Even residents of Sheepshead Bay will sometimes say the bay got its name from its resemblance (at one time) to the outline of a sheep’s head. But if you talk to a fish expert, you’ll get a different story.
Archosargus probatocephalus, better known as the sheepshead, is one of the heftier members of the porgy family. More popular in the south, the sheepshead once graced the plates of New York City’s finer dining establishments and populated its namesake bay off the eastern coast of Coney Island before mysteriously vanishing.
The fish’s greenish-gray to silvery skin is marked by thick, vertical stripes. Inside its mouth, a system of sharp front teeth and larger, rear grinding teeth allow sheepshead to crush oyster and clam shells, which are part of its omnivorous diet. No one seems to know where it got the name sheepshead. Some experts speculate it came from the fish’s sheep-like teeth, others from its silhouette. Either way, “It’s a very handsome looking fish,” said John Waldman, a professor of biology at Queens College.
Waldman, whose book, Heartbeats in the Muck, traces the history of the New York Harbor, said historical documents indicate that sheepshead were incredibly common in Sheepshead Bay in the early nineteenth century. So plentiful were the fish, farmers surrounding the bay supplemented their incomes by becoming commercial sheepshead fishermen while waiting to harvest their crops.
But somewhere around the late 1800s, the sheepshead started to disappear. Marine biology experts note the disappearance of oyster reefs — either smothered by sewage dumped in the harbor or wiped out by overfishing — around the same time, a connection that is more than coincidental. With one of its main sources of sustenance on the road to extinction, the sheepshead may have gone looking elsewhere for food.
Or, it may be that these fish were never intended to live in Sheepshead Bay. Perhaps, the experts say, they only ventured north because there was too much competition for food in the southeast’s warm waters — where they’re commonly found today.
If this is true, then the sheepshead’s disappearance would indicate that the entire population has shrunk.
“If you could bring a fisherman back from 1800 and put him on a vessel today, he would compare his catch to what he caught then,” said David O. Conover, a professor of marine science at Stony Brook University. But since the federal government only began monitoring and regulating fish populations in U.S. waters in 1976, it’s impossible to know how much the population has changed.
From time to time, a stray sheepshead makes its way to Brooklyn and rumors fly that the species has made a comeback. Waldman doubts a comeback is imminent, but does think Sheepshead Bay could become attractive to the species in the future.
“For one thing, we are seeing oysters in a lot of places that they weren’t found in the mid century,” he said. “And the waters are warming a bit because of climate change, so we might become more inhabitable.”
Until then, seafood lovers eager to taste the flaky, white flesh of Sheepshead Bay’s patron fish will have to head south — or to Cajun restaurants. Sheepshead is popular in the Gulf States and frequently featured in Cajun dishes, although chefs find that the alternate names “rondeau seabream” and “bay snapper” appeal to more customers.
Adam Higgs, chef and owner of the Cajun restaurant Acadia Bistro in Portland, Oregon, imports sheepshead direct from Louisiana. It’s not an easy fish to clean, he says, because of the hard-to-remove thick scales, but the flesh is tasty and versatile — it’s good pan-fried, deep-fried, or even poached. Higgs serves a pan-fried sheepshead fillet, topped with Crabmeat Yvonne — a mixture of artichokes, blue crab meat, white wine, lemon, and a touch of brown butter.
“I’d say it’s the most popular fish on our menu right now,” he said, “but that has to do with what I have paired with it.”
Sent by Nicole. Text by Amber Benham. Photos from top courtesy Stephen Muran, Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, and noadventure.com.