidification, and habitat loss.

NOAA Fishwatch considers monkfish to be well managed and a “smart seafood choice” – however, it is still vulnerable, and the fishery should continue to be closely monitored, or it could suffer the same fate as other groundfish fisheries.

So, if you are looking for a spooky-themed seafood dish for this weekend’s festivities, it might be time to give monkfish a try… It would also make one unique Halloween costume!

National Seafood Month: The Power of the Local Consumer

October is National Seafood Month! To celebrate, I spoke with Andrea Tomlinson, General Manager of New Hampshire Community Seafood, an organization committed to supporting the state’s

Andrea Tomlinson, General Manager of New Hampshire Community Seafood. Photo courtesy NHCS
Andrea Tomlinson, General Manager of New Hampshire Community Seafood. Photo courtesy NHCS

fishing industry and ensuring community access to fresh, locally caught seafood.

We hear a lot about sustainable seafood in New England, but what does it really mean, and how can we, as consumers (and seafood lovers), impact the future of the fishing industry – all the while eating more healthy fish?

AY: What is “sustainable seafood”?

AT: I think few people understand what it really means – as more people use the term, it seems to have lost meaning. For me, sustainable seafood simply means that our fishermen are only taking an amount of a particular population that does not prevent parent fish from reproducing at the same level the following year. If fishermen leave the pregnant and older fish alone, and take just the younger fish, it’s more likely to be sustainable. The fish population must be able to sustain itself while also being fished for commercial purposes.

AY: Do you think most of the industry fishes this way?

AT: No. In the past, it was a free for all. Fishermen took whatever they wanted — cod was our fish, there was lots of it, so we took lots of it. Today, our small New England fishermen are still fishing the same amount (and taking the parent fish), but there are other, bigger players in the game. Once cod was shown to be a successful industry, the number of fishermen increased – and now the populations are suffering because of it.

Our local fishermen never had to be conscious about [the amount they could catch] before. In order to stay in business, you want to take the biggest and most fish you can. When you take this traditional way of fishing and compound it with new catch regulations (and a perceived lack of communication from those enforcing the regulations), and more and bigger players fishing in the area, that’s how we ended up where we are today, with the fishing industry in crisis.

AY: What are “underutilized fish” (formerly called “trash fish”) and how could they help the industry and/or economy?

New England is home to an abundance of the spiny dogfish shark. Photo courtesy of NHCS
New England is home to an abundance of the spiny dogfish shark. Photo courtesy of NHCS

AT: In New England, there are certain types of fish that we have a lot of, but that just aren’t as popular as cod or haddock. There’s the dogfish shark, which is a shark but they are small – about

three-and-a-half to four feet in length. In Europe, they are commonly used in fish and chips. Here in New England, we have lots of it. So much so, that they are almost considered overpopulated, making it a great alternative for consumers, especially since whatever you can do with cod, you can do with dogfish.

AY: But it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

AT: Right. When people hear “shark” and “dogfish,” they don’t like that. But as soon as you tell them how to prepare it, and that it holds up well in the freezer, and it seasons well, and is cheap – that makes a difference.

AY: Are there other underutilized fish in New England?

AT: There’s the King Whiting, a type of Silver Hake. It’s a delectable, thick, firm white fish that’s high in protein and omega-3s. It’s good for grilling or sautéing, and the fillet is just as large as one from a cod or haddock. And there’s also the Monkfish, which is an incredibly scary-looking fish on the outside – and delicious on the inside. We hear it called the “poor man’s lobster.” It tastes just like lobster, but for a fraction of the price.

AY: How does a Community Supported Fishery work? Is this model feasible in other places?

AT: The way fishing in New England works now, most fishermen sell everything they catch all at once at an auction, instead of buying directly “off the boat.” So, as a Community Supported Fishery, or CSF, New Hampshire Community Seafood gives the fishermen an incentive – we’d give them, say, an extra $0.25 per pound of a certain fish that’s higher than what they would receive at an auction. For dogfish, it’s actually a $1.10 per pound incentive! A CSF is really the only way to buy off the boat now. We buy a small portion of what the local fishermen catch, but it’s something.

There are about 50 CSFs in the United States. On land, we’ve seen a growing popularity in supporting the local farmer, and this fits in well with that model. You pay up front, and get what’s ripe each week – it works the same way with fish. Community members can support local fishermen and the local economy in this way. So, the challenge is to get people to realize that underutilized fish are just as delicious as cod and haddock.

In New England in particular, when people hear that the fishing industry is in crisis, that affects them. Many who grew up here are enamored by our iconic fishing traditions – maybe they have good memories of fishing, or they feel that it’s a big part of the culture. When you add in the “locavore” mentality, as well as those who are trying to eat healthier, we see a real opportunity to appeal to a lot of people.

