One Man's Garbage Fish, Another Man's Treasure
One man’s garbage fish; another man’s Treasure
By Bob Misak
Along our coast there are some species of fish that anglers feel are not worth eating;
some believe that they will be the fish of the future.
“Garbage fish or delicacy?”When we get on the subject of undesirable fish species we usually refer to them as “garbage fish”. The popular garbage fish that anglers refer to are either the skate or sea robin, but many folks think dog sharks, blowfish or eels are part of the “toss back” list. But as years pass and our fish stocks’ populations begin to change for the worst, more and more anglers are becoming bold enough to try the garbage fish as table fare; and some species have actually left the category of garbage fish and become a marketable commodity. Dog fish, or sand sharks, have in the past two years become a target of commercial fleets, filling in the down time between different seasons. I have sat along the jetties and observed the boats come through the inlet cleaning sharks for their trip to the seafood market, and think of the times in the past that these fish were just considered a nuisance; a bait thief. So we cannot ignore the fact that garbage fish are drawing more and more interest, and there are a group of fishermen out there that are already on to this new outlook of formerly passed over species, and some have been utilizing this fishery for years already. Let’s check out some of the species that are growing in popularity, and the guys who eat them on a regular basis.“Monk fish; no longer junk fish”Probably the first fish to be taken off the garbage fish list some 20 to 25 years ago was the monk fish. The monk fish is a hideous, ugly looking bottom dweller with a giant head that looks sort of like an over sized oyster cracker, hence it’s former nick name “head fish”. Years ago the monk fish was an undesirable; a fish that would be tossed back in and verbally abused by the commercial anglers. These fish weren’t needed years ago as we had plenty of good stuff such as scallops, and our winter and summer flounder populations weren’t even an issue. But as time passed and our fish stocks started to show signs of distress, somebody somewhere ate a monk fish. It quickly gained attention as a fish that was a chore to clean but tasted great. Comparable to the consistency and taste of lobster, it adopted the name “poor man’s lobster”. I love eating monk fish, and grab it up anytime I can, and if chilled and re-heated the next day, monk fish are very similar to lobster, and taste fantastic. This was one of the first garbage fish species to become not only highly marketable but highly desired on the tables of those who buy a lot of seafood. And, there were and will be more of these species to follow as our alternate fish species start to wane.“Why eat them now?”According to Brian Lodge of the web site garbagefish.com and an expert on the subject of preparing and utilizing junk fish, we should all try these fish for many sensible reasons. Brian isn’t just some jokester who decided to create a site and sell stickers, but he also has a great sense of humor, and he loves to fly his sea robin flag as well as his skate flag proudly around our local waters. But at the same time, he believes in the replenishment of clams in our bays, donating money to causes such as the re-clam the bay program that we’ve heard so much about and is becoming a very popular program aimed at planting seed clams (baby clams) in our bays and reintroducing the stocks of shell fish that were here when I was a young boy. I pulled a clam rake along side my father when I was 14 years old, and between pollution and over harvesting along with pressures from predatory fish, the hard clam almost disappeared completely. Brian and his site are trying to convey the fact that if you eat a skate or two you will save thousands of seedling clams from being pilfered by these bottom sweeping eating machines. And skates do taste pretty good if you prepare them properly just as any other fish. They have also been compared to scallops, hence the name “poor man’s scallops”. They really do have a bit of a scallop taste when iced immediately and cooked properly. Another fish that is over looked by anglers is the sea robin. These fish can be caught by just about anyone as their population is large, and they taste as good or better than skates, and are about as easy to clean and prepare. You have to remember that people are the largest part of the food chain, and these fish have skins and spines that make them undesirable to other species of fish. So humans are the key to keeping these species under control. How? Simply by learning how to handle, prepare, and use these fish as a means of consumption. So there is a method to Brian’s madness and his motives make perfect sense. It’s sort like the hunter who eats squirrels. Virtually nobody I know eats squirrels anymore, as compared to when I was a lad. But the fact is that squirrels eat nothing but seeds and nuts, and their meat is white and quite tender when again, it is prepared properly and cooked in stews and soups. I truly believe that when our venison supply begins to drop off, we’ll see more hunters going squirrel hunting again. There surely isn’t a population issue when it comes to squirrels, skates, or sea robins and the future will depict how and when we lift our eyebrows at these scorned species. Of course I went and caught a few sea robins and ate them so I can tell you this; they are quite good to eat. If you think about it, times are financially tough for a lot of folks right now, and filling your table up with some easily caught skates or sea robins is certainly better than going without. So Brian Lodge and his many reasons for utilizing what are now called junk fish make perfect sense in the eyes of the opportunist.“Dog fish leave the junk fish list”Another formerly considered bait thieving nuisance is the dog fish. The dog fish is a smaller breed of shark that has been a thorn in the side of surf anglers for years and years. In the future this will change, as more and more commercial fishermen are targeting the dog fish. There is now an increasing market in dog fish, although it hasn’t reached its peak like the monk fish as of yet. I have talked to dozens of old timers who eat dog fish and swear that they are one of the top five fish that they enjoy eating. Seniors are the key to the knowledge of this type of fish consumption as a lot of them are on a budget, and this is a great way for them to eat seafood without going into hock buying seafood. So when you stand back and look at the big picture you will see that we are actually replacing fish with fish. As one species starts to disappear, we introduce another species. The blowfish is still considered a junk fish to most, but I have been eating them since I was a small child. I think people are turned off by how hard they are to clean and the rumors of them being “poisonous”, but the blowfish is numero uno on my list of eating fish, and I’ll take every single blowfish that is given to me. I put them in a vacuum sealed bag for when they aren’t around, and I can eat them whenever I choose to. The blowfish has been and still is a well kept secret of the locals of south Jersey, and the old timers go nuts over a bucket full of those ugly but scrumptious goodies.“The true believers”
When I talk to folks about eating garbage fish, most of the time they just make a face at me, which is expected. But if they’re an older, seasoned fisherman who has been around our waters fishing for 50 or 60 years, they are usually on my side. Their information and knowledge I have always held in high regard, and most of my experience and knowledge comes from the advice of an old guy. I can’t tell you how many times I have talked about eating skates or sea robins, and these dudes say to me, “Someday folks are going to be lucky to still have garbage fish to eat the way things are looking”. Nothing could be closer to the truth than a statement like that. My good friends Basil Shehady and Nick Sabatino of Barnegat Light bait and tackle agree that more and more people are lifting their eyebrows at the changes in our fishing industry, and they believe that when the time comes it will be a welcome change, just as it was with the monk fish or the dog shark. So when you are out there looking at a skate or a nice big sea robin lying on the deck of your boat or on the sands, think it over. Make the move! Say to your self, “Now’s as good a time as any to try this thing.” You might find out that you’ve missing out on some good eats all along.
So many, many thanks to Brian Lodge and his web site garbagefish.com for inspiring this story, and if you’re serious about trying a junk fish, you can find many excellent recipes on Brian’s site for not only how to clean and dress these fish, but prepare them for the table for your enjoyment. Brian also sponsors a garbage fish tournament each year and it’s a load of fun to get into and can get you a few bucks in your pocket as well. This is an excellent tournament to sign the youngsters up in to give them a taste of competition.
So go visit Brian’s site and save a clam; eat a skate! Good luck and great fishing.