BRUNSWICK, Maine Nov 29 What would it take to turn mackerel into a household name? Or whiting?
That's what scientists at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, in partnership with local fisherman and area chefs, are hoping to find out.
To start, they will be tempting New England diners in the months ahead with lesser-known Maine species.
Researchers spent the summer and fall organizing "Out of the Blue" test events at several dozen regional restaurants and colleges, including Bowdoin, Bates and Boston University.
There, they touted not just mackerel, an oily fish they say surpasses the health benefits of salmon, but also whiting, which is sometimes called silver hake, as well as redfish and Atlantic pollock.
In February, the research institute intends to launch an expanded effort to encourage more local chefs to tantalize customers with the four species.
"The idea is to create demand for these four sustainable, underutilized fish," said Samuel Grimley, project manager of the GMRI's sustainable seafood program, based in Portland.
Several species of Maine's most popular fish, including cod, flounder and haddock, are heavily consumed, raising concerns among environmentalists.
Some 70 percent of seafood is eaten in restaurants, Grimley said. But consumers tend to be fussy about unfamiliar fish.
"People don't know that redfish tastes a lot like orange roughy, or that silver hake tastes just like cod," said David Goethel, a fisherman from Hampton, New Hampshire, who is working with GMRI.
Las summer, he said, he caught tons of silver hake and practically had to give it away.
"There needs to be a demand," he said. "My fuel bill averages $300 to $400 per day, so I can't go out and catch $200 worth of fish."
The four species were chosen to be promoted not just because they are plentiful, affordable and well-managed but because they have potential in overseas markets as well, Grimley said.
"Whiting, for example, is very popular in Europe, where it's usually sold whole in restaurants," he said.
Students' response to the promotional effort's test at Bowdoin College, on Maine's coast, was promising, said Ken Cardone, associate director of dining services for the Brunswick-based school.
"Just as we got them used to parsnips by turning them into chips, we started by offering small samples of mackerel as they came in the dining hall, so they could warm up to full servings," he said.
Although students profess to being locavores who prefer to eat locally produced food, Cardone conceded the mackerel wasn't as popular as shrimp or salmon. "But it's a start," he said.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Vicki Allen)