Scup vs. Tilapia: The Seafood Knowledge Economy II

by Catherine Schmitt

One of the highlights of Day 3 of the Baird Symposium on Sustainable Seafood was the scup versus tilapia challenge. Tilapia is a freshwater, farm-raised fish that has skyrocketed in popularity in the last decade due to its low cost and ease of production (it is an herbivore and is raised in land-based ponds and tanks). However, most of the tilapia eaten in the United States is imported (41,000 tons in 2010, most of the fresh tilapia comes from Central America and most frozen tilapia is imported from China; see National Marine Fisheries Service trade data).

Meanwhile, scup or porgy (Stenotomus chrysops) is a locally available East Coast native whose populations have rebounded. Scup are plentiful in the coastal waters of Rhode Island.

Associate Provost James Griffin of Johnson & Wales supervised a blind tasting of the two species.

Both were very mild-tasting, white-fleshed fish. Most people in the audience favored the one that turned out to be scup. The scup was more tender, and had more flavor than the tilapia, although the flavor was subtle. Almost like catching a brief whiff of salt air while driving down a coastal road with the windows down. The tilapia was firmer, with a drier texture and almost no flavor. This is why seafood consultant Howard Johnson has said that Americans like tilapia: because we have come to expect our fish to be colorless, tasteless, and shapeless.

Thanks to Ann and Rich Cook of The Local Catch for providing the scup. The species ranges from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras, and the fishery is concentrated between Massachusetts and New Jersey. Scup are caught with otter trawls in the deep ocean and with traditional weir-like “floating fish traps” and fish pots in Rhode Island. They can be caught with rod-and-reel baited with worms when they come inshore in late spring and summer. Mark Gibson of Rhode Island Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Marine Fisheries Section calls scup a “major rebuilding success story.” The stock collapsed in the 1990s under heavy fishing pressure and as a result of bycatch in the squid fishery. A joint federal-state management plan increased scup biomass by a factor of 30 between 1997-2008.

Scup do wander into the Gulf of Maine, and oceanographer Jeremy Collie said that their distribution is shifting north. “We think that’s a direct effect of climate change,” he said.

The lesson here? When there is something you like to eat that is “from away,” take a look in your own backyard and you might find a replacement that not only supports the local community and economy, but tastes better, too.

Scup. Who knew?