I have no love for the spiny dogfish. They are both voracious predators and competitors with local stocks of cod, haddock and pollock. They reproduce faster than many shark species to the point where they can take over an area. Historically they have been a scourge for commercial and recreational fishermen alike: fowling everyone’s lines or clogging your nets with near worthless fish. Many an old Gloucester fisherman will tell you that once you were on the dogfish it was hard to get away from them. This opinion was not shared in Europe, where dogfish have been enjoyed for centuries under various local and marketing names like rock salmon or saumonette.
As a kid in the late 1980’s there began to be a small market for dogfish, sometimes marketed as “cape shark.” When I entered high school, I spent that first day after school not doing homework, but taking out and boxing thousands of pounds of dogfish on one of Gloucester’s wharfs. At the time, we were told that most of this was headed to the UK, where it was used as a substitute for cod in Fish ‘N Chips. By the late 1990’s the stock was considered overfished. However, I know many local fishermen felt for a long time that there were way more dogfish than NOAA claimed, to the detriment of our key species on the rebound. Many argued it was counter-productive to protect both the predator and they you are trying to rebuild. In 2010 NOAA declared the stock rebuilt and a year later, and admitted that dogfish were a threat to other stocks.
The dogfish fishery is no longer unregulated as it was back then. Today fishermen can bring in 6000 pounds per day and meet that quota on a regualr basis. But what is the market for these fish? Most of it heads to Europe, while Americans import most of the fish they eat. According to the Cape Cod Chronicle, a new project will help change that by utilizing dogfish in University dining programs.
Spiny dogfish is just one of many domestic fish that we know as “underutilized species.” Gloucester, Massachusetts holds an annual event showcasing many of these fish in new and creative ways to draw awareness to these delicious and sustainable alternatives to foreign imports. This video shows the new program promoting dogfish as well as other programs to support domestic underutilized fish species.
I’ve never tried dogfish, but if it is anything like the other shark species I’ve tried, it is probably not bad at all. Considering all the swai and tilapia of dubious origin that shows up in college dining halls, domestic, wild-caught dogfish is certainly an upgrade. For those of us who grew up eating “trash fish” we often laugh to ourselves when fish you couldn’t sell, now commands top dollar. It’s not just an issue that grew out of overfishing, it is a dilemma as old as fishing itself. Just because you caught it does not mean anyone wants to buy it. There are lots of good tasting fish that can be sustainably harvested, but fishermen can’t afford to catch fish that won’t cover their expenses. Hopefully the public will catch on to some of these species and take market pressure off the more popular fish.