The Unofficial Fish of Florida’s Gulf Coast Is Back on Menus, Where it Belongs.

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If you don’t know how bad things were for red grouper fishermen a few years ago, you might not understand how grateful Jason DeLaCruz is to make his living supplying grocery stores and restaurants with the most popular fish on the Florida Gulf coast.

You could say grouper is to the Florida Gulf coast what lobster is to Maine. The long, shallow and expansive Gulf coastline is perfect habitat for the species, and it’s been a staple on menus and shopping lists for decades.

With light, flaky and mild white meat, red grouper is a bit milder than other Gulf fish, which makes it good for just about anything from entrees to sandwiches. “It’s a real simple, unfishy fish,” Delacruz said. “So it’s a good choice for people who want to eat fish for health reasons but don’t want a strong seafood taste.”

But that popularity and outdated regulations nearly knocked the species out – and off Florida menus.

“What happened here is similar to what’s happened all over,” DeLaCruz said. “We had too many people chasing the fish, and we had to race against fishing seasons that seemed to get shorter and shorter.”

Ironically, one of the rules put in place to protect the species made things worse. The “closure” approach – shortening fishing seasons to sometimes only a few days a year, led to frenzied fishing derbies, dwindling numbers and poor selection for customers.

“We raced for quantity, not quality. When you have to maximize every minute of a short season, you can’t be very careful or picky. It was wasteful, and it hurt the entire fish stock.”

Eventually, the fishery was regularly exceeding catch limits and regulators closed the season early – first in November 2004, then in September 2005.

“It really shocked the industry and everyone took notice,” DeLaCruz said. “I believe the new management system really came in at just the right time, when the fishery was still in good enough shape to recover.

That new system flipped the “short season” approach on its head. Under a system called Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQs), a total, sustainable catch limit is set for the entire fishery and members of the commercial fishery are allotted a portion of that limit which they can harvest whenever they want. So rather than looking at the calendar to determine when he could fish, a fishermen can spread his portion over the entire year.

DeLaCruz first saw the benefits of IFQs when red snapper – a more plentiful in the western Gulf of Mexico – started showing up in his territory. He knew that snapper had suffered a near collapse a few years earlier.

He thought “I don’t know what they’re doing in the snapper fishery, but I want it here.”

It only took a few years for the grouper IFQ to yield results.

Before, DeLaCruz and other commercial fishermen would suffer through droughts and gluts. The product suffered, the species suffered, and customers and people couldn’t really count on what they were buying. Now, he says, the stock is recovering, the quality is better, availability is better, and fishermen have a say in when they fish.

“I want to be part of an industry that builds a fishery so robust and so strong that it will last for generations,” he said. “Sustainable means you can do it forever, and I think that’s possible now.”

This firm fish holds up well to many types of preparation, and is difficult to overcook—making it a good choice for beginner cooks.

Blackened Grouper with Maitre d’Hotel butter

CHEF HALEY BITTERMANN
YIELD: 4 PORTIONS

Preparation

1/2 cup good-quality dry white wine
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
4 8-ounce grouper fillets
2 tablespoons Creole seasoning, divided
1 recipe maître d’hôtel butter

1. Prepare the recipes for Creole Seasoning and Maître d’hôtel Butter
2. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
3. Combine the wine and melted butter. Place the mixture in the rimmed baking sheet and set it aside.
4. Place an empty seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat.
5. Meanwhile, evenly distribute the 2 tablespoons of Creole seasoning mix on both sides of the four fillets, rubbing ½ tablespoon onto each fillet.
6. After the skillet has been on the burner for three or four minutes, it should be hot and just starting to smoke. Place two of the fillets in the skillet and cook until each is dark golden on both sides but slightly undercooked, about 1½ minutes per side. (The cooking time will depend on the thickness of the fish.)
7. Transfer the cooked fillets to the rimmed baking sheet with a broad, large and sturdy spatula and set them aside. Cook the remaining two fillets as you did the first two, and transfer them to the baking sheet as well.
8. Place the pan with the four fillets, uncovered, in the oven and bake until they are just cooked through, about five minutes. To test for doneness, insert the tip of a thin-bladed knife into the thickest part of the fillet for approximately 10 seconds. Remove the knife and lay the tip of the blade flat against the inside of your wrist. If the tip feels hot against your skin, the fish is done.
Serving Suggestion: Serve the fish immediately, topped with rounds of maître d’hôtel butter, using 1 to 2 tablespoons of butter for each serving.

Fried Grouper Cha Ca La Vong

CHEF SUSAN SPICER

Preparation

½ inch cubes of grouper (or larger)
Nuoc Cham dipping sauce

1. Marinate in finely grated galangal, minced garlic and fresh or grated turmeric, pinch of salt, sugar and sambal
2. Dust in rice flour and fry until golden – stick with a bamboo or lemongrass skewer
3. Sprinkle with a combination of chopped fresh herbs (dill, basil and cilantro – the dill is important) and finely chopped scallions
4. Serve with Nuoc Cham dipping sauce on the side (or sprinkle with Nuoc Cham before the herbs) and chopped peanuts (if desired).
Serving Suggestion: Serve with Nuoc Cham dipping sauce on the side (or sprinkle with Nuoc Cham before the herbs) and chopped peanuts (if desired).

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