Image: Redfish
Robert F. Bukaty  /  AP
The last of a load of redfish ride a conveyor belt at the Portland Fish Exchange, in Portland, Maine. Redfish is one of the few species of New England groundfish that's considered completely healthy, and regulators say fishermen can safely catch over 15 million pounds of it this year.
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updated 11/14/2010 1:30:25 PM ET 2010-11-14T18:30:25

It's been a worry-free couple of decades for the Acadian redfish.

The reddish-orange schooling fish have been worth so little to fishermen that they've rarely had to flee from the tightening mesh of a net. But life for the redfish may soon be changing — if the fishing industry can get people to bite.

Redfish is one of the few populations of New England groundfish considered completely healthy. Regulators have allotted fishermen 15 million pounds to catch this year, the third-most of any Northeast species. The big question is, who's going to buy it?

The once-robust market for redfish has nearly disappeared. But attempts to rebuild it are under way in hopes of giving the fishing industry a multimillion-dollar boost.

A new network of researchers, regulators and industry members, called REDNET, has just been formed with a $500,000 federal grant to figure out how to best catch, protect and market the species. A symposium was held this month to discuss reviving redfish.

Fishermen say that redfish, once common in military mess halls and Midwestern frozen-food aisles, features a high-quality white fillet that people would eat it if they could find it. But there's more to bringing it back than convincing people it's tasty, said Erik Chapman, a University of New Hampshire researcher.

"We know the problem; we don't know the answer," said Chapman, who helped organize the symposium in Danvers.

The Acadian redfish is one of three redfish species common in the northwestern Atlantic and is different from a popular sport fish found in the Gulf of Mexico, the red drum, also called redfish.

Besides its color, the Acadian redfish stands out for a long life span — up to 60 years — and for first reproducing at a relatively old age. That makes it more vulnerable to population crashes when it's heavily fished, as it was in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

The highest catch in recent decades came in 1951, when fishermen landed 258 million pounds. That dropped to 55 million pounds by 1970, then plummeted to less than a million annually by the mid-1990s. By then, redfish was a low-value fish usually caught by accident while fishermen targeted more valuable groundfish, such as cod and flounder.

Redfish's return to relevance came with a switch to a new management system in May.

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Instead of trying to protect fish by giving fishermen limited days at sea, the new system establishes a quota for each species and divides it among fishermen working together in groups called "sectors." That frees fishermen to chase redfish without worrying about wasting allotted fishing time.

With a 15 million-pound catch limit, and just 3.7 million pounds caught last year, fishermen potentially have about 11 million pounds to bring in. But right now, there's no one ready to buy nearly that much, said Dan Georgianna, an economist at the School for Marine Science and Technology at the University Massachusetts at Dartmouth.

"What the market needs is some sort of stable buyer, just to get started," he said.

No one's yet devised a strategy to get that done — REDNET officially meets for the first time later this month — but people are floating ideas.

Larry Ciulla, who runs the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction, suggests the military could again step in as a major redfish customer. Georgianna believes some big processors will give redfish a shot once they're confident the supply will be steady and the fish large enough. That could lead to supermarkets and other retailers signing on.

It would take some luck, Georgianna said. "But it happens," he added, pointing to the success of tilapia, a cheap, imported species that he said redfish might compete with as a fresher, domestic alternative.

The redfish itself presents obstacles to its revival. At about eight to 20 inches long, it's relatively small, making it labor-intensive to cut — many processors no longer even have the right equipment — and less appealing to customers used to big fillets. It also spoils relatively quickly.

If the redfish market is reborn, the initial benefits will be narrowly distributed among New England's fishermen. Federal statistics show that larger boats averaging about 78 feet and holding just 4 percent of the total number of fishing permits in sectors have been given nearly half — 46 percent — of the redfish catch.

That's because of the way regulators doled out the catch, basing it on the fleet's recent catch histories. Larger boats got the largest share of redfish because they were the only ones that recently pulled it up, for various reasons.

At a low price of about 50 to 60 cents a pound, fishermen need to bring in hefty hauls to make the effort worthwhile, and bigger boats can bring in bigger catches. Their extra horsepower also matters.

Redfish often hang out over underwater hills, and in deep water fishermen need substantial power to spread out a net that will clear the peaks, said Joe Jurek, a Gloucester fishermen who owns a 44-foot dragger and has chased redfish.

"I'd get to the top (of the hill) the boat would stop," he said. "I don't have the power to just ram it and get over."

Even if redfish benefit a minority of fishermen, there are onshore business that would see a boost, from ice suppliers, to dealers, to retailers and restaurants. An extra 11 million pounds of redfish would bring about $5.5 million at current prices — a healthy gain in a Northeast fishery that's recently pulled in about $100 million annually.

Mike Pol, a Massachusetts state biologist and part of REDNET, is hopeful about solutions, though he admits his expectations have been tempered since he realized how much redfish was waiting to be caught.

"I said, 'Boy, in a world in which fishermen have increasing limited opportunities, this looks like an opportunity that could be developed.'" he said. "It turns out it's more complex than that."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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