Monkfish makes the menu, thanks in part to fishermen-funded science
By Doreen Leggett
There was a time not long ago when fishermen tried to get rid of big-jawed, sharp-toothed prehistoric-looking monkfish by kicking them out the scuppers.
Now they steam 100 miles in often ugly weather to find them, bringing up thousands of pounds in weighted gillnets.
“It makes up a fair part of my year, about a third of my income,” said Nick Muto, captain of the Dawn T.
The fat-headed brown angler fish come aboard alive and fishermen have to be careful to avoid their mouths; there are more than a few stories of holes in boots, infections and even a monkfish latching onto a dog’s tail (the dog lived).
Although monkfish has grown in popularity, there is still not a lot known about the creature. Already popular in France, Julia Child – with some trouble – introduced it to Americans through her television show in the 1960s.
"European cooks consider it a delicacy, and because of the great demand it's expensive there, with much of it imported from our waters,” the Christian Science Monitor wrote, quoting one of Child's cookbooks. "In Europe monkfish is often mixed with lobster meat whose flavor and perfume it absorbs, for an effect of vast opulence."
Local restaurants such as Vers sell the white fish and it can be purchased at fish markets. Much of the catch still goes overseas, primarily to Korean markets.
Muto has been fishing for monkfish for about 15 years, his entire career.
He said the fishery, which runs from November to May, replaced the winter fishery in Maryland for dogfish. Several boats typically leave around 5 p.m. from Saquatucket Harbor in Harwich and steam 12 or 13 hours, ending up, if you drew a line, about even with Tom’s River, New Jersey.
“We try to travel together when we do these trips,” he said.
The spot is right at the edge of the Continental Shelf, which makes it a bit of an adventure.
“It’s a cool place,” Muto said. “I’ve seen sperm whales.”
One time he saw an orange rowboat struggling in the seas. Thinking he was about to make a big rescue, he pulled alongside. But the rowers were on a mission to row to England, leaving from New York.
“I was like, ‘Last chance. I have a big motor and I’m going home,’” Muto remembers.
Another time he was in need of rescue. A rope entangled in his propeller so he donned a survival suit and hopped into the frigid water. The suit did its job and was a bit too buoyant so he couldn’t reach the underwater snag. They had to call the Coast Guard for a tow to Menemsha. That was a long trip.
Typically though the trip, made 20 or 30 times a season, goes well. They arrive, haul gear for about 10 hours, and steam home.
“You kind of just grit your teeth and bear it. It is sort of a love-hate relationship,” Muto says.
The price for monkfish has been lower the past few years, which makes it more difficult to entice fishermen to participate in a Research Set-Aside program coordinated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a way to engage fishermen in scientific research.
Ryan Silva, who runs the program for NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, said the New England Fishery Management Council sets goals and approves projects.
“We have an active fishery and in order to manage it sustainably we have to answer some fundamental questions,” said John Pappalardo, chief executive officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance and a member of the Council.
The Monkfish RSA program awards 500 days at sea to three scientific organizations that look at everything from how to age fish to studies of reproduction.
The fishermen then “buy” those days, which cost around $400 each, and can put them together to harvest more fish than their regular permit allows.
“The industry pays to have those additional fishing opportunities,” Silva said.
Muto uses them and, on a very good day, can bring back close to 20,000 pounds of fish. As his boat is rather small, some of his crew sometimes have to stand in a barrel. But being able to set all your nets and bring in what you catch is good for fishermen, far better than fishing more often in bad weather for less money.
“They really rely on RSA days for their business plan,” said Silva.
The research the fishermen pay for aims to answer difficult questions like how to age a monkfish and how to reduce skate bycatch. The skate work is important since monkfish vessels have a skate quota and if they hit the limit, they need to stop fishing for monkfish because they run the risk of having skates come up in their nets. That is a losing proposition.
“I feel like we are helping to pay for research that will help the viability of our fleet in the future,” said Muto.
The research also helps fishermen answer questions that have plagued them for years, such as why they find monkfish with birds in their bellies when monks supposedly spend all their time on the bottom. Turns out they don’t; monkfish sometimes surface at night.
Pappalardo said a friend of his who has lived in Chatham for decades recently went out to dinner, saw monkfish on the menu, and ordered it. She raved.
“She couldn’t believe she didn’t have it before,” Pappalardo said.
And she’ll have it again. Not only because local fishermen are bringing it in, but because they are funding research to help make sure it can be fished for generations to come.
Photo by Christine Walsh Sanders Photography