The term "trashfish" -- which headlined a recent Chefs Collaborative fundraiser at Lowndes Grove -- has gradually given way to "bycatch," as chefs have tried to make sustainable eating habits more appealing to average diners. But the Houston fishmonger who's largely responsible for popularizing the practice of turning traditionally unmarketable seafood into gourmet meals is standing by the original descriptor.
"When you say bycatch, that's a pretty unfamiliar term," says PJ Stoops, who started selling fish in 2006. "Well over 95 percent of people don't understand it."
From the time Stoops started dealing scorpion fish and sand trout to a crew of chefs who in the span of a few short years transformed Houston into one of the nation's most-watched culinary scenes, he called himself the trash man. Although seafood distributor Louisiana Foods insisted he soften his terminology when he was added to the payroll (a partnership that ended amicably in 2012), he continues to talk trash when referring to unwanted product.
"There's no confusion, no ambiguity," he says. "I get it has an image of nasty stuff. But it leads to conversation."
According to chef Robert Stehling, who participated in the Lowndes Grove event, there was "some grumbling" about the phrase's negative connotations. "I think there might be a point here if the intent is to really market new species," Stehling says.
For Stoops, though, marketing new species is a risky proposition. He'd rather use the blanket term "trash fish" for what lands on fancy plates than celebrate individual species considered bycatch. Since the movement's ultimate goal is to ease stresses on the ocean and its populations, Stoops worries that chefs who fetishize a previously unloved fish may perpetuate the problems they're trying to solve.
"It's difficult to tell a fisherman you can get money for something," and then ask him not to catch it, Stoops says. He gives the example of an obscure eel species that he offered to buy off a Gulf fisherman.
"He said, 'I can go after that. I'll get you 1000 pounds.'," Stoops recalls.
"There's a history of this happening," he continues, alluding to the surging popularity of seafoods such as wreckfish and triggerfish. "It's not conjecture. The potential for unintentional abuse is terrifying."
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.
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