At some point during Lent, my mother would always make orange roughy. It is a white, firm-fleshed fish that has a slightly sweet flavor to it and tastes not at all fishy. I would look forward to it because it was always a big improvement on fish sticks.
I had never heard of it until the early 1980s, but soon we would have it a several times per year.
Later, as an adult, I would occasionally buy it to make for my family. It’s not super expensive — although not nearly as cheap as farmed fish such as tilapia — but I would always find it frozen, never fresh.
I found out later that it’s because orange roughy is a deep water fish that is harvested in the North Atlantic around Iceland and also in the Pacific around Peru. It has to travel too far to be sold fresh at my neighborhood grocery store.
Interesting fact: The fish was renamed orange roughy in the late 1970s for marketing purposes. Its former name was “slimehead” due to the mucuous membranes that run through it’s head.
Ironically, it was given its more marketable name as part of a US National Marine Fisheries Service program to promote underutilized fish species to make them more marketable. Now the species is on many government and environmental groups’ endangered species list. It used to be one of the most popular fish to harvest around Australia and New Zealand but less than 10 percent of the original population and fishing for orange roughy has been sharply limited.
Also, orange rough can live up to 135 years. And they are not orange, they are brick red when alive. Their flesh only turns a pale orange after they are dead.
Some grocery stores refuse to sell orange roughy because it is not a sustainable fish. That means once it’s gone, it’s gone. It can’t be replenished because it’s a deep water fish.
What’s more, orange roughy are caught through a method called “trawling”, in which heavy nets are dragged across the ocean floor. This causes a lot of damage to the ecosystem and is putting other kinds of sea life at risk, such as sea coral. Seafood Watch, an US sea life watchdog group, has recommended that consumers avoid buying orange roughy because of its growing scarcity and because the damage deep sea trawling does to the underwater environment.
I have a suggestion for saving the species: Change their name back to “slimehead”. No one is going to serve up a platter of slimehead on a Lenten Friday.
I’m not going to post a recipe for orange roughy because now I feel bad about having made it. Now that I know about how endangered it is, I doubt I will be making orange roughy again anytime soon.