Before the 1980's, fishermen using trawls and scallop dredges who brought up monkfish weren't sure what to make of them. The modest beginning of monkfish as a bycatch, or an unintentional harvest, in the United States in no way foretold its present-day success. Upon discovering a muscular tail, meaty cheek pockets, and an enormous liver, the American monkfish, Lophius americanus, slowly made its way onto domestic tables here in the United States, as well as international ones. By the 1990's, it was the highest valued finfish in the Northeastern US, a place it has upheld since then. Through its course of discovery, depletion, rebuilding, and now stability and study, here’s a glimpse of the industry, from where it starts, to where it ends.
WHAT IS A MONKFISH? As what seems to be an enormous set of jaws covered in brown and olive-speckled skin, the monkfish lurks on the ocean floor, camouflaging itself, at depths reaching up to 3,000 feet. It dangles a small, lure-like appendage on what is a delicately thin, extended spine hanging in front of the monk's head. This “fishing pole and lure” setup is a distinguishing physical trait of the biological order of "anglerfish" worldwide. Its inward-facing teeth are designed to trap prey after an enveloping gulp.
The term anglerfish also doubles as a common name for monkfish in both America and Europe, though European monkfish are a different species, Lophius piscatorius. Other common names include goosefish, frog-fish, or sea-devil, among even stranger ones. With jaws and a stomach capable of eating prey longer than they are, the enormous monkfish head tapers back to a tail that seems to be a second thought. Though they're mostly hoping for crustaceans, mollusks, fish, diving ducks, and birds - cannibalism does occur within the species.
The monkfish's popularity, of course, did not catch on because of its good looks. Long ago another nickname, "poor-man's lobster," started, since the tail fillets and meaty pockets from its cheeks resemble the taste and appearance of lobster when cooked – dense, and clean, opaque white. The tail is mostly sold skinned, also stripped of the translucent purple-blue membrane that surrounds it. Monkfish meat it so dense that it is easily cubed and grilled without falling apart, though it is commonly braised or broiled.
And what about that huge liver? Generally over half a foot long and weighing more than a pound, ankimo, as it is referred to in Japan, is a celebrated delicacy. It is generally steamed and sliced, topped with scallions, ponzu, daikon, and momiji-oroshi, a spicy red pepper sauce. Soy is rarely used since the taste of the liver is so delicate. Monkfish liver is also used in soups and has multiple applications in sushi as well. Culinary purposes such as these are practiced most notably in Japan, though also widely in Korea.
After their rise in the 1990’s, it became apparent that monkfish stocks in the Northeast were under exploitation, similar to the neighboring European species already depleted. Since the early 2000’s, however, the fishery has been highly successful in rebuilding then-declined monkfish populations in the US, now over target limits since 2008. Though monkfish as a fishery started as a bycatch itself (caught accidentally while fishing for something else), the actual term “bycatch” is generally something most professionals in the fishing industry want to avoid. What a lot of fishery legislation combats now is steering clear of vulnerable species enveloped by this term, including endangered species, populations under regrowth programs, and mammals. As the design of fishing gear becomes more and more specific to catching only one species, bycatch can be limited and fishermen can harvest just what they are targeting.
Little is known about anglers as a targeted species relating to their behavior, migration, and spawning patterns, making it difficult to design gear specific to them. Being primarily benthic, all anglers live in the deepest water on the ocean floor, making it difficult to find and study them.
In short – there’s plenty of monkfish, but how can we avoid catching all the other species that surround them?
Members of the monkfish industry collaborate with both the Cooperative Monkfish Research Program and the Monkfish Research Set-Aside Program (RSA). RSAs use no federal funding, but instead run on revenue generated from industry sales. This is made possible because of the collaboration and cooperation between industry fishing professionals and researchers – those studying species population, growth, movement, and so on. The New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils manage these allocations, along with guidance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Some other fisheries using an RSA system include Atlantic sea scallops, herring, and black sea bass, among others.
Not only are these scientific research-programs necessary in order to understand current conditions in US waters, they are one of the most critical aspects of future management and understanding, both for monkfish and also unwanted bycatch in the same waters. With this collaborative engagement between fisheries science and business, healthy, balanced fish stocks will be around for many years, with fishing practices further evolving to exclude vulnerable bycatch species as much as possible.
FROM THE OCEAN TO PIERLESS
Most monkfish carried by Pierless Fish comes from Viking Village, a seafood producer located in Barnegat Light, New Jersey, the northern-most town on Long Beach Island. With a rich cultural history and multiple generations of deeply involved, experienced fishermen, monkfish are one of many of the high-quality species landed.
Captain Chris Rainone bought the Annice Marie, a forty-foot gillnet boat, in 2006, and has called Viking Village his home port since then. Typically throwing off the lines at around 2am, him and his small crew steam over fifty miles east off the coast of New Jersey for about four hours; quite the commute. Gear is hauled out and in for most of the day, about eight hours, gutting, cleaning, and separating the livers of the monkfish as they are brought up. Chris' gillnets allow as much bycatch through the nets as possible. The nets are incorporated with specific types of links that reduce bycatch entanglement and entrapment, while also letting monkfish too small to harvest pass though. Most adult monkfish brought up are around two to three feet in length, though it's possible for them to be up to five feet.
Like most fishermen, Captain Rainone is under "days at sea" pressure, meaning he has a certain number of days his monkfish permit allows him to harvest. Additionally, there is a quota allocation, allowing him to only catch a certain poundage as well. As another detail that evokes industry strategy, monkfish livers are typically largest in the fall and early winter, which pushes boats to brave the winter weather settling in and use their days at sea to harvest fish with more liver weight to export.
When fishing quotas are established, harvesting an accepted poundage may be agreed upon, but within that tight boundary captains like Chris must make those trips out there count, since they only have a limited number of days to catch a certain number of fish. Allocating quotas to specific boats and areas that have unread or misread populations is one of many issues to consider. This is where the importance of the fishery's research and science comes into play, so as to correctly allocate quotas to certain coastal states and fishing vessels with concern also for where populations are.
Other targeted species Captain Rainone is after include bluefish, menhaden, and croakers, most of which depend on seasonality and migration through New Jersey waters. As quality is of upmost priority for the management at Viking Village and the vessels that dock there, this concept goes far beyond the attention to detail of each individual product. Quality seafood is about responsibility - of care and planning for the future fishery - as much as it is about an experienced crew and getting enough ice on a fresh catch.
Of course, this all directly translates to any fishery, but for monkfish, the quality and care from people like Chris and his crew is what upholds not only the value of the product in US and international markets, but also its longevity, which is of highest importance. Industry awareness and participation with those who are catching, selling, trading, and eating in restaurants or at home are what ensures a positive impact for years to come. With involvement from start to finish in fisheries management to consumers, the success of monkfish and its quality will continue to be an example of responsibly harvested seafood here in the US - the true meaning of sustainable fish.