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AYRES-BROWN: We're at the Seafood Expo of North America. And we're in this big convention center here in Boston. And we're here to talk to people about scup, also known as porgy.

RUDIN: What do you see?

AYRES-BROWN: There's really a lot of bright signs and basically, all around us are seafood companies. I see a sign for a group from Chile and from Seattle, and we're looking for something closer to home.

RUDIN: Here’s another Rhode Island company. The Town Dock is based in Galilee. They do calamari.

AYRES-BROWN: Oh yeah, that looks good. Haven’t seen anything about scup yet…

RUDIN: Okay Antonia, it was your big idea to go to this expo. What are we doing here?

AYRES-BROWN: So I recently heard about a push to get more people to eat so-called “little fish,” like scup, which haven’t always been seen as that appealing. But what interested me is that there’s been a research project going on for several years trying to figure out how to make people want to eat scup. It’s a partnership between local fishermen, a fish processor, and even some Rhode Island environmental biologists. And I heard they were going to this expo in Boston to make their pitch for this kind of underdog fish, so I convinced you to check it out with me.

RUDIN: I see scup! I see ‘em, at the very edge. Hey, how's it going?

BETHONEY: Good! Sofie? Awesome, I’m Dave.

RUDIN: This is David Bethoney, the executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation in Rhode Island. Back in 2018, they received a federal grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study how to boost interest in scup.

AYRES-BROWN: At the expo booth, Bethoney has a whole fish laid out on ice. It’s small, about the size of a deflated football, and it’s this shiny, silvery color. I don’t know about you, Sofie, but I think it’s the first time I’ve actually seen scup in person. It’s just nowhere near the popularity of heavy hitters like salmon, tuna, and cod. 

RUDIN: Right. Even for people who know about scup, some of them have never eaten it. That’s true for some people at the expo.

EXPO ATTENDEE: I’ve caught a lot of these.

RUDIN: And you normally throw them back?

EXPO ATTENDEE: Yes, you know, catch and release, because we haven't figured out what we should do with it.

AYRES-BROWN: And you see that on the commercial side, too. In recent years, U.S. fishermen have caught about half of the maximum federal quota for scup. Part of the issue is their size — they only grow up three or four pounds. That means a lot are too small to filet, so in the past, they’ve mostly been sold as whole fish. And a lot of consumers find that intimidating. Bethoney says that’s where this new project comes in.

BETHONEY: U.S. consumers, they want a filet, right? An easily defrosted or cookable fish. They don’t want to cook a whole fish... So now we're trying to remove that barrier, and have it widely available as a filet form. Hopefully as a frozen, so people can, you know, buy it at their regular retail market.

RUDIN: Over the last four years, Bethoney’s organization has worked with Johnson and Wales University and Pier Fish, a processing company in New Bedford, to develop a method for fileting and freezing scup. But it was not easy. Besides being small, scup has tough skin and scales that make it difficult to filet. And it took a lot of trial and error to find a way to freeze the fish without affecting its mild flavor.

AYRES-BROWN: But they figured it out! The team perfected a method by early 2020, and they’ve basically been sitting on it for two years, waiting to debut it at the North American Seafood Expo. Here’s Mike Long, a research biologist with the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation:

LONG: Everything leading up to this event, like, ‘We get to go to the expo. We get to go to the expo. We're gonna debut this at the expo.’ And now we're finally like, ‘What are we going to do next?’

AYRES-BROWN: One question this raised for me, Sofie, was why scup? Like, why put in all this effort to make this specific fish more appealing to consumers?

RUDIN: Well there’s a big economic incentive, right? Scup is plentiful off the coast of Rhode Island, but there’s limited demand for it.

AYRES-BROWN: Yeah! I heard that too, so I reached out to Captain Mike Littlefield. He’s worked as a commercial fisherman in Rhode Island for the past 15 years, and he told me scup prices vary anywhere from 20 or 30 cents a pound to a dollar a pound.

LITTLEFIELD: When I've seen it hit a dollar a pound only a few times, everybody's out scup fishing…When it’s 20 cents a pound, you're getting $60. You probably don’t even pay for fuel that day or bait. You're losing money.

AYRES-BROWN: That’s why Littlefield says he could never rely on scup as his main source of revenue. Instead, any scup he catches is like a bonus. Most of his income is from more profitable species, like sea bass, striped bass, and fluke. But if the price for scup were higher, he could catch tons of it.

LITTLEFIELD: I could load the boat up for them, no problem. I’d go out and set 50 pots, and I’d fish those pots all day long. And get that quota for them and bring it right in and drop it off.

HIGGINS: I mean, we make it sound easy, but…

LITTLEFIELD: No, it's back breaking work all day.

AYRES-BROWN: He’s talking there with Chris Higgins, another fisherman who sometimes works on his boat. Higgins told me it comes down to whether targeting scup is worth fishermen’s time. But if scup were more popular, he says it could be a win-win for everyone.

HIGGINS: Because if it's worth it for the fishermen, they're plentiful to get. So if it is more worth it for us, it benefits us. Now it benefits the consumer, because it's more available, and it's not as high as the other prices.

RUDIN: Eating more scup has other potential benefits, too. Small fish like these tend to have lower levels of mercury and other pollutants than larger fish, like tuna. And Mike Long, the research biologist on the scup project, says it’s more sustainable to eat a broad variety of seafood…instead of pulling from the same few popular species.

LONG: It has potential to be used as a substitute for things like cod, haddock, pollock, and kind of take some pressure off of those fisheries that are under a little bit more stress and substitute it for this underutilized fish that has great potential for growth.

RUDIN: So eating more scup could benefit both fishermen and consumers, and the team of researchers has figured out a way to produce frozen scup filets…

AYRES-BROWN: Now it's a question of whether retailers and consumers will bite. Pier Fish’s COO, Scott Bode, told me that even though scup is mostly overlooked right now, he hopes that one day, it can make it onto dinner tables across the country.

BODE: All you need is one retailer to get behind it and have a positive reaction. And they all follow the leader.

RUDIN: At the expo, their lure was free samples. Josh Berman, a Rhode Island chef, was serving up scup tacos. He didn’t have a huge crowd, but there was a steady trickle of takers.

AYRES-BROWN: We even got to try scup for ourselves:

AYRES-BROWN: That is really good.

RUDIN: I can hear it crunch. It's really crisp.

AYRES-BROWN: It's really flavorful. More than I was expecting.

RUDIN: Antonia, this story got me thinking about another effort in Rhode Island to get people to try new seafood, but this one’s focused on fish that are becoming more common in our region because of climate change.

AYRES-BROWN: We’ll talk tomorrow about the opportunities and potential challenges that’ll come up when southern species become local. For The Public’s Radio, I’m Antonia Ayres-Brown.

RUDIN: And I’m Sofie Rudin.

This story is the first part in a two-part series. The second part will air tomorrow on The Public’s Radio.

Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport Reporter for The Public’s Radio and a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at

Sofie Rudin is the Science and Environment Reporter for The Public’s Radio and can be reached at