BLACK SEA BASS // the local food report

Seasons are something Sally is just starting to understand. The weather changes, she grasps that. And she's starting to see it has a pattern. She keeps asking to go apple picking, and we keep showing her the tiny apples just swelling up on the trees and explaining that apples don't get ripe until the fall. Seasons are fleeting, we tell her. That's why it's important to enjoy the one you're in.

For the time being, it's black sea bass time, at least in the last standing local weir fishery. The weirs were big business on the Cape in the late 1800s, early 1900s, but these days the Eldredge family is the only company still setting up traps in Nantucket Sound. The idea is to use nets to catch migratory fish—small species like squid and scup and butterfish and black sea bass. Black sea bass is one of Shannon's favorites—that's her down there, bent over the net. She and her boyfriend Russell work alongside Shannon's parents to run the family's weirs—seasonal nets set up off the coast of Chatham from April til July. The other day I met them at the docks to talk black sea bass, and they shared a bit about the fishery and how they like to eat the little grouper relative. 

First of all, they say it's one of the most beautiful fish they catch. In the water it shines iridescent purple and blue and green, and then of course there's that line of spikes on the top fin. Russell says he still has one stuck in his finger from a fish that got him two weeks back.

The thing about the weir fishery is that the fish are culled by hand—pulled up from the trap with dip nets and sorted according to size and species—too small or not the right kind and the fish are thrown back. They're still alive and healthy, which is the beautiful thing about this scale of fishing. Only salable fish are coming into the docks.

In the markets, the black sea bass are graded by size—small, large, and jumbo, with bigger fish getting higher prices. Shannon and Russell end up eating a lot of the little ones, and they've come up with all kinds of delicious preparations—broiled with ginger and soy and garlic, stuffed with corn salsa and then finished in the oven, folded into a Thai fish stew with ginger and coconut and curry. The fish are small—between a pound and two pounds, usually—which means they're not worth filleting. They're a fish you want to eat whole, on the bone. The flavor is delicate, sweet—something like a cross between flounder and striped bass. They're popular with chefs and home cooks. And there's a strong recreational fishery too.

And the way they catch them is just as fascinating as the fish. Different sources give different estimates for just how many traps were set up along Nantucket Sound and Cape Cod Bay in their heyday, but an account in the History of Barnstable County, Massachusetts, edited by Simeon L. Deyo from 1890 reads as follows:

"The invention of the modern fish weir marked an important period in the whole business of shore fishing [...] Individuals and corporations are engaged on nearly every shore in the weir or trap fishing. The fish weir, or trap, now modified to various plans and purposes, was first used by its inventors on the shores of Long Island sound. At Monomoy Point in Chatham, where, about 1848, the first weir on these shores was set, at Woods Holl where a very large business is still carried on, and off the shores almost around the entire Cape, especially the lower towns, this branch of enterprise has furnished a channel of investment for large amounts of capital and employment to considerable numbers of people."

Another book, Truro: The Story of a Cape Cod Town, cites Deyo's history as well, and says that small town alone had twelve weirs in 1890, each 2,500 feet long. Each weir had an associated building on shore, where the fish were sorted, gutted, cleaned, iced, and packed in barrels to be shipped to Boston. 

It's amazing to think that such a booming industry has all but disappeared. What the Eldredges are doing is keeping a little slice of history going, and fishing in one of the most sustainable ways around. If you're interested in share of the catch, check out their Facebook page. They post what they bring in, and you can call or text if you're going to show up at the docks.


If you can't get your hands on black sea bass, try flounder, haddock, or striped bass for this dish. If you can find black sea bass, try throwing the fish in gutted and scaled but still whole. The bones will add flavor and nutrients.

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons grated ginger
1 stalk lemon grass, cut into three pieces
2 teaspoons red curry paste
4 cups chicken broth
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
2 (13.5 ounce) cans coconut milk
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
3 heads baby bok choy, ends trimmed so that the stalks fall apart
a 1 pound whole black sea bass, scaled and gutted, or 1 pound filleted white fish cut into 1-inch pieces
fresh limes, for squeezing
finely chopped cilantro, as a garnish

Warm up the oil over medium heat. Add the ginger, lemongrass, and curry paste and cook for 1 minute. Add the chicken broth, fish sauce, and brown sugar. Turn the heat up, bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk and mushrooms and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the fish and cook an additional4 minutes. Serve hot, garnished with a squeeze of lime juice and a sprinkling of cilantro.


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