Seasons of the Sea
Sourcing Locally-Caught, Sustainable, Seasonal Seafood
by Darren Saletta
Now that the winter that never happened turns to summer, our local fishing fleets are ramping up for the high season to harvest the wide variety of species that visit our waters each year. There is always a great deal of talk and controversy about what the best seafood choices are and how to take advantage of locally-caught, sustainable seafood options. A consistent problem that I hear from consumers is the difficulty of figuring out what local species are in season, when they can be purchased and if they are sustainable options. We all want to make the best seafood choices possible and try to source our food locally. How to go about that effort can be challenging. Fisheries are managed by towns, states, multi-state commissions for migratory species and numerous federal authorities. At times, the regulations can be tricky for commercial fishermen and downright confusing for consumers. This is my guide for making these seafood choices so Cape Codders can eat fresh, local product and feel good about their decisions.
While the warming waters of spring bring a migration of spectacular proportion and variety to Cape waters, half of the year sees cold water and reliance on bottom-dwelling species called groundfish. At the heart of our local fishing ports are the 35- to 50-foot vessels that harvest a consistent volume of groundfish and sea scallops. While codfish is in a rebuilding stage, many consumers are discovering other wonderfully tasty fish that exhibit robust populations. Chefs in Boston and New York’s finest restaurants are regularly serving pollock, hake, monkfish tails and skate on their fancy menus. All winter long, you can ask for these delicious options at your fish market. Sea scallops are not only abundant, but our local day boat scallop fleet primarily fishes on soft, sandy bottom, causing minimal damage unlike some of the bigger offshore vessels. And wouldn’t you prefer a scallop that’s been caught, shucked and landed in the same day versus one that’s been on ice for up to two weeks before it even hits the dock?
The rising sun and warming waters of spring ignite a massive production of phytoplankton that forms the base of a food chain, which draws all forms of sea life into our waters. The first signs of the migration are the arrival of herring and squid. While herring is a bit strong for most palates and best left for the stripers, tuna, birds and just about everything else to eat, who doesn’t love a tasty plate of calamari? If you’ve never had fresh squid, you’re in for a treat. In the springtime, squid is caught locally using environmentally sound methods such as fish weirs and rod and reel. From late April through June, more and more local markets are carrying fresh squid as consumer demand has risen. And best of all, it’s relatively inexpensive. As you prepare to plant your tomatoes in your garden, think about calamari and head to your fish market.
Tautog is a locally caught hook-and-line fish with a season that winds down in spring as the savory black sea bass invade Nantucket Sound and surrounding waters in huge numbers. Black sea bass are caught by rod and reel or by pot, similar to lobstering, and make up a fishery that is well managed, has little bycatch and is bottom friendly. Along with the sea bass and squid, scup and fluke are also in season come late spring. The first bluefish mix in and early season catches are by hook-and-line or in weirs. Bluefish is world class when smoked and one of my favorite fish to bring home after a day on the water to either bake or grill. Toss its “fishy” and “oily” reputation out the door with your farm-raised salmon and give this locally-caught, sustainable delicacy a fair shot. Slather on a 50-50 mix of mayo and real maple syrup, bake for 12 minutes and raise your brow as your taste buds explode. “Wow, I never knew!” is the most common reaction from dinner guests.
July brings the grand prize of migratory fish into our state waters. Striped bass is no stranger to the number one spot on consumers’ favorite fish list. Thanks to a well-managed and sustainable fishery that is strictly harvested by rod and reel, striper populations are healthy and robust. You’ve probably heard about the controversy surrounding striped bass, and it’s true that a special interest group did attempt to shut down the Massachusetts commercial fishery. Rest assured that regulators, commercial and recreational fishermen, and scientists worked together to defeat this misguided attempt to take local striped bass out of fish markets and off restaurant menus. Striped bass is as local and environmentally benign a commercially fishery as any. The fishery must be celebrated for its management success, sound fishing methods and its profound impact on local small boat fisheries, economies and culture. Striped bass season opens in mid-July every year, and your local market will surely have it in stock. For stripers and all other state managed fisheries, you can track the season’s progress online and see when the fisheries officially open and close by going to HERE.
