Now that we've saved the fish, can we save the fishermen?
The Pacific rockfish went from near ubiquity to nearly endangered, but today it is a sustainability success story. On top of that, it is everything even the shyest of eaters could want in seafood: It's a firm, white-fleshed fish with a clean, mild flavor.
But despite all of that, it's hard to find rockfish at most mainstream markets, and it's nearly impossible to find it on restaurant menus. And if there's nobody buying the fish, pretty soon the small, local fishermen who make a living from it will go out of business.
The rockfish's recent history is enough to give a reasonably attentive observer whiplash.
A large family of related West Coast fish species, for years rockfish was sold mainly under the invented umbrella name Pacific red snapper — a commercially convenient nod to the superlative Gulf of Mexico fish with which it has but a passing resemblance.
Still, that and its amenable character and affordable pricing were enough to make it extremely popular. For years it was one of the iconic fish on the West Coast. So popular did it become, in fact, that the fishery burned itself out. In 2000 it was in collapse, and what once had been a low-cost seafood staple seemed firmly anchored on the Seafood Watch "Avoid" list.
But in a remarkable turnaround, this fall that same much-watched sustainability monitor upgraded most rockfish species to either its top-rated "Best Choice" or "Good Alternative" status.
Ocean watchers credit the rebound in large part to the creation of a wide swath of no-fish zones up and down the California coast, called Marine Protected Areas, as well as other fishery management moves.
But when are we going to start seeing rockfish on our menus?
All this makes Paddy Glennon so angry you can almost hear him sputtering over the phone. "This is one of the most abundant local fish we have in Southern California, and yet it's one of the most overlooked on menus," Glennon says.
He's in a position to know: As vice president of sales at Santa Monica Seafood, one of Glennon's main jobs is getting fish onto restaurant plates. And he's passionate about the whole local/sustainable thing.
"You've got these chefs who will talk forever about how their vegetables come from 10 miles away, but the fish they serve on top comes from 1,000 miles away," he says. "I find that complete madness."
When he talks to chefs, Glennon says, their argument comes down to presentation: The fashion today is for square fillets that fit nicely on a plate, and the rockfish's roughly triangular fillets throw off the balance.
The best place to buy rockfish today is at Asian markets, such as the 99 Ranch Market and Seafood City chains. There you'll usually find at least a couple of varieties, and they'll be sold whole.
That is important because, though fillets are certainly fine, it's when you cook the whole fish that you get the full beauty of rockfish. Steamed and topped with pea shoots, deep-fried in a cornmeal crust, braised in white wine and tomatoes, or roasted on a bed of potatoes, it is a cook's plaything.
Recipe: Rockfish soup with fennel and potatoes
Maybe best of all is serving it in a soup.
Make a quick stock from the bones and heads (cook it no longer than 45 minutes or so, or you'll start to pull calcium from the bones, making the broth bitter).
Sweat complementary vegetables in a soup pot and strain the stock over. Bring it to a simmer, add the fillets cut into bite-sized pieces and remove the pan from the heat. Within five minutes the fish will be cooked perfectly, moist and firm.
Because the fish is mild, choose the accompaniments carefully to avoid overpowering it. For a pop of flavor, finish with a sprinkling of fresh herbs — tarragon, chives, basil, cilantro or even plain old parsley.
It may be a little more involved than broiling a piece of salmon, but rockfish is worth the trouble. Being a sustainability success story is all well and good. But being the star of a delicious fish soup is really something special.
A cook's guide to rockfish
You know you want rockfish. But which rockfish?
It's complicated. There are more than 100 species that are listed under the general umbrella name of rockfish (family Sebastidae, mostly genus Sebastes). Visit a market that stocks whole fish and you might be confronted by any of a dozen popular types.
Which do you want?
In his terrific book "Fish Forever," Berkeley fishmonger Paul Johnson breaks rockfish down into three categories. The longtime owner of Monterey Fish, supplier to some of the Bay Area's best restaurants, prefers deep-water fish that are typically caught by hook-and-line fishermen. He describes them as having "firm texture, a moderately coarse flake, and sweet sea flavor." That includes such species as golden eye, vermillion, cow cod, turkey, redbanded and canary.
He also recommends schooling reef fish, though he says they are softer-fleshed and milder-flavored. This group includes Bocaccio, yellowtail, chilipepper, widow, blackgill and shortraker rockfish.
According to Johnson, the most expensive fish aren't necessarily the best. They tend to be small, with coarse, firm flesh, which makes them good for steaming or frying whole. "These fish are as much about presentation and appearance as flavor," he writes. This group includes gopher, China, black and yellow, copper, kelp bass and quillback.