Is sea robin the new salmon?

We all want to save money on food, but with droughts and disasters causing a spike in the prices of everything from beef and pork to coffee and produce, it’s difficult to economize. Fish can be a healthy meal option. Unfortunately, at $10 to $20 a pound for popular varieties like shrimp, salmon, and cod, seafood is more of a splurge than a menu staple for many budget-minded families.

When prices rise, there’s inevitably an influx of obscure and inexpensive species–obscure, at least, to those of us who are more used to seeing our fish filleted on a bed of ice than at the end of a hook–at the local market.

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One lower-cost option I’ve spotted recently is “sea robin,” which is neither a bird nor a flying fish, but rather a prehistoric-looking bottom feeder, with spiny legs and pectoral fins that open and close like wings during swimming–hence the name. Many anglers consider sea robins, ubiquitous creatures found as far north as Cape Cod and south as the Gulf of Mexico in addition to tropical and temperate waters worldwide, a nuisance because they snatch bait intended to lure more desirable targets.

For more on the benefits and risks of eating fish, click here. Also read, What the heck is 'swai'?

Sea robins, also known as Gurnards, have outsized eyes, bulbous heads, and tapered bodies, and typically grow to a foot or more in length. Some of the 100 or so varieties have armor plating. Another odd characteristic of the fish is a special muscle that attaches to the swim bladder, which enables the sea robin to croak like a frog.

Physical appearance and sounds aside, what about taste? First, the good news. Sea robins are edible and, in fact, their European relatives are popular, even prized, overseas. Fish mongers we spoke with described sea robin as subtle-flavored, somewhat similar to fluke, flounder, and whiting, but with firmer texture. A worker at the Bronx, N.Y., market where we noticed our first sea robin, said the fish was better suited for soups and stews like bouillabaisse than baking or broiling. At $1.99 per pound, he said, the biggest thing sea robin has going for it is that it’s cheap. Conversely, sea robins have a relatively low meat-to-size ratio and can be hard to clean efficiently because of  their bony fins. Some detractors derisively call them “trash” or “garbage” fish because fishermen toss them back into the water.

“They’re usually discarded,” says Maggie Mooney-Seus, communications officer for the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries group. Mooney-Seus says that between 1990 and 2012 only around 2 million pounds of sea robin were caught, too small a haul to make them commercially viable in the U.S.

On a recent boating trip, Mooney-Seus says, an eagle-eyed port agent noticed “vats” of sea robins, mostly of the striped variety, for sale. But the pitch wasn't to consumers. “They were being sold for bait,” she says.

—Tod Marks

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