Chefs: Please Stop Calling It ‘Trash Fish’

So-called trash fish dinners have become popular, but the term does a disservice to the ocean, and to fishermen.

Food Waste, Seafood

I’m all for the spirit of the trash fish movement: getting lesser-known species that were once discarded into the hands of skillful chefs who make them shine. I just don’t like the name.

Chefs Collaborative has been hosting Trash Fish Dinners around the county since 2013 and they’ve started a trend. I was recently invited to a dinner at a vineyard in my area by chef and restaurateur Gabriela Cámara from Mexico City. The publicist told me she would be cooking with “trash fish.” The term made me wince, but I wanted to see what she could do with our local fish, as she’s opening a seafood restaurant in San Francisco this summer.

Cámara made rockfish ceviche and black cod adobo tacos. The black cod had been wrapped in fibers from cactus leaves, buried and pit cooked with the cactus; it was rich and smoky and totally sublime, but I balked at calling these wonderful fish “trash.” I talked to her about it, and she agreed 100 percent. But the question is: What else should we call them? Underutilized isn’t sexy, bycatch is too political. Fish-without-a-market? Under-loved?

“Trash fish” sounds catchy, but it hurts more than it helps. The term devalues the role of the animal in the eco-system, and it kills any other market for them. In fact, it creates a problem for vendors that sell local seafood and for Community Supported Fisheries (CSF). I work for Real Good Fish, a CSF, in Moss Landing, California. A CSF works like a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription in the sense that people sign up for a monthly membership, but it’s for local seafood instead of produce. Members buy what the local fishermen bring in, and part of the benefit is trying new species.

Real Good Fish recently signed on to a letter written by the Fish Locally Collaborative with many other CSFs, sustainable seafood businesses, and advocates asking Chefs Collaborative to rename their Trash Fish Dinners.

The goals of these dinners and that of Community Supported Fisheries are very similar. They both get people off the most common seafood, particularly imported shrimp, tuna, and farmed salmon, which can be some of the least sustainable seafood choices. Instead, we encourage people to try other species and diversify according to the season. Diversifying our seafood diet helps us connect with what’s happening in the ocean. It also supports our local fishermen and women so they can catch a variety of species throughout the year. And it keeps them from overfishing and removing critical species from the food web.

When creative chefs and Community Supported Fisheries are willing to buy under-appreciated fish, then the fishermen earn more for their labor, and they don’t have to toss out the bulk of their catch due to a lack of market. And when there’s no popular fish to catch, they can still go out and earn a living. They can also then take fewer fish out of the water overall and still cover their costs.

While chefs have taken the term “trash fish” from commercial fishermen who don’t have a market for their catch, another term fishermen have for it is “dinner.” I used to work on fishing boats in Alaska, and one skipper made us eat pink salmon so we could sell the more valuable sockeye. “Pink and potato stew is tradition,” she used to tell us. It wasn’t sockeye, but it wasn’t bad. The sablefish/black cod bycatch from the halibut fishery was my winter staple. My friend who ran a boat on Kodiak Island used to take the livers out of pink salmon and cook them in butter so she could sell the fish.

In Mississippi, the fishermen call their bycatch “Biloxi Bacon,” and have it for breakfast when they return from a trip. In Sicily, the fishermen sell the tuna, but keep the hearts and cure them and they are considered a delicacy when grated over pasta. In the fishing cooperative of Tarcoles in Costa Rica, fishermen head out in the morning with some limes and chili; they save the red snapper to sell and the ones without a market become their ceviche at lunch.

A fisherman we work with, Joe Pennisi, eats every type of fish that he catches. When his boat comes back to the Moss Landing harbor, we fire up the hot plate for the smattering of species he didn’t catch enough of sell. We’ve sampled tanner crabs, spot prawns, and a fish unfortunately called “Ratfish” that we rebranded as “speckled moonfish.” “I just take lemon and garlic out there,” he says. “And we eat fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Anything fresh is good.”

So instead of calling them “trash fish,” let’s call these less-marketable species “fisherman’s dinner.” Doing so would be a much better way to pay respect to these creatures coming out of the ocean and the men and women who catch them.

