When the Dish is Fish

Cooking responsibly with a sustainable catch

by: Susan Simon

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Nantucket is one of the most enviable spots in the world: a justabout-perfect little island surrounded by the temperate waters of the Gulf Stream in what should be a goldmine for seafood. But over-fishing, feigned ignorance of fishing regulations and downright defiance of those regulations by some commercial fishermen who would rather have fish in their net now, rather than thinking ahead to the future, have reduced fish stocks in local waters.

The stretch of water that most recently has become a cause of concern for local fishermen is the channel between Muskeget Island to the west of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard into Nantucket Sound. It is the spawning ground for squid.

Althea K charter-boat captain Pete Kaizer with a striped bass.

The female squid gives birth to up to 50,000 eggs in her lifetime and then constructs, with care, egg mops which she coats with a gelatinous kind of material to protect the developing babies from predators. The egg mops rest on the eel-grass-blanketed ocean floor until they are born and float to the surface in search of plankton to eat, if they are not scooped up or ripped apart in the catch of indiscriminate harvesters. These are fishermen who drag small-mesh nets along the bottom of the ocean that capture not only the adult squid that are the focus of their catch but everything else that is unfortunate enough to be swimming through their dredges’ pathway: including the gestating squid egg mops.

Pete Kaizer, charter boat captain of the Althea K, has made it his mission personally and professionally, with a seat on the Squid, Mackerel & Butterfish Advisory Council, to stay on the backs of the state and federal fisheries agencies until they enforce the existing regulations that are in place to ensure the sustainability of the squidfishing industry.

Kaizer speaks passionately about the subject when he recites statistics about the tremendous loss of fish. For every 100 pounds of squid that are caught, one hundred pounds of varied, dead fish are thrown back. Consider the waste of 450,000 pounds of striped bass, 700,000 pounds of black bass and 350,000 pounds of fluke, Kaizer said, quoting figures provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

I didn’t think I’d be writing about the urgency of protecting our local fishery when I took on the assignment of writing a piece about cooking with locally-sourced fish and shellfish. But how could I not let you know why I’ve made the following recipe choices?

I thought about what local seafood would be considered sustainable, came up with a list and then checked with Kaizer. He corroborated most of my list but added that he thought sea bass and fluke, despite the just-mentioned statistics, were OK for now.

Local mussels cling tightly to spots like the jetties. They’re good, both as a sustainable catch, and as food.

Oysters are another good option as several oyster farmers have identified the waters of Nantucket Harbor as ideal for growing the prized bivalve. While raw, icy-cold, briny oysters slide down your throat with ease, they can also be used in various cooked dishes.

Clams have a specific season and require a permit issued by the Town of Nantucket, whether for recreational or commercial harvesting. Hard-shell clams, or little necks, are also good raw when they’re still small and tender. Larger varieties, which include cherrystones, top necks and quahogs, can be used in a variety of ways. They are delicious coated in batter and fried, as the main ingredient of a fritter, incorporated as an ingredient in a chowder or stew, tossed with bread crumbs and seasonings and stuffed and baked, or steamed in wine for the much-touted pasta dish spaghetti alle vongole.

From June through September fishing for blues is a favorite sport, whether it is surfcasting by a solitary figure, standing on a beach, lapped by the waves, or from the deck of a boat with a group of people battling for fish. Bluefish populate Nantucket’s waters in abundance.

Cod is another story. It is vulnerable. Despite rebuilding plans, the population in U.S. waters is still significantly below target levels. Why not try its less compromised cousin, pollock? Pollock and its cousin haddock are thick, firm-fleshed white fish like cod, but with a slightly stronger flavor, which makes them a good choice for fishcakes and marinated fish preparations.

Fluke is summer flounder. I trust Kaizer when he says that for now, this sweet-tasting, flat, whitefleshed fish is still acceptable. I love this fish not only for its subtle flavor, which allows for an equally-subtle preparation or full-on intricate spices, but also because it’s so simple to cook.

A hundred years ago the oceans were teeming with fish. That is not the case today. Overfishing and a disregard for the health of the water that sustains the life of the fish has led to diminished populations. There are still some good choices for cooking, but we need to think about those choices – perhaps a little more than we did in the past. ///

Susan Simon is a nationally-known cookbook author who writes “In the Kitchen” for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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