I don’t know whether Dr. Seuss ever came down to New Bedford from his home in Springfield. His classic “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,” was written in 1960 and has a surreal quality that some fishermen dealing with the vagaries of fishery markets and management might find familiar. But if the Doc had stood on the docks in 1960 he would have seen redfish and bluefish aplenty. These fish were heartily consumed in earlier decades. In 1942 for example redfish landings peaked at a staggering 132 million pounds after which relentless fishing pressure inevitably caused their decline. There is no overfishing on redfish or bluefish now because our tastes have changed and we don’t care to eat them. A few fishermen still target redfish because of catch limits on more profitable groundfish like cod and yellowtail. Last week Cap’n Tom Simpson steamed through the canal with the Bulldog’s fish hold full of redfish, following five day’s fishing the deep water in the Gulf of Maine. You won’t see those fish appear on the menu locally. A few might find their way to fish counters in New Bedford’s Portuguese markets like De Mello’s or Amaral’s but the bulk of it ships out to the Midwest where it’s marketed as ‘ocean perch,’ as it was here in its heyday. A Foley Fish weekly bulletin from June 1936 advertises ocean perch fillets- “(Very Fancy, Strictly Fresh)”- for 22 cents per pound while bluefish were 25 cents. By comparison “baby” cod and haddock fillets (2 or 3 to the pound) were offered for just 15 cents, the same asking price as mackerel. This demonstrates how drastically the public’s tastes can change, sometimes radically and more or less inexplicably. Foley’s bulletin also had frogs’ legs on sale that week, in three varieties no less- sterling, hudson or pickerel- for a princely 85 cents per pound. What would a fish buyer from that era make of our eating preferences nowadays?
With almost no fishing pressure, the redfish stock has rebounded and fishermen can buy quota for a penny a pound. Acadian redfish, as they are properly called to distinguish them from Gulf of Mexico redfish, live up to 60 years and do not reproduce until they are old so it is encouraging to see their numbers are increasing.
There is also very little consumer demand for bluefish or mackerel compared to earlier decades. Hake is another fish that is unloved. In Spain it is prized as a delicacy where it’s known as ‘merluza.’ You won’t find hake steaks or tails in any ‘mainstream’ outlet in New England. Oddly enough it remains very desirable in Philadelphia.
In general, people seem to be eating fewer varieties of fish compared to yesteryear and there is certainly less volume. In 1939, in the month of January alone, New Bedford handled 1,714,000 pounds of groundfish and an additional 238,000 pounds of mackerel, according to a pamphlet published by Reynolds printing which also featured an article by Joseph Chase Allen, a writer for the Vineyard Gazette. Allen remarked even then on the changing taste of the fish-consuming public. “The popular fish of yesterday,” he writes, “ranks far down in the scale of today. The scup, once prized, is worth but little. Even the mackerel, once a valuable fish, has fallen to a stage far below the once detested pug, or flatfish, which is now glorified by the name of “sole.” Pugs! A glorified pug will cost you about $13 dollars a pound nowadays, when you can get it, while scup can still be had for pennies. I could go on. Monk tails, skate wings and dogfish are local, healthful, inexpensive and plentiful yet we are flying cod in from Iceland. It’s still a bit surreal down at the docks.