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  1. Glen
    Wednesday, June 10th, 2015
    why not call them what they are, Rockfish, Black Cod, I mean we call tilapia , tilapia and that is a fish used to clean crap out of fish farms, a real trash fish.
  2. WALTER BREMER
    Wednesday, June 10th, 2015
    I love black cod (sablefish). Same high Omega 3s as king salmon. As a child my parents bought it smoked in NYC delis. But at nearly $20/lb it's premium pricing. Not too trashy at all!
  3. James
    Thursday, June 11th, 2015
    Tilapia and Asian Carp are the only fish I've ever heard referred to as 'trash fish'. I don't see anything wrong with preparing and eating most other fish.
  4. Thursday, June 11th, 2015
    Wonderful commentary, Maria. "Trash fish" should be a term of the past!
  5. Tuesday, June 16th, 2015
    Down here in the South we don't have trash fish just supper. Some ethnic groups will eat Carp and Drum which are the true bottom dwellers but for the most part if it swims it's fair game.
  6. sam
    Tuesday, June 16th, 2015
    My dad fished the floodways in SE Mo. We ate all types of fish and as the water was constantly moving, we never ate anything that tasted "muddy". We ate buffalo fish scored so it looked like a slinky. It's a member of the carp family and so yummy but must be scored because of all the tiny bones. In the late winter these fish and other carp would spawn and he would catch them with huge sacs of roe inside of them. We would bread the sacs in cornmeal and fry them and eat them w/onion. It makes me sad to know I will never taste them again as my dad has dementia. I remember when Monkfish was 1.99 a lb. and sold as Poor man's Lobster. Those in mid class America don't know what it is to be hungry or they would not throw food away without trying it
  7. Jack Welsh
    Wednesday, June 17th, 2015
    Growing up in New York, catfish and eels were regular table-fare in our house. Skinned, dipped in an egg wash, dusted in seasoned flour and fried, you don't get much better than that...keep your salmon, give me a Blue or Channel Cat seven days a week and I'm happy. I don't see $8.99/lb as "cheap" though. -jw-
  8. Saturday, June 20th, 2015
    why not make fertilizer with the access fish? vegetables and fruit trees grow great with fish fertilizer. How about aquaponics?
  9. Esther Wright
    Saturday, June 20th, 2015
    What better subject for Father's Day Weekend than Fish! Though I Iove Broiled Trout and Pompano Ala New Orleans and Texas Gulf Redfish, I have had many a delicious Catfish dinners - one, in particular was Catfish Stew made by the father of my husband's friend, Vernon Leroy Geddings. In Sumter, SC in 1954 -- oh, for the recipe!!!
  10. Sunday, June 21st, 2015
    Living in the Biloxi/Gulfport, MS area, Biloxi Bacon refers only to Mullet. Normally the phrase used here, at the seafood eateries for a variety of fish not normally a known as a staple, is "Catch of the Day." For instance, I recently ate at local establishment a wonder Trigger fish meal as the catch of the day. Throw that catch phrase out there for your east coast culinary brain thrust. It certainly has a much better conotation than TRASH FISH.
  11. Sunday, June 21st, 2015
    Fishermans Dinner sounds like the Seafood Combo! I love the sound of Flag Rockfish Ceviche and Black Cod fish tacos!!
    I think it is important to learn the local species of any area you are living or visiting and use local knowledge to pick out what species you prefer on your plate, Land or water, Fauna and Flora. New experiences are fun and, educational and rewarding.
  12. Sunday, June 21st, 2015
    I actually like Tilapia and Im a saltwater fish snob! Starting an aquaponic Tilapia Vegetable unit now I heard that they call Black Snook Trash Fish in Florida when here in Southern Baja California where I live they are considered one of the best/1st class, most expensive, tastyish fish there is!
  13. Daniel Martin
    Sunday, June 21st, 2015
    Rock fish and black cod are NOT trash fish. There is a large commercial long line fishery for black cod, other wise known as sable fish, in Alaska waters. It sells for as much or more than wild Alaska salmon in the fish markets. As for the multitude of rock fish species, they are all very tasty. I have had fishing clients tell me they thought it was the best tasting fish in the ocean, and I pretty much have to agree with them.
  14. Bill Lum
    Sunday, June 21st, 2015
    Have a cooking show with chefs from different countries and have them cook these "trash fish". Have them cook it as simply as possible so the home cook can do it. Yesterday's trash dish is today's gourmet dish.
  15. Sunday, June 21st, 2015
