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Product Spotlight: Grouper

Dress it up, dress it down - this versatile fish is welcome anywhere

By Linda Skinner
February 01, 2006

You might think from its name that the grouper travels in large schools. Actually, it’s more of a solitary fish that frequents coral reefs, which is why grouper is harvested by hook and line. The name comes from the Portuguese “garoupa.” Grouper is called mero in Mexico, the major supplier to the U.S. market.

Groupers, members of the Serranidae family of sea basses, are found in temperate waters from the Mid-Atlantic to South America and in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are some 400 grouper species worldwide,
but red and black groupers are the two most often seen in the U.S. marketplace. Since landings of red grouper (Epinephelus morio) are far greater, it is the more common. Because of limited commercial supplies of true black grouper (Mycteroperca bonaci), it has largely been replaced in the market by gag (M. microlepsis), which is sold as black grouper.

Gag commands 50 to 75 cents more a pound than red grouper, because it’s a “finer fish,” with higher yield and flakier meat, says Steve Rash, owner and president of Water Street Seafood in Apalachicola, Fla., one of the biggest grouper suppliers in the state.

Water Street ships fresh grouper, whole gutted and filleted, to restaurants and a limited number of retailers nationwide, but the primary market for the fish is in the Southeast, Rash notes.

Depending on the species, groupers can grow to more than 500 pounds, but market size is from 5 to around 15 pounds.

The fish is sold mostly as fresh, skinless fillets, because the skin is tough and has a strong flavor. Imported frozen product is also available, but Rash warns that mislabeling can be a problem, with species like basa sometimes labeled — and priced — as Mexican grouper.

The grouper fishery is coming under more regulation, Rash says, largely due to recreational fishermen demanding a bigger share of the resource,  but landings have remained level for the past 15 years. The 2004 U.S. harvest totaled 8.9 million pounds, 6.7 million of which were red grouper. Florida leads landings, accounting for 7.9 million pounds in 2004.

Grouper imports through November 2005 totaled 8.3 million pounds. The vast majority, 7.2 million pounds, was fresh product. Mexico is the leading U.S. supplier  at 4.3 million pounds through November 2005. Panama is a distant second at 1.5 million.

Grouper’s appeal to foodservice operators — from sandwich shops to fine dining — is its versatile, mild, white meat. Fried fingers or fillets in baskets and sandwiches are Florida menu standards for under $10. Outback Steakhouse’s upscale-casual Bonefish Grill, with locations in the Southeast and Midwest, features grilled Gulf Grouper for under $20 with a choice of sauces: lemon butter, lime tomato garlic, warm mango salsa or Pan Asian.

At the chic bistro 3030 Ocean in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., grilled black grouper is served with Yukon puree, corn, broccolini, baby onion and coconut curry sauce for $28.

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