Groundfish Cod, Haddock, Pollock and the rest

GroundfishWhat the rest of the world calls "Whitefish," typically independent New Englanders call "Groundfish." The historical explanation is simple enough: from colonial days these species were thought to dwell close to the bottom, or "ground." Groundfish has evolved into a term that covers everything that is neither flatfish nor pelagic fish. The correct term, by the way, is "benthopelagic." As a mouthful, not very edible.

Numerous species of fish make up the groundfish complex in the northwest Atlantic. To those in our fillet division, groundfish means Atlantic cod (Gadius morhua), Atlantic pollock (Pollachius virens), haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus), cusk (Brosme brosme) and hake (Urophycis spp).

Although cod once dominated the groundfish resource in the Northwest Atlantic with landings of more than 400,000 metric tons in the U.S. and Canada, cod stocks have been greatly depleted over the past 20 years and landings are now less than 25,000 metric tons a year.

Other groundfish stocks in the Northwest Atlantic are in much better shape, however. Haddock stocks off New England, for example, are at historically high levels and pollock populations are also plentiful.

Managing New England’s groundfish stocks is a complex undertaking for fisheries biologists, as it is a mixed species fishery and they have to manage the fishery to minimize catches of stocks like cod, which they are trying to rebuild. As a result, fishermen are not able to catch their full quota of plentiful species such as haddock. Fortunately, advances in net design and other new technologies may soon allow fishermen to target individual species more effectively.

While groundfish are caught off New England using a variety of fishing gears, boats towing trawl nets make more than 75 percent of the landings. New England trawlers, or “draggers” as they are often called, make trips that usually last seven to 10 days. Almost all these boats will gut, bleed and ice their fish, so the quality is normally very good.

The New England groundfishery is year round, but landings will vary depending on the time of year. In the case of haddock, for example, 60 percent of the annual landings are made in April, May and June. Atlantic pollock and cod, on the other hand, are landed in relatively even volumes throughout the year. Of course, landings are dependent on weather and storms, which are more frequent in the winter, greatly reduce landings.

Buying high quality groundfish is relatively straightforward. Typical signs of poor quality are dehydrated flesh, a dull gray color, poorly trimmed fillets and an off odor (quality groundfish should smell like a fresh ocean breeze).

The most common groundfish cuts are the V-cut, which has the bones removed but leaves the nape, and the J-cut, which removes both. Expect to pay more for a J-cut fillet as the yield is lower. If you see the term “scrod” applied to cod or haddock, remember that it’s simply a size distinction, referring to fillets cut from gutted, head-on fish between 1 ½ and 2 ½ pounds. Groundfish quality can vary at different times of year, depending upon when the fish spawn and what they are feeding on. In the spring, after they spawn, groundfish, like cod will feed heavily. This can make their flesh soft. Letting it sit for a day or two, though, can firm it up somewhat.