PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — It might not be time yet to rechristen Cape Cod as Cape Pollock, but the humble fish is staking its claim.
The Atlantic pollock has long played a role in New England's fishing industry as a cheaper alternative to cod and haddock, but the fish's place in America's oldest fishing industry is expanding as stocks like cod fade.
But the fish has an image problem.
While considered a whitefish, its uncooked gray-pinkish color looks drab compared to the snow-white cod fillets consumers are used to seeing on seafood counters. And many confuse it with the very different Alaska pollock, which is the subject of a much larger industrial fishery that provides fish for processed food products such as the McDonald's Filet-O-Fish.
A loose consortium of fishermen, processors, restaurateurs and sustainable seafood advocates wants to change all that. They're trying to rebrand Atlantic pollock as New England's fish, and the push is catching on in places like food-crazy Portland, where food trucks offer pollock tacos to eager crowds.
"The flavor is very high, but the appearance is not very high," said Joe Klaus, who has taught classes on sustainable food at Colby College, which serves the fish. "Pollock we use as something that's a little bit camouflaged — something covered up with a sauce."
Federal fishery statistics suggest Atlantic pollock is slowly gaining more acceptance with consumers. It's a rare bright spot for New England groundfishermen, who harvest species such as cod, pollock, haddock and flounder.
U.S. fishermen, mostly out of Massachusetts and Maine, have landed more than 10 million pounds of the fish every year since 2003. The cod catch, imperiled by climate change, poor reproduction and tight quotas, has plummeted in that time.
In 2014, Atlantic pollock made up a higher percentage of the New England groundfishing business's total value at the docks than cod. Five years earlier, it accounted for less than half the value of cod. Atlantic pollock's per-pound value increased by more than 75 percent in that time.
"We're catching a lot of it," said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association. "People should be looking for product of Maine, product of New England. Asking questions of those who are selling you fish."
The Gulf of Maine Research Institute, a Portland-based science center, includes Atlantic pollock on its list of "responsibly harvested" New England species and has worked to encourage its use in restaurants.
Like many fish, the Atlantic pollock is sometimes sold under alternative names, including the Boston blue and the blue cod. But Bert Jongerden, general manager of the Portland Fish Exchange, said opportunities to add cachet with a fancier name — as was the case with Chilean sea bass, once known as the Patagonian toothfish — are minimal.
The growth of the Atlantic pollock fishery hasn't reached the point where the Alaska pollock business views it as serious competition. American fishermen typically land more than 3 billion pounds of Alaska pollock every year, and the fish is widely used in products such as fish sticks, ready-made school lunch meals and imitation crab meat.
Both fish are members of the cod family, but they are not in the same genus. Atlantic pollock is fattier and has a stronger flavor.
Pat Shanahan, program director for Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers, said the West Coast business isn't worried about market confusion.
"It's a different breed of dog," she said. "The scale of the fisheries are quite different. The eating qualities of the products are quite different, as well."