By Doreen Leggett
Winslow Hallet Crocker was standing in a crowd gathered at Nauset Marine East in Orleans relishing a grilled scup taco.
While others clustered around Chef Tyler Hadfield, who was serving the mild white fish with sumac-cucumber salsa piled on lavish bread, Hallet Crocker confessed this was his first taste of scup. A recreational fisherman, he had seen the muted silver fish (also known as a porgy) for decades, but he always focused on cod, flounder and black sea bass.
“I throw them back,” he said, thinking they are too difficult to fillet. “I know a lot of people love them.”
September’s Meet the Fleet, the fourth this year run by the Fishermen’s Alliance, was meant to spread that love and convince people like Hallet Crocker that the commonplace fish is well worth the effort, with a couple of tips and tricks to make serving scup easy.
Aubrey Church, policy manager at Fishermen’s Alliance, is a scup savant. She was one of the speakers, along with Captain Kurt Martin. She stuffs, spices and grills scup for eight minutes on each side, and when you do it falls off the bone.
“Scup is my all-time favorite,” Church enthused, wearing a pink shirt emblazoned with the fish.
Martin, a long-time fisherman who sets weirs and fishes with pots and traps, said scup was in demand not long ago. In the 1980s, one Cape weir fisherman brought in 850,000 pounds and there was a market, primarily in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“I’ve never been that lucky,” he said.
Back then those fish, which weigh from one to two pounds, were worth 40 cents a pound. The last few years Martin has only gotten 20-30 cents a pound.
Even Chef Hadfield of The Rail and The Barley Neck hadn’t worked with scup before.
A lot of restaurants don’t serve local fish, he said, adding that he values getting introduced to potential meals swimming just offshore.
“It’s new and exciting for me all the time,” he said. “To me it tasted a lot like bass, if you cross bass with a more flaky fish.”
If you eat farm-raised tilapia, switch to scup, Church advised, adding that the fishery was sustainable with plenty of room to grow.
“We kind of see them as climate winners,” said Church, referring to how some fish are experiencing a bump in numbers because of temperature changes in local waters.
Commercial fishermen only caught 60 percent of the allowed quota and the state Division of Marine Fisheries is hoping to get more people into the fishery.
The lack of a market frustrates Jake Angelo of Barnstable Seafood Company. He grew up eating scup and when he started to fish commercially was surprised how little it was valued. The price is so low he doesn’t concentrate on scup, but sells them when caught in traps targeting sea bass. He emailed his thoughts to Church to read to the crowd because he was late getting in from fishing:
“Scup often gets a reputation as being a bony trash fish, but it actually has a similar bone structure to sea bass,” wrote Angelo. “It is delicious every possible way from fried to sushi. If restaurants served fried scup side by side with fried imported haddock, which is what you are most likely getting at a fish and chips restaurant, I bet you will find quite a lot of people would be surprised how much they prefer the firm fresh local scup … I’m looking forward to the day scup is once again appreciated for what it’s worth!”
After a chorus of “delicious,” there was a lot of interest in the crowd about where they could buy scup. Not many places, was the unfortunate answer.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find it,” Martin said.
“It’s a real big shame,” said Church, who encouraged attendees to ask their local fishmongers. If enough people ask, she believes markets will begin to sell it.
The Caribbean Cafe in Hyannis buys direct from Martin’s boat in the spring and serves it whole.
“It’s very popular there,” he said.
Martin also works with Chatham Harvesters Cooperative and they sell his scup at farmers markets.
Captain Ken Baughman, a rod and reel fisherman who also spoke at the event, started his fishing career two years ago and scup was his first permit. Since he started after COVID, state regulations had changed to allow fishermen to sell whole fish at the dock. He has been doing that in Woods Hole.
“I sell off my boat all the time,” he said. “Two dollars a fish, pick any fish you want.”
Those at the event were given a pamphlet with step-by-step instructions so they could fillet and de-bone scup at home. John Soposki, Martin’s crew, also did several live demonstrations of how to fillet.
“This is my first full season. I just like to catch fish,” he said.
“It’s a pretty exciting time,” said Martin. “There is a lot of fish in the ocean, we just have to get used to eating them.”