EASTHAM, Mass. (AP) - Step out of the hot, sunny day into the cool, fresh-smelling interior of Mac’s Seafood in Eastham and you’ll find a showcase full of glistening fish and shellfish nestled in a thick bed of ice chips.
Bluefish, summer flounder, cod and striped bass fillets, bluefin tuna, halibut and swordfish steaks, monkfish tails, bright pink slabs of salmon, shucked Atlantic sea scallops and whole squid, plus clams, oysters and mussels in their shells. There are plenty of choices.
But company co-owner Alex Hay doesn’t hesitate to say that his customers won’t find Cape Cod codfish in his fish market - or in any other fish market in the area.
Cod has slipped almost entirely out of reach for local fishermen over the last decade as stocks have contracted due to overfishing and environmental changes and quotas have been reduced to near nothing.
Mac’s Seafood’s motto is “know where your fish comes from” and, for some time now, the cod in the case has been coming from big longline boats fishing out of Iceland.
Other kinds of fish - such as haddock, pollock, hake and varieties of flatfish - are seasonally available from some local boats with the proper permits and adequate quota allocations, but to keep that case fully and consistently stocked, Mac’s brings in product from all over the world.
“We’re trying to be as authentic as we can,” Hay said, “but it’s not always easy when so much of the fish comes from far away.”
To maintain Mac’s seafood traceability commitment, Hay buys Marine Stewardship Council-certified Icelandic cod, which is flown in fresh to regional distributors. He also buys pen-raised salmon from Wester Ross, the oldest independent salmon farming operation in Scotland.
The wild coho salmon in the case is line-caught and frozen at sea using an impeccable cleaning and processing procedure by a Washington state-based fisherman named Bruce Gore.
Consumers looking for local seafood can find it at Mac’s and at other fish markets. It’s just likely to be shellfish, lobster or seasonal catches such as bluefin tuna or striped bass.
“All of our shellfish is local - so local I can tell you the name of the person who harvested it. That’s very valuable to us and to this area,” Hay said.
So what exactly are all those fishing boats moored in coves around the Cape and Islands doing?
The top five species landed by local fishermen are spiny dogfish, skates, monkfish, Atlantic sea scallops and lobster, according to Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance communications director Nancy Civetta.
Lobsters and scallops are fish market and restaurant menu staples and monkfish may show up occasionally, but the Chatham Fish Pier is one of the few places to see “dogs” and skates. That’s where local boats line up to offload them so they can be boxed, iced and forklifted into trucks headed off-Cape for processing.
According to state data provided by the alliance, Cape and Islands fishermen landed 6.3 million pounds of dogfish in 2014. That compares with 170,150 pounds of cod last year.
Nearly all of the dogfish was exported to the United Kingdom to be used as the fish in Britain’s national dish, fish and chips.
“You won’t find dogfish in your local fish market,” Civetta said. “Americans don’t eat it - at least not yet.”
The fishermen’s alliance recently won a federal grant to try to build consumer and institutional interest and demand for dogfish in the U.S.
Steve DeLeonardis, owner of The Corner Store restaurant in Chatham and a new shop in Orleans, is doing his part to change attitudes - one burrito at a time.
After experimenting with a variety of brining techniques to address texture problems, he settled on soaking dogfish fillets in milk overnight and is now using “Cape shark,” an alternative name for dogfish, on “Fish Fridays” at his Orleans bistro.
His cooks serve it up Moroccan-style, seasoned with a spice rub of toasted coriander, cumin and a pinch of cinnamon and as Creole-style and pan-blackened “shark cakes” both in burritos and as salad toppers.
“We like to be a little edgy,” DeLeonardis said. “Our goal when we opened in Orleans was to make that ‘our fish.’”
Ironically, one of the biggest challenges the Corner Store faced in its mission to get dogfish on its menu was finding a consistent supply, because of strong export demand.
“I’ve been trying to get it for years. But it goes from the boat to New Bedford. That’s where the problem is,” DeLeonardis said. “Nancy at the fishermen’s alliance has been instrumental in helping us get it in Orleans. Once the channels of distribution are clear, we can bring it to Chatham.”
While a few smaller, fine-dining restaurants serve skate wings and it’s occasionally available in local fish markets, skate, too, is mostly exported.
Fishermen’s alliance members have been donating skate and dogfish to whet consumer appetite to try something new - and give lower-income Cape families locally sourced seafood.
“The Family Pantry of Cape Cod picked up 2,000 pounds that they started distributing (on Thursday),” Civetta said. “That should take them through to distribution of the next species, dogfish, which is slated to begin on Aug. 27.”
The alliance also donated 500 pounds of skate wing fillets to the Falmouth Service Center and 250 pounds to the Cape Cod Hunger Network.
“This is truly becoming a Cape-wide program,” Civetta said.
True local demand for abundant, undervalued species can’t come soon enough for local fishermen.
“It’s a clean, sustainable fishery,” said Tim Linnell of the Chatham-based Perry’s Pride II. “We just can’t get any money for them - 16 cents a pound for dogfish and 42 cents for skate wings. It’s hard to pay the bills with that. A few more cents a pound would make a whole lot of difference.”
Information from: Cape Cod (Mass.) Times, https://www.capecodonline.com
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