AY: So consumers can have a real impact here.

AT: Yes. The fish are there – all we need is more consumers and more buyers, and it can make a greater impact. We are also working with restaurants and chefs; they will buy underutilized fish and put it on the menu, creating more exposure and making it easier for consumers to try something new. Right now we are in 10 restaurants and a hospital cafeteria, and are continuing to expand.

AY: How can people get involved?

AT: We are mostly based in Portsmouth, NH, but our CSF has 17 pickup locations in New Hampshire, one in Northern Massachusetts, and we’re partnering with Monadnock food cooperative in Keene, NH. (All of these are listed on the New Hampshire Community Seafood website). We also have a newsletter that informs locals about what’s new, how to cook underutilized fish, recipes, and more.

AY: Anything else you would like to add?

AT: Three years ago, there were 26 local fishermen in New Hampshire, and now there are only 9 left. We buy fish from all of them. The industry is in desperate need of support, both from communities and from the NMFS [regulators].

In addition to community-supported fishing organizations like NHCS, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Out of the Blue series aims to educate the public about abundant fish that are well-managed and are not harvested primarily due to low market demand.

And NOAA recently announced the public availability of fishwatch.gov, a resource that provides up-to-date information about fish, including the ability to look up a certain fish to see where it’s available, whether it’s a smart and sustainable option, nutrition information, and more.

Would you (or have you) tried dogfish, whiting, or monkfish? Leave a comment below!

 

Monkfish Look Like They Could Bite Your Foot Off

This fish looks like it was designed by Stephen King, with its angular gaping mouth, needle-like teeth, and beady eyes. Imagine your reaction if you were enjoying a refreshing dip in the ocean then you looked down and saw that face staring up at you. I pride myself on surfing with the sharks in the bracing New England ocean, but seeing that crazy face by my feet might just leave me unhinged for a minute. These fish range throughout the North Atlantic, and as far south as Florida, so I know they’re around.

Really, though, your odds of encountering a monkfish are very low and if you did, they probably wouldn’t attack you. They usually hang out on the ocean floor, where they lie in wait, lure in prey with a filament-like “esca” that sprouts from between their eyes, and snatch up whatever unfortunate little fish happens to show interest.

As effective as this strategy seems to be, this bottom-dweller does get up near the surface every now and then – to eat birds. Researchers have recently discovered little puffins in the bellies of monkfish that were caught between 275 and 495 feet down, off the coast of Chatham, MA. Monkfish fish get around! And, I will confess, I didn’t even know we had puffins in New England.

I would really love to see some Crittercam  footage of a monkfish swimming up from the dark, cold depths and rushing a cute little unsuspecting puffin. Pow! Like a shark attack, but smaller and uglier. I’m going to be thinking about this the next time my feet are dangling off my surfboard (although researchers think the puffins were diving down 10 or 20 feet when the monkfish nabbed them). Still – as if the shark anxiety wasn’t bad enough.

Here are some other interesting monkfish facts (these and more can be found in this fact sheet from World Wildlife Fund).

  • Monkfish are also called goosefish, bellyfish, allmouth, and lawyer (that last one seems a little harsh).
  • These fish have been found almost 3,000 feet down.
  • They can eat things larger than they are, and are not very picky. Cod, lobster, and birds are all fair game.
  • Monkfish was not considered marketable in the U.S., until a government funded marketing campaign convinced people they were missing out on something that Europeans had been onto for a while.

Julia Child and a large monkfish. © copyright 2000-2007 Getty Images, Inc. [Steve Hansen/TimePix]
Julia Child and a large monkfish. Copyright 2000-2007 Getty Images, Inc. [Steve Hansen/TimePix]
 While monkfish have yet to show any interest in eating us, we do seem to enjoy eating them. In New England alone, commercial landings have averaged 35 million pounds a year since 1990. Hopefully this important and unique Gulf of Maine dweller will be able to withstand the  fishing pressure that is now upon them. Given the state of collapse of our cod fishery, healthier bottom dwelling fish stocks are being increasingly targeted to help sustain the fleet. This sort of action might backfire if populations of monkfish and other groundfish begin to plummet as the cod have, leaving fishermen with less and less. Worse, there are pressures on groundfish other than fishing, like warming seas and ocean acidification, which make it important that we set some habitat aside for our ocean ecosystems to adapt and build resiliency to our changing environment.

As odd looking and voracious as monkfish are, they are an important part of our New England ocean ecosystem. I hope that our fisheries managers and researches keep tabs on monkfish populations so we don’t imperil this true ocean oddity. Especially since I haven’t seen that Crittercam footage yet.