A Fishery Going to the Dogs

Great whites get the ink, but the dogfish is the real villain for Cape Cod’s fishermen.

After pulling a dogfish from one of his longlines, skipper Jamie Eldredge tosses the fish onto the deck aboard his fishing vessel in the Atlantic waters off Chatham, Massachusetts in 2009. (AP/Stephan Savoia)
After pulling a dogfish from one of his longlines, skipper Jamie Eldredge tosses the fish onto the deck aboard his fishing vessel in the Atlantic waters off Chatham, Massachusetts in 2009. (AP/Stephan Savoia)

The dust is still settling on the Discovery Channel’s favorite time of year: the annual, sensationalist “Shark Week,” an orgy of fins, teeth, thrumming cello riffs, and record ratings. And as the mini-controversy roiled over the network’s decision to kick off its programming with a mockumentary about a prehistoric megalodon shark, a couple of real-life shark species have spent their summers presenting challenges to beachgoers and fishermen alike in the swank, seaside town of Chatham, Massachusetts.

Perched at the elbow of Cape Cod, Chatham canoodles with the likes of Martha’s Vineyard; Kennebunkport, Maine; and the Hamptons on the Northeast’s list of summer utopias for the well-heeled. Yet Chatham is increasingly becoming known for the party crashers that have taken up residence in their own summer homes just off the shore of some of the Cape’s most popular beaches. Great white sharks, likely drawn by a veritable buffet made up of increasingly large populations of grey and harbor seals, are now an annual presence. At times they swim “within 100 feet” of the beach.

The great white needs no introduction. It’s been described as the ocean’s apex predator and spawned “Jaws,” one of the most famous horror movies in cinematic history. Yet if you ask Chatham’s commercial fishermen about sharks, you’re more likely to get an earful about a far-smaller and less-threatening species: the spiny dogfish.

New England’s famed groundfish species of cod, haddock, and flounder have been depleted by overfishing and have been slow to regain their place in the ecosystem, even as managers have dramatically reduced catch limits in recent years. Their departure has left room for an explosion in the population of the 3-to-4-foot dogfish shark. As dogfish have taken over, they have fed voraciously on juvenile fish, further hindering the rebuilding process.

From a management perspective, dogfish present a bit of a conundrum. Like all sharks, dogfish are slow to reproduce. They birth their pups live rather than laying eggs as fish do. They also have the longest gestation period of any vertebrate—between 18 and 24 months—and females don’t reach reproductive age until they’re nearly 20 years old. In sum, the population is precarious. But now that the sharks have established a presence, they’ve dug in.

After years of fishermen’s complaints, scientists accumulated enough data to confirm that the ecosystem was out of balance. In 2008 the National Marine Fisheries Service tripled the annual catch limit for spiny dogfish in the Northeast from 4 million pounds to 12 million pounds. By 2013 that figure had nearly doubled again, to 23.6 million pounds. The fishery has even been certified as sustainable by the independent Marine Stewardship Council, whose review process, while not perfect, is as close to a gold standard as the seafood industry currently has. Suddenly, fishermen had access to huge quantities of new product. Now all they needed was a market for it.

Finding that market, however, has been a huge challenge. As of last Thursday fishermen have landed barely one-tenth of their 23.6 million-pound quota for 2013—not because they can’t find the fish but because they can’t find buyers, even at absurdly low prices. As I write this, the market price for dogfish is $0. Fishermen in New England literally can’t give their dogfish away.

New England’s congressional delegation, led by Rep. William Keating (D-MA), whose district includes the Cape and Islands, has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy surplus dogfish for use in federal facilities with what’s known as a Section 32 purchase, making use of a tool intended to prop up farmers’ businesses when crop prices drop.

But efforts to boost the sale of dogfish have been complicated by an international campaign led by environmental groups to halt the sale of shark fins. The fins are prized in Chinese and other Asian cultures as an ingredient in shark-fin soup—a dish known more as a status symbol than for its flavor—which can cost more than $100 per bowl. This makes the sharks’ fins far more valuable than their meat, and dogfish fins are no exception.

The enviros’ aim is to end the horrific and wasteful practice of shark finning, in which fishermen catch a shark, slice off its fins, and throw the rest of the animal back alive but facing a slow and certain death. To help accomplish this laudable goal, Congress passed a law in 2010 reauthorizing the Shark Conservation Act, mandating that all sharks caught in U.S. commercial fisheries be landed with their fins attached. The law does, however, carve out an exception for smooth dogfish, a relative of the spiny dogfish caught in the mid-Atlantic, although even in the case of this species, the weight of detached fins brought to shore cannot exceed 12 percent of the weight of meat landed.

Not satisfied with this measure, some groups have pushed for even stricter state laws that ban the sale of all shark fins. Such laws have passed in eight states, including, most recently, New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed the new law just a few weeks ago.

Although well-intended, these bans on the sale of shark fins make life more difficult for New England’s fishermen, who are already trying to scrape together a living and carve out space in the Gulf of Maine ecosystem to restore something approximating the original balance of species.

While dogfish fins comprise only about 3 percent of the shark by weight, fishermen and dealers have reported to me that they bring in 40 percent of its value. Trying to create a market when you’re legally prevented from using two-fifths of a product’s value is a losing proposition. In the case of dogfish, that means another defeat for New England’s fishermen. Federal law already prohibits the practice of shark finning with clear and enforceable measures. Additional bans on the sale of American-caught shark fins are excessively punitive to fishermen already toiling under strict, science-based regulations.

The dogfish may not have the marquee draw of Chatham’s great whites or the Discovery Channel’s megalodon, but to the New England fishing industry, they remain at the top of the hit list. At a time when conservation groups are looking to take the pressure off overfished and overly popular species and to diversify diners’ appetites, they should direct their energy toward building markets for sustainably caught species, not setting up roadblocks.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy