A Blue View: Bringing Bycatch to the Forefront

The Louisiana Gulf flounder may not look very appetizing, but it turns out there are a lot of benefits to having this fish on the menu.

Published February 09, 2016

louisiana-gulf-flounder-via-flickr

Image via Flickr user Kevin Bryant

Louisiana Gulf flounder is just one of the many victims of bycatch, defined by Oceana as “the catch of non-target fish and ocean wildlife, including what is brought to port and what is discarded at sea.” A comprehensive 2014 report by the international organization found that global bycatch may amount to 40 percent of the world’s catch—that’s nearly 63 billion pounds per year.

One chef decided to take tackle the problem in the only way he knew how: in the kitchen. Tim Doolittle was the executive chef at Emeril Lagasse’s Table 10 restaurant at the Palazzo in Las Vegas. Knowing that Louisiana Gulf flounder is commonly caught and discarded by Gulf of Mexico shrimp fisheries, he made the decision to give it a purpose.

In 2013, Doolittle added “flounder Meuniere” to Table 10’s menu. The Louisiana Gulf flounder dish was named after the French word for miller’s style, a reference to the method of dusting the fish with flour before cooking it. Suddenly, fisheries had a reason not to waste this fish—it could be sold.

Doolittle’s dish was a hit. After just one year of serving Louisiana Gulf flounder, the restaurant was going through 120 pounds of the fish per week. Doolittle benefited from the fish’s year-round supply, high-end quality and affordable price, and his efforts reduced the amount of fish discarded as bycatch. Putting this fish on the market also had the added advantage of giving other overfished and commercially fished populations a much-needed break. 

Want to take a stab at recreating Chef Doolittle’s flounder Meuniere? You can find the recipe here. To read the full 2014 Oceana report on bycatch, titled “Wasted Catch: Unsolved Problems in U.S. Fisheries,” click here

Episode Transcript

Many of us have a romantic image of fishing: a weather-beaten waterman aboard a small fishing boat, hauling in a handmade rope net as a sou’wester approaches.

Outside our beloved Chesapeake Bay, that romantic image—and the era it evokes—is mostly gone. Today, you rarely buy fish that has been caught by a fisherman on a day boat. Most commercial fishing is industrial and international. There are pilots, crews, trawlers, nets and baited longlines that drift for miles, even radar tracking of schools of fish with increasingly fewer places to hide.

Tragically, a lot of what’s caught using these means gets thrown right back into the sea—dead. It’s called bycatch, and leading ocean scientists now believe that up to 40 percent of the world’s catch may in fact meet this wasteful and unsustainable fate. A comprehensive report by Oceana, a leading conservation NGO, estimates that up to 22 percent of the U.S. catch is discarded each year, amounting to 2 billion pounds.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines bycatch as “discarded catch of any living marine resource, plus unobserved mortality due to a direct encounter with fishing gear.” Bycatch includes plants, fish, birds, mammals and even underwater habitats that get maimed, killed or destroyed by industrial fishing.

As for the animals affected, some are the so-called “charismatic megafauna,” like sea turtles and dolphins, that get caught up in nets. The plight of the dolphins caused public concern in the late 1980s, after a biologist aboard a Panamanian tuna boat took graphic video of dolphins dying in Eastern Pacific tuna nets, and consumers began to boycott canned tuna. The boycott led the U.S. tuna industry to adopt regulations that prevented 95 percent of this bycatch, and a new brand of tuna fish was born: “dolphin-safe.”

There were still critics. “Dolphin-safe” referred only to dolphin bycatch, not the many other fish species also caught inadvertently in those massive nets. And of course the tuna fishery is only one of dozens of international fleets that ply the ocean for countless species.

Bycatch also includes animals less familiar than the dolphins, but just as important: Corals, sponges and other organisms that form the foundation of shallow tropical reefs—and the beauty of our tropical vacations, by the way—can be silted over by dredging and bottom trawling.

Bottom trawlers are one of the worst, as they drag heavy fishing gear over the seafloor. A single bottom trawl for reef fish can imperil the integrity of barrier reef systems, which, depending on their size, can take up to 100,000 years to fully form. In the Northeast, scallop fishermen frequently, and accidentally, catch non-target bottom-dwellers like flounder and halibut.

NOAA identifies bycatch as a major ocean health issue. In 2014, the agency issued a call for proposals for the Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program. Its aim is to develop advanced technology that decreases bycatch by improving fishing gear and monitoring techniques.

There is also an emphasis on reorienting consumer tastes. Eating bycatch can reduce the pressure on overfished stocks like salmon and sea bass. Fin fish that are currently considered bycatch can, with smart marketing, become viable, sought-after fish for our tables.

Take, for instance, the Louisiana Gulf flounder, which is frequently caught and discarded by Gulf of Mexico shrimp fisheries. In 2013, Chef Tim Doolittle—of Emeril Lagasse's renowned Las Vegas restaurant Table 10—decided to feature this tasty fish. Today, it’s a featured dish.

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