As a species, we humans as a species are hardly known for our restraint, much to the detriment of pretty much every other species we share the planet with. Because of this, contrary to the popular idiom, there really aren’t always going to be plenty of fish in the sea. While it can be difficult to pinpoint on a day-to-day basis, the species of fish we eat en masse have changed with the decades, due largely to the overfishing of critical species.
Restaurants, markets, and of course fishermen are increasingly turning to so-called “trash fish” as familiar species like sea bass and Atlantic salmon are placed on endangered and overfished lists. Get to know these trash fish, because you’ll be eating them for dinner in the years to come.
The sea monster-esque looks of this fish hide a delicious secret: monkfish tastes quite a bit like lobster. But preparing monkfish is decidedly more difficult than boiling it, cracking its shell open and dunking it in butter. Monkfish, which are also sometimes called sea devils and fishing-frogs, take quite a bit of skill to prepare. But chefs will have plenty of chances to perfect their craft, as monkfish is an increasingly popular fish on restaurant menus.
Taste: Delicate, “unfishy” flavor, and a texture reminiscent of lobster.
Owing to their ability to survive for days once captured within fishing traps, and their mastery of living in even the most polluted water, squirrelfish will likely be among the top fish at seafood restaurants of the future. Though they had traditionally lived in tropical waters surrounding coral reefs, rising ocean temperatures are drawing squirrelfish into unprotected areas where they are more easily caught for human consumption.
Taste: Though it has an average fishy taste, squirrelfish doesn’t flake like most fish do. Expect a firm, meaty bite.
Long used as bait when hunting for larger fish out on the Gulf of Mexico or Southeastern Atlantic, mullet have more recently been reimagined as a perfectly acceptable fish to be eaten in their own right. Sometimes called Biloxi bacon in the South, various types of mullet were once popular in parts of the Mediterranean. Though they fell out of favor for a generation or two, renewed interest in this fish has them back on menus once more.
Tastes: Nobody will ever accuse mullet of being an understated taste. Expect bold, sea-like flavor that you may want to mask by smoking the fish.
Here’s one you’ve likely encountered plenty of times in recent years: drum. Also known as sheepshead, these enormous guppies are known to fight back hard when caught on a line. You know what they’re also known for? Frying up excellently in an order of fish & chips. Described as similar to flounder, drum is the quintessential example of a fish that in just a few years has been able to shake its trash fish reputation.
Taste: Drum is quite similar to a fish with a much better reputation: red snapper. Big, meaty flakes of fish pull apart when cooked, making this fish perfect for frying.
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Though their scientific name is actually Pterois, this stunner is colloquially known the world over as the lionfish. Except for the places that call it a zebrafish. Or turkeyfish. No matter what you call it though, lionfish are a venomous, invasive species that threaten delicate underwater ecosystems with their insatiable appetites and spines that can cause anaphylactic shock. Females can lay up to 15,000 eggs at a time, helping these invasive fish pretty much take over the whole world (minus their native Indo-Pacific Ocean). Lionfish are thus one species you can always feel good about eating when you see it on a menu.
Taste: Once the venomous spines have been removed from the body, cooked lionfish possesses a slightly sweet flavor, reminiscent of grouper and snapper.
Before you reject these guys outright, consider the fact that sardines are among the healthiest fish you can actually put in your body. Because of their small size, sardines remain at the bottom of the food chain, preventing them from accruing the rampant toxins and plastics that larger species end up ingesting as they devour one another. They also grow quite quickly, meaning that populations can more easily sustain themselves, even as humans hunt them for food.
Taste: For such a small fish, sardines usually have a heavy, oily mouthfeel. As is often the case with fish, the fresher the fish, the lighter the flavor.
Sometimes called Porgy, this trash fish has made it all the way to the big leagues, and can now be bought from the fish counter at many Whole Foods stores. In 2000, Americans ate less than 3 million pounds of scup. By 2014, that figure had risen to more than 15 million pounds. But way back in the 1800s, scup was actually the most fished species in all of America, though perhaps not because it was being eaten. Porgy, after all, is an American Indian word meaning fertilizer.
Taste: Meaty scup fillets possess that slightly sweet flavor that snapper lovers seek out.
Delicious though it may be, gar gets a bad rap owing to the fact that its eggs are naturally toxic to mammals, including humans. But on the other hand, there are hardly easier fish to cook and eat. Gar can be laid whole over a fire and cooked until the skin pulls off with just a tug of its scales. The backstrap meat you’ve now exposed is ready to be eaten. Just make sure you don’t eat anything too close to those eggs.
Taste: Gar is all over the place, when cooked. It has one of the meatiest textures of all fish, closer in mouthfeel to chicken than seafood, and tastes quite a bit like alligator.
This fish has a bit of a different story than our other contenders on this list. Barrelfish hordes are hardly running rampant across the ocean, waiting to be plucked out of the sea and eaten. No, barrelfish are actually quite elusive. So elusive that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claims that the species has never even been seen underwater before. Still, it’s an underused and little known fish that had up until fairly recently been tossed back into the sea when accidentally caught. But today, barrelfish are highly sought after by chefs hoping to wow diners with something a little less done to death.
Taste: Properly prepared barrelfish are said to taste like a cross between crab and lobster, and flake off in large, meaty pieces.
It wasn’t so long ago that amberjack that had been accidentally caught by fishermen seeking more desirable species were simply tossed into marina trash cans, with the thinking being that there was no possible market for them. Deep-seated regional prejudices remain in some parts of the country today about this so-called trash fish, but you’re likely to encounter it all over menus spanning the Gulf Coast from Florida to Louisiana.
Taste: This sweet fish has a delicate enough flavor to even be served raw in various sashimi preparations. When cooked, amberjack tastes similar to yellowtail kingfish.