    I've been told catfish is the only known fish that will live, reproduce in totally polluted water. cat is the only known fish that defacates all bad, eliminating metal + the total known bad things. here in hi. safeway is the onl;y market ive found cat. individually wrapped 6oz. falays sharp frozen. this being Honolulu the 2lb. bag is expensive. the other safe fish is trout. on occasion trout have been introduced where salmon swim. on some of those plantings the trout soon died in mass. trout require Clean water. I personally prefer eating catfish because they are so tasty. love & peace hawaiianglen2@yahoo.com
  16. Ginger
    Sunday, June 21st, 2015
    I love the idea of "FISHERMAN'S DINNER"! I love all kinds of fish and wish we had a wider variety available
    without having to import, and cost kept low.
  17. matt
    Sunday, June 21st, 2015
    ant chef that calls any fish trash is not a chef just an idiot that thinks it is below his taste standards. truth be told he/she needs to learn how to cook fish before claiming it is trash. some have quirks that need to be done when cleaning them for cooking blood and mud veins need to be removed and a good cold water rinsing then light seasoning a touch of lemon or lime not massive amounts like most do as it kills the flavor of the fish and all you taste is the spice rack they loaded on the fish yuck. If I wanted that much spice flavor I would eat it with a spoon. they wouldn't know the difference between cod or a sucker, chef not picky prissy yes . I would love to give then fillet of eel and see what they think !!! lol
  18. John
    Sunday, June 21st, 2015
    It's amazing that the "fisherman's stews" eaten by fisherman are - in Spain, France and Italy served in haute cuisine restaurants now. It was fish no one thought they had use for. Since the fish are dead already it's a total waste to throw them out once sorted out. Monk fish was "Poor Man's Lobster" not 20 years ago - now try finding it anywhere (from frozen) under $6.99+ a lb. Talapia, Whiting, Carps, Swai, etc. wasn't eaten back then - now much of what's for sale. To think of all the fish tossed back in dead unusable - especially to large netters that sweep it off the back decks. Losing one species can't always be made up - Menhaden, Herring, et al suffer and sharks are doing what they do as we have w/them - nibble on fat humans.
  19. Linda
    Sunday, June 21st, 2015
    There are many fish that are great for feeding the poor, feeding the non poor and are very tasty. These fish are in abundance and people should turn to these fish to allow those that are starting to disappear rejuvenate. Some of these fish include Blue Catfish and Snake Fish. Snake Fish reproduce very fast and are in great, I mean great abundance.
    People eat "trash type fish" all of the time without thinking about it. Some of those are crabs, shrimp and lobster. And lets not forget some of the farm raised fish that is really not good for us. So why should people have a problem eating abundant "trash fish". Just rename it, market it correctly and they will come.
  20. James Maxwell
    Monday, June 22nd, 2015
    Having grown up along the InterCoastal water way between Texas and Louisiana and traveled overseas from Turkey, Viet Nam, England and other countries
    I can tell there is very little in the water that is not
    eatable. What the "cooks" are calling Trash Fish
    is dinner to an accomplished cook. You can take
    and fish and with a little seasoning you can make
    a tremendous meal out of them. It all depends upon
    the skill of the cook. I saw cooks in Louisiana that
    could turn mud pies into a meal fit for a king, I also
    had surprises when I was in Turkey on the Galatea
    bridge with vendor catching small fish and cooking
    them right there for customers. Same thing in other
    countries in the region. Many are not commercial
    viable for fishermen.
  21. DBH
    Monday, June 22nd, 2015
    In so many parts of the country, wild catfish is considered a trash fish. In the deep south farmed catfish is a staple. If one has access to wild catfish, try a buttermilk marinade for an hour or so. This will remove any traces of muddy taste so many find offensive. Try it! You'll love it. Bake it. Fry it. Blacken it. Grill it. Love it!
  22. Monday, June 22nd, 2015
    I ran the Trashfish Research Lab at UC Davis in 1973 and devoted almost all of my aquacultural research toward species that were under-utilized. It is often names that turn people away from various fish species and as we transition into a time where cultured species dominate the markets, the development of new market species is important. Good luck with your work at Moss Landing. Got a few friends there.
  23. Monday, June 22nd, 2015
    Trashfish are just species that someone has said aren't good. Tilapia are not trashfish. Some species eat algae, some insects. That doesn't sound like a trashfish. They are cultured all over the world and consumed in great quantities.
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