“It’s been forever considered a garbage fish, but it’s probably the most delicious fish that we serve,” David Standridge says about the bottom-dwelling sea robin. Standridge is the executive chef of a farm-to-sea-to-fork restaurant The Shipwright’s Daughter in Mystic, Connecticut. For him, the historically maligned but mild tasting sea robin is the “poster child” for a fish that should be eaten more because it is so abundant.
“Part of supporting local and supporting small business is really building a more resilient food system,” says Standridge. “So that’s the first thing that we look at when we look at abundance, and what species we are choosing.”
Seared sea robin, smoked swordfish tater tots, and locally caught whiting wrapped in sugar kelp (tempura fried) are just some of the potentially sustainable dishes diners can find on the menu here. While using ingredients sourced by local farmers is difficult to scale up to more mainstream restaurants and grocery chains, The Shipwright’s Daughter’s creative work with both supply chains and flavor profiles make for a delicious starting point.
The Shipwright’s Daughter is a 2023 James Beard Foundation Smart Catch leader, working with other restaurants and chefs to evaluate the environmental impact of the fish served. Standridge uses the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch–an assessment tool that helps consumers and chefs alike gauge the sustainability of their seafood–to evaluate every fish on the menu. This year, 97.3 percent of the fish served is certified sustainable, according to Standridge.
While the menu adjusts to the seasons and what’s readily available, one of its popular items is a delightful soup with a subtly flavored local white fish called scup, served with kelp vinegar and smoked sea beans. The seared sea robin is surprisingly light. A member of the distinct Triglidae family of fish, sea robins are covered in spines. They use “walking rays” to crawl along the bottom of the ocean and help them sense the mollusks and crustaceans that they eat. Yet, the dish is approachable–for the more selective eaters.
These fish live along coastal Connecticut and Rhode Island, which cuts down on shipping costs and reduces the amount of fossil fuels used to bring fish from the water to the dinner plate. The entrees on the menu range from about $25 to $60, which is on par with smart casual restaurants in Mystic. The seaside town is an emerging New England food destination with everything from artisanal doughnuts to fusion cuisine from Bangladeshi chef Sheuli Solaiman.
Standridge also works closely with nearby Stonington Kelp Co. co-owner and sugar kelp farmer Suzie Flores to incorporate this giant seaweed into many of their signature dishes. Alongside her husband, Flores farms three acres of kelp on sturdy mooring lines about a mile from shore in Fishers Island Sound. She sells it fresh from the docks of a local marina in season and at multiple farmers markets in Connecticut. From there, consumers have a wide range of ways to eat it, from fresh salads, pickled, or even powdered and sprinkled on pasta and pizza for a little kick of extra nutrients.
Standridge and Flores share a similar approach to both sustainability and food and Flores devotes a great deal of time promoting kelp and growing this viable market so people of all incomes can eventually benefit from it.
“Sustainability is kind of a multi-faceted approach,” Flores tells PopSci. “It’s something that is grown while doing as little harm as you can. It’s also possibly about negating harm and can be restorative in some ways and can help support an economy and community. It’s not just about growing something using no fertilizer, not using any freshwater, or putting pressure on resources, but it also is about developing an economy around it as well.”
Flores cultivates sugar kelp which is a native seaweed that grows along the Northeastern United States and up into Canada. Farmed sugar kelp grows over the winter months and is harvested every spring. It absorbs excess nitrogen from the water, while also producing oxygen. Sugar kelp also grows as quickly as six and a half feet from the time it is planted to harvest, according to Flores.
Nutritionally, sugar kelp is an excellent source of fiber, vitamins C and K, calcium, and more. “I feel like it’s kind of common knowledge that fish is good for you, and the reason fish is good for you is because of all of the things that are present in seaweed,” says Flores.
Seaweeds like kelp could be major components of building a more sustainable food system. They can be used in cow feed to reduce methane emissions and research from Tufts University found that it could help tackle food insecurity. The plants with a reputation for being a messy nuisance can even be used in tasty desserts including the restaurant’s sea salt caramels and its light and sweet kelp cake.
“We pickle as much as we can and then it’s just really a delicious kind of condiment for anything. In that form, you can mix it into soups and sauces, you can put it into salads,” says Standridge. “We can do a lot of things where you just kind of want a little bit of ocean flavor in something that’s not going to be overpowering. It’s a great product.”
One of the biggest challenges of sustainable agriculture is bringing it up to scale so healthy foods like kelp are more affordable. Standridge says that his restaurant and others that use seaweed can help encourage people to try to incorporate more of it into their diets because diners there are typically more open to trying something new. It can pique interest in kelp and other ingredients that consumers may be less familiar with.
Financial support from organizations like NOAA Sea Grant and the National Science foundation can help fund the next steps of scaling seaweed production up and using existing fishing infrastructure to keep seaweed sustainable and economical. Educational events like Kelp Harvest Week or maintaining a presence at farmer’s markets has also helped the public become more open to eating seaweed.
“If you go to an apple orchard, there’s usually apples that are down on the bottom and rotting. You wouldn’t pick those up and have that be your representation of an apple,” says Flores. “We harvest our kelp fresh from a line out in the ocean, so it’s not the same seaweed that you find washed up on the shore. And that makes a huge difference.”
Bringing sustainable ingredients up to scale requires time, investment, and faces the tug of war of maintaining its low environmental impact without generating more waste or burning unnecessary fossil fuels. Despite the challenge, supporting smaller farms and fisheries could prove to be a tool in working towards a more sustainable food system for more of us, perhaps with a side of pickled kelp.