Have you ever had whiting? It’s a small fish, usually about 12-to-14 inches long, with a soft white flesh and a mild flavor. It lives in our waters, and historically, the whiting fishery was big on Cape Cod every fall. These days, though, most local fisherman aren’t catching whiting, and it’s hard to find in local markets.
To find out why, I spoke with lifelong fisherman Bill Amaru from Orleans.
“In the old days it used to be a fall and early winter fishery, and in the spring too,” Amaru told me. “But that started to change when regulations that regulate how and where, and what we can fish with, started to be implemented beginning in mid-’80s. One of the rules that was implemented was a mesh size requirement. When you’re fishing for whiting, you have to use small mesh, just like when you’re fishing for herring. You don’t use big mesh, like you’d use for codfish. The mesh regulations changed. And where we used to use 3-inch mesh to catch whiting, and anything else that came up in the net, to avoid catching small cod and haddock a rule was implemented that if a fishery caught more than 5% of a bycatch species like cod when you were directing on something like whiting, you couldn’t use that mesh.”
Amaru is the first to say these regulation changes were necessary. But there were still plenty of whiting in the water, so fishermen got creative. Groundfish like cod and haddock stay very close to the ocean bottom—that’s why they’re called groundfish. But whiting tend to school just a little bit higher.
“So what we had to do, and we did, is prove that we could develop a net and target whiting with a minimal amount of bycatch,” Amaru went on. “That happened during the ’90s, when the Division of Marine Fisheries in Massachusetts developed what was called the raised footrope trawl. This raised footrope trawl allowed cod and flounders and haddock to go underneath the net as it was being pulled along the bottom.”
Bycatch dropped below 5 percent, mission accomplished. But then regulations changed in other ways, too.
Amaru explained, “We had to enroll in a program. We couldn’t just put the whiting net on whenever we chose to and go fishing for whiting, and then maybe the next trip go fishing for groundfish, which was always one of the things that allowed small boats like our inshore draggers to survive - versatility. When we lost the versatility, we lost the ability to be flexible.”
The new rule required fishermen to get a permit a week in advance of a whiting trip, and then to stay in the whiting fishery for at least two weeks.
“And that doesn’t sound like a lot to some people perhaps,” he said. “Big deal, you know: so what, you’re going to go fishing for whiting for two weeks? What’s the big deal? Well it does matter, because when we fish for whiting, it’s an extremely volatile price structure. Some days whiting can be worth a nickel a pound, and a day or two later be worth 50 or 60 cents.”
My husband sells fish for a living, and both he and Bill said the reason it’s hard to get a steady price for whiting is because there isn’t a steady demand. Whiting is a seasonal fish, but unlike something like striped bass—which is eagerly awaited and arrives in the summer, just in time for prime tourist season—whiting comes in the fall and early winter and isn’t well known. That’s really too bad, Bill says, because it’s an excellent fish for cooking.
“I personally like to pan fry it,” Amaru said. “Very much like I would imagine cooking a trout, because it’s similar in size and texture. I simply head it, cut the tail off, open belly flap and take the guts out. And then we roll it in flour, after an eggwash, and fry in hot oil. Serve it up, it’s delicious.”
There are still a few boats out of Provincetown that occasionally fish for whiting, but otherwise, the local fishery is gone. The picture is never simple—there are other issues with catching whiting besides the regulations - like the fact that the bycatch of dogfish has gotten so high that Bill says it’s almost impossible to get whiting without a huge amount of dogfish in the net. Ultimately, fishermen have to make money to make fishing for any species worth it, and without demand, that just isn’t going to happen. The story of whiting is the same as for so many lesser known local fish that aren’t considered center of the plate material—things like redfish, skate, mackerel, dogfish, and many others. If we want to revive these smaller local fisheries, that’s a story that has to change. There has to be demand for these fish, and that’s up to all of us as consumers.
This episode of the Local Food Report originally aired on December 25th, 2015