Ocean State Scup by Any Other Name…

By Lisa Helme and Julia Molino [one_third last=”no”][colored_box color=”red”]

tomas_arad_glass_of_wine2Wine Pairings
Once again, we’ve asked Coastal Angler Magazine Rhode Island friend John Callaghan, owner of Bellevue Wine and Spirits, to recommend wines that drink well with scup. Unless the dish has some heat or heavy spice, he prefers French white Burgundy, which comes in varieties for every budget:
Albert Bichot Macon Villages at $12.99
Pascal Jolivet Sancerre at $24.99
Remoissenet Rully at $24.99
If a spicy scup dish, try a rose:
Chateau Minuty Cotes de Provence  at $19.99


Known as scup in Rhode Island and porgy in Long Island, this sustainable fish is also called pan fish, silver snapper, or sheepshead (being plentiful in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn.) Scup has been harvested from Cape Cod, MA to Cape Hatteras, NC since colonial times. It’s a European favorite, known as the delicate seabream, and is found on menus from the South of France to Northern Scotland.

Yet here in Rhode Island, few restaurants serve scup. Despite its mild and delicious flavor it remains unrecognized and underutilized. Maybe contributing to its lack of popularity is its early American history as fertilizer. Or, perhaps a contributing factor is its use by Rhody fishermen to bait larger fish, particularly striped bass.

Executive Chef Matthew McCartney of Jamestown FISH acknowledges the history, but says one taste will change your mind about scup. Dedicated to serving delicious local and sustainable seafood, he makes a mean scup. While some restaurateurs may disregard scup because they are unknown by their guests, Chef Matthew embraces scup, noting “Scup is delicious and inexpensive, so it enables us to put entrées on the menu for $25, where we can’t do that with striped bass or sea bass.”

Tom LaFazia of Narragansett Lobster agrees. He loves selling scup to the restaurateurs he serves. He loves scup because they are line caught, sustainable and delicious. He is especially enthusiastic about the larger scup, “The bigger end of the catch, the porgies weighing two pounds and more, are special. They are the premier fish,” which he says yield lovely filets and make a delicious, reasonably priced restaurant dish often presented as silver snapper.

“My dad, and the older fishermen we sometimes fished with, called the larger porgies silver snapper,” LaFazia remembers. “We always cooked them simply in a pan with garlic, onion, and white wine and ate them over rice.” He sells these porgies to the best Rhody chefs who prepare them in many ways, from sautéed filets to whole grilled fish.

To accompany your scup John Callaghan, owner of the popular Bellevue Wine and Spirits in Newport, suggests a nice French white Burgundy. Check out his specific recommendations below. Our friend Mark Hellendrung of Narragansett Beers suggests, “The high alcohol and malt flavor in our Imperial Bohemian Pilsner will balance nicely with the rich flavors of the scup. If your scup is fried, then our Lager will also make a great pairing.”

Oceanographer Jeremy Collie of the University of Rhode Island is an expert on sustainable fish. He describes scup as a member of the Sparidae family of fish that also includes seabream. They are silvery-blue in color with iridescent scales, which he says may contribute to their being called silver snapper.

Whether called silver snapper, pan fish or scup, this delicate fish is delicious. Plentiful and sustainable, scup has been compared with and often preferred to the milder and more ubiquitous tilapia, which is now on every restaurant menu. Collie not long ago participated in a Baird Sea Grant Science Symposium to promote knowledge and utilization of under-appreciated fishes, such as scup. In-between presentations at the Johnson & Wales University, chefs, seafood suppliers and scientists were served tastings of similarly prepared plates of scup and of tilapia. The difference in taste? Not much! “It was hard to tell the difference,” says Collier.

LaFazia prefers scup and notes, “While many forms of tilapia coming out of Costa Rica and the US can be high quality, the stuff coming out of China and Asia is bottom of the barrel. They are often treated with CO2 gas to pump up the color.”

