A butterfish on deck in a tote with ice, slushed down in sea water–it’s almost heaven.
White flesh full of fat, the good sea fat not the potato chip kind. They’ve got beautiful silver bodies, flattened like a frisbee, tiny scales. And the fish are nearly spineless, except for a micro-spine at the base of the anal fin that can– if the spine gets your hand just right–send you screaming across the deck, tears in your eyes.
The Japanese spent large sums of money in the 1980s importing these fish from the East Coast. Like many things Japanese, they turned the butterfish into art. Tradition, discipline, repetition. Great pride was taken in cutting the butterfish. Each fish was butterfly cut–which lays the fish open top to bottom, like you would when preparing to stuff a shrimp. They would cut them whole, leave the head on, guts and gills would come out. The fish were then salted and dried on wooden racks. After drying, the fish were grilled. The Japanese ate them for breakfast, daily, like we eat eggs.
A simple food item, with no embellishments. Yet Japanese fish buyers in the two butterfish hubs– the cities of Numazu and Oarai– were very specific with US suppliers as to what they wanted: fish high in fat, soft bodies, with no food in the stomachs. That meant the timing of the harvest was absolutely important. They wanted the fish caught during or at the end of the fall migration–when the fish had stopped eating, when the fish was full of winter fat.
The bulk of the harvest happened between Martha’s Vineyard and New Jersey; from Hydrographer Canyon to Baltimore Canyon, out on the edge of the shelf, in 60, 70, 80 fathoms of water. The biggest butterfish hauls happened at night. 70,000 pound trips were common. Boats were paid from 50 cents to two dollars a pound–high prices for the 1980s.
Butterfish are schooling fish, often in great densities. In the spring, many come inshore to spawn–Rhode Island Sound, Vineyard Sound, the south-side of Long Island–but others stay offshore, and spawn in deeper water. The young fish grow very quickly, like squid or cobia, often hitting five inches, nose-to-tail, by the end of their first summer, and reaching sexual maturity by their second spring. In the fall these inshore fish would slide out into deeper water to winter over. This winter for whatever reason large amounts of butterfish were still inshore well into January. I bought some of these fish and froze them. I have tried eating them daily for breakfast. I will write about these culinary experiences in the weeks to come. I have it down–or I should say, I’m getting better at it. I’m learning.
The Japanese buyers wanted large butterfish, fish over 6 inches. To grade them, they would cut open their bellies and look for food–too much food in the stomach would drive down the price.
The Japanese also looked for a certain texture, a certain feeling. The best fish were the softest to touch. Maybe that’s where the butterfish’s name originated from; or maybe the name came from the sweet smell the fish have when freshly caught. Any fisherman who has caught big tows of them will fondly recall the smell they have–not fishy at all–and the brightness of their bodies lit up, a mass of silver, under the decklights.
But when a butterfish has no fat it’s rock hard. I find all this very interesting: A perfect Japanese butterfish is one that has been feeding all summer long, putting on stores of fat for the wintertime, then migrates offshore into deeper water, stops feeding, and gets caught. I love the amount of thought that went into perfecting a simple food. Not many Americans are willing to go through this process. It all makes sense: you want to buy fish and eat fish when they are at their best. When fish are about to spawn they tend to get soft, mushy. When fish are lean and have used up all their fat reserves they also have a different texture. A bluefin tuna arriving into the Gulf of Maine in June is a different fish than one leaving the Gulf of Maine in December.
The peak butterfish run was from October into February. Point Judith, RI, fishermen made scores of money. It was a hot export fishery. Wealth was generated, both in the port and in the neighboring towns; in the local schools, at the real estate agencies, at the car lots. It didn’t last long, booms never do.
Point Judith was built on butterfish–nearly all the infrastructure, from fish houses to the boats. Then–poof, up like smoke–the Japanese stock market crashed in 1990. Literally, in an instant, the run was over, the market gone to dust. That market has never come back. Butterfish are still bought and sold but the numbers, the trade, is way less. The boats out of Point Judith focus much more so on squid. Only a few boats even think about making a directed butterfish trip and even if the boats did start looking around the winter shelf for butterfish there is no guarantee that an export market even exists–getting a fishery back isn’t simple. Taste buds change, cultures find substitutes. The Japanese haven’t stopped eating breakfast. No, they’ve replaced butterfish with a horse mackerel. The fish is caught in the eastern Atlantic. The Japanese call it saba.
I feel a resurgence for butterfish, I really do. Maybe Americans will change their ways and start eating this fish, which will take some work on the marketers end. The fish have that oil and I’m thinking that oil is good for our bodies and brains. These fish are also fast growing and locally abundant in the winter and that to me makes good ecologically sense to eat them. No animal protein is perfect, all come at a cost. I’d always rather put my money into my local fisheries and support them than buy chicken or pork at a big chain market. More to follow on butterfish, whiting, squid, and scup. The Point Judith quartet.