What is A Pan Fish?

By Lisa Helme

What is a pan fish? First a fish story.

In the 1920’s my great-grandmother bought a house on Shelter Island, in the alligator’s mouth on Eastern Long Island. As a young bride, my grandmother spent summers there with her two sons who spent their days sailing and fishing. In turn, my family spent every summer there as well. It was idyllic – well, mostly.

CAM porgy picture
Being the oldest child has challenges, especially if you are a girl and your dad is an avid fisherman. As soon as I was old enough to hold a drop-line, I was intercepted from sailing class by my father and dragged away from my friends to join in his favorite pastime. He would load a sandwich for each of us, six-pack for him and soda for me onto his old 16 foot Dory. “Grab the tiller Lisa, we’ll be setting down over here” were my least favorite words.

He would cut up squid with glee (ew!), bait the hooks, and over the side the lines would go. He would grab a smoke and a beer, lean back and just start to talk about his life growing up on Shelter Island. He reveries were only ever interrupted by a strike or catch, or a swear word when a sneaky fish stole his bait. No amount of complaining on my part could ruin his bliss.

Somewhere in heaven he is smiling that I married an angler and now publish Coastal Angler Magazine Rhode Island. Final note to all you dads with teenage girls – don’t take any guff. Drag them along with you and tell them your tales. You’ll create memories for a lifetime and somehow your passion may well become theirs, despite themselves.

How does this relate to the pan fish? Well, the fish we hoisted out of Derring Harbor and Peconic Bay, or off the breakwater in Greenport, were occasionally flounder, but mostly they were scup, porgies as we called them. My grandmother called them trash fish and would complain when my father brought them home and insisted on cooking them up for dinner. Secretly (although being a teenage girl I still complained) they were my favorite fish. Light, succulent and really delicious.

Scup, or porgy, still has that reputation of being not-quite-good-enough. However, there is movement afoot in Rhode Island to morph the lowly scup into the next Chilean sea bass, Cinderella- style, by renaming and branding it “pan fish.”

The rebranding of ugly yet tasty fish isn’t a new concept. Monkfish wasn’t anywhere until it became the “poor man’s lobster.” The poster-child for rebranding success is a fish wholesaler named Lee Lantz who made his big move in 1977. He was looking for a name that would make the ugly and unattractively named, yet tasty, toothfish attractive to the American market. He considered “Pacific sea bass” and “South American sea bass” before settling on “Chilean sea bass” as more artisanal. In 1994 the FDA accepted “Chilean sea bass” as an “alternative market name” for Patagonian toothfish, and the rest is history.

Scup are plentiful in Rhody waters. They can be found all along the eastern continental shelf. Ranging from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras, they can sometimes be found north of Cape Ann. They swim in schools and are usually found in areas with smooth or rocky bottoms near piers and ledges. In October the schools move off-shore or migrate to the warmer waters between New Jersey and North Carolina. They are simple to catch with squid as they are frantic feeders, and they also strike worms and clams. Great fish for the kids to catch and eat. They are beautiful with iridescent silver, green and brown scales, easily handled by children. They should be iced on catching, but do not spoil as quickly as many other fish, and are mild in flavor.

While I promised our editor, Zach Harvey, I would retire the “Sea to Table” column during the summer to give him even more space to share his fish-geist and hot spots, I can’t resist a full-on pitch to rebrand scup as pan fish and draw as many of our amazing Rhody chefs into the movement as possible. There are some mouth-watering scup recipes that will be hitting local restaurants in June and we gotta share. We’ll get weigh-in by our friend Gabe the Fish Babe, a legislator we suspect will help us, our friends in the fishing community and sustainable-food foragers everywhere.

Mike Wade of Watch Hill Outfitters is a leader of this movement. Can’t wait to see what he has to say next month!

In the meantime, weigh-in on this issue on our FaceBook page. Do you think rebranding scup as pan fish will bring some well-earned extra revenue to our fisherman, as renaming the Patagonian toothfish “Chilean sea bass” brought great fortune to Lee Lantz? Is there a better name? Give us your thoughts at www.facebook.com/coastalanglermagazinerhodeislandedition or email me at Lisad@coastalanglermagazine.com.