Chefs: Please Stop Calling It “Trash Fish”

By Maria Finn

I’m all for the spirit of the Trash Fish movement; getting lesser known species that were once discarded into the hands of skillful chefs who make them shine. I just don’t like the name. Chefs Collaborative has been holding “Trash Fish” dinners around the county since 2013 and they’ve started a seafood trend.

I was recently invited to a dinner at Scribe Vineyard by chef and restaurateur Gabriela Cámara from Mexico City and the publicist told me she used “Trash Fish.” The term made me flinch, but I wanted to see what she could do with our local fish, as she’s opening a seafood restaurant, Cala, in San Francisco this summer.

Black cod en cactus "paper."  Photo by ALLAN ZEPEDA
Black cod en cactus “paper.” Photo by ALLAN ZEPEDA

She made rockfish ceviche and black cod in adobo tacos. The black cod had been wrapped in fibers from cactus leaves, buried and pit cooked with the cactus; it was rich and smoky and totally sublime, but I flinched at calling these wonderful fish “Trash.” I talked to her about it, and she agreed 100%. But what to call it? Under utilized isn’t sexy, bycatch is too political: fish-without-a-market, under loved? There’s got to be a better term; the culinary trend of “Trash Fish” sounds catchy, but it hurts more than it helps.

Gabriela Camara and assistant cooking black cod in pit with agave cactus leaves. Photo by Maria Finn
Gabriela Camara and assistant cooking black cod in pit with agave cactus leaves. Photo by Maria Finn

The term “Trash Fish” devalues the role of the animal in the eco-system, and it kills any other market for them. For fish vendors that sell local seafood and for Community Supported Fisheries (CSF), it’s creating a problem. I work for the CSF, Real Good Fish (, in Moss Landing CA. and we recently signed onto a letter with many other CSF’s and sustainable seafood businesses and advocates. It was written by the Fish Locally Collaborative to Chefs Collaborative, asking them to rename their Trash Fish Dinners.

A CSF is like Community Supported Agriculture in the sense that people sign up for a monthly membership, only it’s for local seafood. They buy what the local fisherman brings in, and part of the benefit of a membership is trying new species.

The goal of “Trash Fish” dinners and that of Community Supported Fisheries are very similar. One is to get people off the most common seafood, particularly the popular staples of shrimp, tuna and farmed salmon, which are unfortunately can be some of the most unsustainable seafood choices. Instead, we encourage people to try other species and diversify according to seasons and natural abundance. Diversifying our seafood diet makes us more intricately connected with what’s happening in the ocean. Also, both support our local fishermen and women so they can catch a variety of species throughout the year and help so we don’t overfish and remove a few critical species from the food web.

As well, we are supporting U.S. Fishermen and women who are held to some of the strictest sustainability standards in the world. When fishermen have to toss out the bulk of their catch due to a lack of market, they make less money for working harder. If creative chefs and Community Supported Fisheries are willing to buy this fish, then the fishermen earn more. Also, when it’s not the season for popular fish or that fish doesn’t show up that year, they can still go out and earn a living. They can also then take overall fewer fish out of the water and still cover their costs.

While Chefs have taken the term “Trash Fish” from commercial fishermen who don’t have a market for their catch, another term commercial fishermen have for it is “dinner”. I used to work on fishing boats in Alaska, and one skipper made us eat pink salmon so we could sell the more valuable sockeye. “Pink and potato stew is tradition,” she used to tell us. It wasn’t sockeye, but it wasn’t bad. The sablefish/black cod bycatch from the halibut fishery was my winter staple. My friend Mary Jacobs who ran a boat on Kodiak Island used to take the livers out of pink salmon and dredge and cook them in butter; she sold the fish. Her crew eventually revolted against this.

In Mississippi, the fishermen call their bycatch “Biloxi Bacon” and have it for breakfast when they return from a trip. In Sicily, the fishermen sold the tuna, but kept the hearts, cured them and now they are considered a delicacy grated over pasta. In the fishing cooperative of Tarcoles in Costa Rica, fishermen head out in the morning with some limes and chili; they save the red snapper to sell and the ones without a market are their ceviche lunch.

A fisherman we work with, Joe Pennisi, has eaten every type of fish that he has caught. When his boat comes back to the Moss Landing harbor, we fire up the hot plate for the smattering of species he didn’t catch enough of sell. We’ve sampled tanner crabs, spot prawns, a fish unfortunately called “Ratfish” that we rebranded as “speckled moonfish” at the office. “I just take lemon and garlic out there,” he said. “And we eat fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. About anything fresh is good.” So instead of calling them “Trash Fish,” let’s call them “Fisherman’s Dinner” in respect for these creatures coming out of the ocean and for the men and women who catch them.

Joe Pennisi unloading F/V Pioneer. Photo by Alan Lovewell
Joe Pennisi unloading F/V Pioneer. Photo by Alan Lovewell


Maria Finn worked for Real Good Fish, a community supported fishery in Moss Landing and she’s the author of The Whole Fish, How Adventurous Eating of Seafood Will Make You Healthier, Sexier, and Help Save the Ocean.”

Changing Planet

, ,