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Love of grouper causes shortage

When fishing for shallow-water grouper ends next Wednesday, Floridians will have to learn that there are other fish in the sea. In place of the grouper that has been used on so many seafood platters and beach-side sandwiches, we may get a taste of amberjack, tilefish or sheepshead.

That does not mean, however, that we have plenty of fish to fry. America's new appetite for fish as a low-fat, low-cholesterol source of protein has strained the ability of fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere.

Grouper is a classic example. It was always plentiful in Florida and popular with anglers, but for most of this century, it was cheap and often sold as steaks, without skinning.

Commercial fishermen saw little profit in it, according to Walter Bell, whose family's fish house has been in Cortez for 50 years. "Back in the '60s, grouper were only about 10 cents a pound. You could get three, four times as much or more for snapper," Bell said. Fishing fleets concentrated on snapper, he said.

"It was along in the '70s when grouper started being of value," he said. Fishing and marketing techniques changed along with the public's appetite. Today, filleted grouper is a fish of preference because of its firm white flesh, minimal fat and very mild, unfishy flavor; its price can rival snapper. Yet biologists say its numbers are so diminished that fishing must be halted for some species.

Grouper is not the only fish whose status has changed: Red snapper and redfish are more precious than ever, while an unknown deep-water perch from New Zealand, orange roughy, has become more familiar and the once-taboo shark is showing up on many plates.

"I'm not sure there are any under-utilized species in the Gulf now," said Tom Thomas, a marketing representative for the Florida Department of Natural Resources. (Nonetheless, he and other officials are eager for development of a new fishery bringing in a relatively lean large Atlantic sea bass called "wreck fish," which shoppers may eventually see in stores.)

The ban on fishing for shallow-water species of grouper will last only seven weeks, but going without grouper sandwiches for even a little while may remind us that we have had too much of a good thing.

Federal and state officials had planned to stop fishing on Oct. 1, but Gulf fleets caught less grouper than expected and the ban was delayed until Nov. 7.

From then through the end of the year, restaurateurs and fish markets may have grouper, but it will be coming from other, sometimes more expensive sources. Their choices will be either frozen local grouper or fresh fish caught in the Atlantic, yellowedge and other deep-water species from farther out in the Gulf or fish imported from Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Beyond grouper, however, diners and shoppers have a number of other fresh Florida fish to try. Some are similar to grouper; others offer a different texture.

Here's a guide to other Florida fish, gleaned from Bureau of Seafood Marketing materials and the authoritative Eat Fish, Live Better, by Anne M. Fletcher (Harper & Row, 1989, $10.95 paperback). The fish are ranked by fat content, beginning with the leanest. (If not fried, fish is generally lower in fat than most meats, but fat content does vary. Fat content also varies within species depending on life cycle and season.)

VERY LEAN FISH

(Less than 2 percent fat by weight)

Dolphinfish: Also known as mahi mahi. It comes from the Caribbean as well as Hawaii. Firm meat, light in color with some dark areas; delicate flavor.

Black sea bass: Firm white meat with delicate flavor. It can be used as a grouper substitute.

Tilefish: Sold in filets and steaks. Also a good substitute for grouper. Mild sweet flavor and firm, dense flesh.

Red and black drum: This family includes various forms of croaker. It has firm, moist meat and mild flavor. They can be used as grouper substitutes.

Monkfish: This fish, usually sold in fillets or tail portions, has the texture and taste of something like lobster.

Shark: Usually sold in steaks. Firm, boneless meat. Black tip shark is very white and dry compared to mako. Avoid shark that has a strong smell of ammonia, which may indicate poor butchering or storage; mild odors can be removed by soaking in milk or a mild solution of lemon juice or vinegar in water.

LEAN FISH

(Two to 5 percent fat by weight)

Amberjack: Usually sold as fillets or steaks. Amberjack has a firm texture like grouper but a somewhat stronger flavor. It is often smoked.

Sheepshead: A fish with white meat and mild flavor, but bony. It must be filleted carefully.

Sea trout: Also known as weakfish or specks. Sea trout is similar to flounder and sea bass; very delicate flesh and flavor.

Bluefish: It has a strong flavor, moist meat and a somewhat dark color that lightens during cooking; some species may have a higher fat content.

Swordfish: Generally sold in steaks, swordfish has firm texture and more pronounced flavor than grouper. Frequently grilled.

Tuna: Tuna has a steak-like texture but a taste like swordfish. Yellowfin has red meat but is lower in fat than other species.

MEDIUM FAT FISH

(Five percent fat by weight or more)

Mullet: One of the most common fish on the Gulf coast. It has dark flesh and a nutty flavor.

Pompano: One of Florida's more fashionable fish. It has lightly colored flesh and moderate flavor.

Spanish mackerel: One of the fattier Florida fish. It has a lighter taste than most mackerel.

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