One of the lesser known species of the northwest Atlantic was featured at Turner’s Salem yesterday in a special offering of fish tacos. Acadian redfish– also called ocean perch– is a bottom-dwelling school fish that has been harvested locally for generations. The striking color of this fish give it its name and although it has traditionally been passed over for the more popular varieties of cod and haddock, the distinct flavor and consistency of redfish’s fillets make it a great options for tacos and stews. It’s also a very affordable alternative to some of the more popular species.
As NOAA’s “Fishwatch” points out:
“The market for Acadian redfish first took off in the 1930s when the developing food-freezing industry needed new resources. At that time, fishermen sought only species in demand such as cod, haddock, and flounder, shunning the abundant redfish. Processors found that redfish were adaptable to the new food technology, and harvests rose as freezing techniques enabled a widespread distribution of the frozen product throughout the country. Redfish became a highly sought-after and important commercial species, serving as a key protein source for the U.S. military in the 1940s and 1950s.”
During World War II, the US Government formalized a contract with the local fishing fleet in Gloucester in order to ensure a steady stream of redfish to feed our troops fighting overseas. At the time, the species was abundantly available and its durability and ease of freezing made it ideal for shipping long distances to feed troops across Europe and beyond. Unfortunately, heavy fishing pressure during this period caused the stock to decline steadily. After many fluctuations in the health of the stock, it has recently been restored to historic levels of abundance. Recently, with a heightened awareness from the public and a growing movement towards consuming underutilized species in order to balance what we take from the ocean, species like redfish are once again finding their way onto the tables of the American public.
Found between depths of 70-500 meters, redfish range from Virginia up to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and over to Iceland and Greenland. They swim in large schools and prefer ocean bottoms made of clay/silt or rock. They feed on a variety of mollusks and crustaceans as well as small bait fish. The diet and mobile behavior of redfish make its fillets dense and flavorful. Compared to a cod or haddock, redfish has a subtle but stronger flavor and is less flakey. As a result, it holds together nicely when prepared in stews or as part of a larger dish. Along with humans, cod, halibut, swordfish and sea lions all enjoy snacking on redfish when available.
The distinctive spines that run along the redfish’s back are a striking feature and also a defense mechanism. Aside from being sharp, the spines on these fish contain toxins that can cause irritation and localized inflammation and itching if an unlucky fishermen happens to get pricked by one. As a result, they are handled carefully with thick rubber gloves before filleting.
Although redfish have been restored to historic levels, local fishermen have failed to reach their full quota in recent years because of the limited market available for this fish paired with inefficient targeting methods. Despite local marketing efforts, the general public remains unaware and/or uninterested in this unique species. In addition, the large mesh size on groundfish nets required for fishing other species like cod haddock and flounder made it difficult for local fishermen to catch these small fish. Several local organizations, including the Gulf of Maine Research Instittute, are partnering with fishermen to help them better target and sell redfish.
Turner’s will continue to feature redfish on its menu and with other promotions in support of the local fleet.