By Michelle Trauring
It was never up for discussion: If you caught a sea robin, you threw it back. End of story.
So when Sean Barrett from Dock to Dish dropped off 100 pounds of the barbed bottom-feeders at Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton, executive chef Joe Realmuto raised an eyebrow.
“You can’t eat these,” Realmuto recalled saying incredulously, echoing the words his grandfather and uncle imparted as he grew up fishing in Jamaica Bay.
“You absolutely can,” Barrett replied.
He turned on his heel, leaving the rarely perplexed chef with a major problem — eight-dozen “trash fish” that would need to somehow sustain the restaurant until Dock to Dish’s next delivery.
Come to find out, what sea robin lack in aesthetics make up for in taste. Historically discarded in the United States and shunned by fishermen as “bait stealers,” these aquatic nuisances are a borderline delicacy in Europe, known there as gurnard. With proper protection, technique and a bit of elbow grease to cut through their thick skin, chefs utilize this meaty white fish for fish and chips, fisherman’s stew and even a classic filet.
“I was surprised and delighted. I didn’t know that you could really eat these things,” Realmuto said. “It’s a firm, white flesh fish. It was nice. Just looking at them, you’d never know.”
To the untrained eye, sea robin are off-putting, to say the least. They are mostly head, with big wing-like fins, six legs — which are actually flexible spines that were once part of the pectoral fin — a significant rib cage and sharp barbs down their spines that can make them dangerous to handle.
“They’re kind of ugly and pretty bony,” said East End fisherman Danny Lester. “We catch them by the ton and we let them go. The ratio? It’s probably 100 to 1. We’ll go to a trap, no lie, and bail sea robin for 20 minutes to get to the porgies and the fluke that are underneath them. So we’ll bail over 3,000 pounds of sea robin to get 100 pounds of other stuff out of the trap.
“They’re very plentiful, there’s no question about it,” he continued. “But there’s no market for them.”
The primary reason for that is the time spent is typically not worth the effort — or, in other words, the painful operation of filleting a sea robin often results in a remarkably low yield.
As a result, their population has “completely exploded,” according to Deena Lippman, first mate on the Shinnecock Star out of Hampton Bays. This year more than ever, all anyone can talk about is the number of sea robin in the water, she said.
“There’s something very taboo about saying, ‘Yeah, we caught a lot of sea robin,’ but it’s becoming harder and harder because no one is really utilizing these fish,” she said. “We had one trip where, for two and a half hours, 10 people fished and caught 228 sea robin. I’ve tried to sell them or even give them away, and you can’t even give them away. I mean, I’ve offered them for free, and nothing?!”
Finally, just last week, one chef finally came to her looking for garbage fish: Jason Weiner of Almond in Bridgehampton. Also a member of the Dock to Dish program, the chef had had a similar reaction as Realmuto when he assessed his sea robin delivery, but changed his tune when he got his hands, and taste buds, on them.
“These things are actually super delicious. The problem with sea robin is it’s a little bit of labor. The yield is shitty,” he explained. “On a regular striped bass, you’ll yield 40 percent. But with sea robins, it’s more like 20 percent. There’s a lot of robin on there, not a lot of sea.”
He recently asked a handful of fishermen and baymen to save him their by-catches for his most recent Artist and Writer’s Night, featuring a dinner that focused on sustainability and self-reliance by bringing foraged mushrooms, beach plums, fermented, cured and pickled dishes, and trash fish to the table.
“I think, as a people, we have to start thinking about moving toward what’s abundant and training ourselves to take what’s in front of us and use that,” he said. “We should have relationships with farmers and fishermen who tell us what they have in front of them and use those things, instead of reverse engineering the process by coming up with a menu and finding those ingredients. That’s the old-school style. It’s a little bit back-asswards.”
For Lippman, the overabundance of sea robin points to “a spoiled society where we only want the perfect fish,” she said. “In terms of eating them, there’s really nothing wrong with them. And we’re almost at the tipping point where, holy crap, we have to do something.”
It is going to take time, Realmuto said — even, self-admittedly, within himself. When he fishes these days, he will still throw the small sea robin back, but if he catches a large one, it often ends up in his bin instead of out to sea.
“I don’t think it’s catching on just yet. Sea robin is gonna need a lot more outreach,” he said with a laugh. “It’s still going to be hard for people to grasp. But if more people learn about it, who knows. I still have my doubts, because of how hard it is to filet and the yield you’re going to get from it.
“Usually, you catch them and it’s like, ‘Damnit!’ Let’s see if that changes.”