Why take the risk? Given that 70% of all fish sold in the US is still imported, you may find yourself with that tilapia from China when ordering or buying fish commercially. Of the remaining 30 percent of commercially sold fish, more than half is farm raised. Gabrielle Stommel, aka Gabe the Fish Babe, says that in order to eat well you must buy local, sustainable, underutilized fish from reputable fishermen and dealers on the Rhode Island docks. Interviewed for our March issue, she calls scup “delectable and sweet,” but goes on to describe them as one of the “underutilized untouchables” because they are so undervalued and unknown.

Is rebranding the plentiful scup one way of making our chances of eating something local and fresh from the Atlantic greater than just one in ten? Culinary experts say yes. Aligning a glamorous name with a delicious fish increases the chance that it will appear on restaurant menus. This is where Europeans are ahead of the game. Seabream, the close cousin of scup, is well named and coincidently is highly prized as a delicacy in Europe, where it is often served in restaurants grilled, roasted, or stuffed and baked.

Whether seabream or scup, their taste is mildly sweet. This may be because they feed mostly on shellfish, mussels and oysters. They are easily found in warm, shallow waters on both sides of the Atlantic around piers, jetties, and offshore rocks, making them a great pursuit for junior anglers. Their major requirement to thrive is plentiful food and water warmer than 50 degrees, so their abundance in Rhode Island and other parts of New England is dependent on good summer weather. Interestingly their range is increasing northward. Should that cause concern? Oceanographer Collie doesn’t think so. He notes that the distribution of scup is shifting North, even into the Gulf of Maine, whereas they previously were not usually found beyond Cape Ann, MA. “We think that’s a direct effect of climate change,” Collie said. “While there is always concern of overfishing,” he continues, “scup currently are not at risk.”

This was not always the case. In the 1990s scup were in serious danger. The Federal and State fishery managers responded by implementing a number of regulations restricting both recreational and commercial harvests, including catch limits for recreational fishing, annual quotas for commercial fishing and a prohibition from selling scup to unauthorized dealers. As a result, scup rebounded some 30-fold from 1997 to 2008 and were declared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officially rebuilt in 2009. NOAA scientists now monitor the fish to ensure its healthy rebound continues.

To help support the stock, the minimum size for fished scup is now 10 inches, up from 7” in the late 1980s. Recently, however, RI Representative Anastasia Williams succeeded in having the DEM approve an experimental scup fishery program for recreational fishing that allows fishing for and retaining smaller-sized scup at three locations: India Point Park, Providence; Conimicut Point Park, Warwick; and Stone Bridge, Tiverton. Since scup fished off these upper shores of Narragansett Bay tend to be smaller than those found along the south coast, the reduced minimum size will enable families in these diverse communities to take home more fish. The minimum size at these three sites is now 9 inches. “This program is going to benefit everyone,” says Williams.

When it comes to renaming scup, perhaps we should enlist the help of Williams’ colleague, Rep. Joe McNamara. Having recently succeeded in naming Rhode Island Calamari the “Official Appetizer” of the Ocean State, he might curry local and national influence in the renaming of scup. But what exactly should scup be renamed to make them sound, well, more palatable?

As scup are small in size and easily fit into a 10 or 12 inch frying pan, pan fish is one favorite. But the problem with this generic term is that it can include other small fish such as perch and crappie. “We promote people eating different fishes,” Collie says, whatever they are called. When asked which name he would want scup rebranded commercially, Collie replies simply, “As scientists, we prefer the Latin name…it prevents confusion.” Baked stenotomus chrysops anyone? When pushed further, Collie says his second choice would be the fisherman’s commonly accepted name, plain old scup.

So what have we learned?

Perhaps just that Ocean State scup by any other name is still delicious… Anglers should have the last word…go to www.facebook.com/coastalanglermagazinerhodeislandedition to vote on whether to rebrand scup!