What Seems New Is Old: “Trash Fish” in a 1974 Newsletter

Rudderfish from Bulletin of US Fish Commission on Flickr Commons
Rudderfish (Seriola zonata)

“Trash fish” — a term used to describe less-marketable seafood that might normally be tossed back into the ocean — has been a hot topic in the last few years. To be better stewards of the oceans, we need to spark interest in less popular fish — the “trash fish” — thereby cutting waste, reducing pressures on overharvested species (like bluefin tuna, red snapper, etc.), and providing additional income to fishing communities.

The highest profile efforts have been the Chefs Collaborative’s series of Trash Fish Dinners, where their members highlight under-valued species such as porgy, silver carp, and triggerfish.  In recent weeks, trash fish got a much bigger audience, with a feature role on a Top Chef elimination challenge: recreate the traditional Italian “feast of the seven fishes” using trash fish. A recap of Top Chef Charleston from Grub Street describes what happened in great detail. After a bunch of drama, the teams turned out triggerfish with chile sauce and stewed tomatoes, amberjack with kimchi and rice porridge, and ras el hanout-spiced tunny. Not all of them were successful: one was “flavorless and also the texture of tennis shoes.”

The promoters sometimes make it seem like trash fish is a new concept — i.e., unlike those barbarians in the past, we are going to use our limited aquatic resources more carefully. In reality, trash fish is a much older idea.

While searching for “parmesan” in Flickr Commons, I ran across the University of North Carolina Sea Grant Program Newsletter from 1974 with an image that caught my eye:  “Wanted: Trash Fish to Taste Good!”

Trash fish image from University of North Carolina Sea Grant Program Newsletter, May, 1974
Trash fish image from University of North Carolina Sea Grant Program Newsletter, May 1974

Here’s what the newsletter had to say on the subject:

..watch out, tuna. It’s possible that before long, wives will pack amberjack sandwiches for hubby’s lunch and ladies will top off the letruce with something called white grunt salad.  Restaurants may feature dishes like triggerfish parmesan and barracuda casserole.

Amberjack, white grunt and barracuda — all caught by fishermen off North Carolina’s coast for years. “Trash fish” they called them — then hurled a curse and dumped them back.

But with the world’s stomach growling for protein and with an eye toward spurring the economy of deprived coastal areas, folks began wondering about turning “trash” fish into useful foods.

…and the Sea Grant advisory services can help fishing enterprises figure out how to store, process and market the less common fish.

I suspect that if we went searching in the archives of organizations that work with fishing operations and seafood companies, we’d find other programs to help sell the under-valued species. And fishing communities might also have a wealth of recipes for these fish (e.g., selling the most valuable fish, eating the less valuable).  The great Google Books Ngram Viewer tool, for example, gives this Google Ngram of Trash Fish, which shows a lot of activity in previous decades:


Is It Time to Trash the Term “Trash Fish”?

The term “trash fish” is not great: these are living wild creatures that required human effort and fossil fuels to capture. They deserve more respect. In the aforementioned Top Chef episode, the term ticked off contestant Jim: “Already, Jim is enraged at the injustice. ‘Calling them trash fish is not the way to go,’ Jim says, giving voice [to] the voiceless” (as recounted in the recap of Top Chef Charleston). A more substantial case was made by Maria Finn in Please Stop Calling It ‘Trash Fish’ at Civil Eats. Finn notes that many fishing communities have been using the fish for a long time — for example, tuna heart in Sicily, potato and pink salmon stew in Alaska — and she suggests the alternate term “fisherman’s dinner.”

Image Credits

Drawing of Rudderfish from page 238 of “Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission” (1924) from Internet Book Archive’s Flickr collection, no known copyright restrictions.  Wanted: Trash Fish drawing from University of North Carolina Sea Grant Program Newsletter (in the Internet Archive, via Flickr Commons).

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