Markets and restaurants will carry local striper for up to a week after the fishery closes. After that, any striped bass you see is either shipped in from out of state or is the farmed fresh water hybrid bass variety.
If it has a shell, it’s probably local, fresh and delicious. However, there are a couple of non-local species that sneak into display cases around the Cape. Cape caught mussels are often available but to save costs, you may find Canadian mussels for sale, so be sure to ask. If you’re a fan of fried clams, which are made from battered steamers, be sure to ask if the restaurant uses “native” clams. Use of non-native clams can save restaurants about 20% on their cost. In addition to not being a local product and taking money out of the pockets of our clammers, non-native clams are often treated with purification methods during processing. Yuck! If you’re not one for whole belly clams, try clam strips―made from sea clams―which many Cape fishermen harvest year round. Oysters, fresh steamers and littleneck clams are usually fresh local product that is an outstanding booster to local economies, shellfishermen and Cape families. If you feel like expanding your horizons, Cape Cod has a robust conch fishery that is environmentally sound. Conch can be tricky to prepare, but when done right it is absolutely amazing. The scrumptious nuggets called bay scallops are a fall/winter fishery with some towns opening their season in October and others in November. These need no introduction and are often available throughout the winter. Some say they are the sweetest meats from the sea.
Bluefin tuna are prevalent in our Cape waters throughout the summer and fall. Caught primarily by hook-and-line with minimal bycatch (usually blue sharks which are released alive), bluefin tuna can occasionally be found in our markets and restaurants when not exported to Japan. The fishery is perhaps the most controversial in the world. The fact is that our New England fishermen use a low-impact fishing method and stay within their catch limits. They have taken every quota cut and regulation in stride in an effort to maintain a sustainable fishery while other countries blatantly disregard all efforts to support a healthy fishery. If you can find the prized bluefin in your fish market between June 1 and December, ask if it’s local, and enjoy the delicacy. As with any managed species, the allocated quota will be caught, and it’s up to fishery managers to ensure that the fishery remains sustainable. There is no commercial yellowfin tuna fishery on Cape Cod, so if eating locally sourced fish is your motive, beware of the various tuna species often seen in the display case.
Last but certainly not least is our star of the clambake: lobster. Our Cape Cod inshore fleet generally begins fishing in spring, and you can find the first of the season in tanks around April. The season kicks into a higher gear in late spring and runs strong until Christmas when most lobstermen bring the gear home for winter. Lobsters are caught in pots that sit quietly on the ocean floor and produce minimal bycatch. Cape lobster populations are well-managed and a sustainable seafood choice you can feel good about eating as long as you keep the butter in check.
Figuring out what to buy and when to buy it in order to make the most sustainable fish choices is challenging. We hope that the chart, website links and the descriptions above make your seafood buying a little easier and a lot more local. If you have questions, would like to hear an answer from a local commercial fishermen or fisheries expert, or need some clarification on these complicated subjects, contact a community resource such as the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association. You can post your question on its Facebook page: www.facebook.com/CCCHFA
Consumers drive demand, so don’t be afraid to ask about what you’re paying for and what you are eating at restaurants and fish markets. Opinions on seafood choices run the gamut, and I don’t endorse any one fish versus another. However, trying new and underutilized species helps take pressure off of those fish in high demand and also spurs local economies by further developing markets for these fish in our hometown ports. Eating sustainable seafood may be a bit complicated, but learning about the fisheries, tasting new flavors, and finding new culinary delights is fun and rewards the palate exceptionally.
Darren Saletta has been a commercial fisherman on Cape Cod for 20 years and runs Monomoy Sportfishing. Darren co-founded the Massachusetts Commercial Striped Bass Association and does outreach and community development work for the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association. Visit his website: http://www.monomoysportfishing.com/.