The spiny dogfish is a conservation success story, going from worryingly low levels to incredible abundance. The new challenge is getting people to eat them.
Spiny dogfish are small, bottom-dwelling, grayish-brown sharks. 25 years ago, dogfish populations were so low the federal government had to ban fishing them in local waters.
Now, says Tom Lyons, a member of the Yankee Fisherman's Cooperative in Seabrook, the situation is pretty different. “In my opinion they've taken over the ocean,” he says. “You can't fish without catching dogfish.”
In the constant push-pull between fishermen needing to catch fish, and conservationists needing to preserve fish populations, that should be good news.
But this situation is complicated.
Historically, American-caught spiny dogfish were sold in bulk to Europe, where dogfish is often the fish in fish and chips, but the European Union recently stopped accepting dogfish imports because of stricter limits on contaminants like mercury.
The absence of a US market for dogfish means more pressure on more popular species like cod and haddock, whose population are already under strain.
Lyons says many of those species subsist on a diet of smaller fish, and dogfish are eating up everything in sight. “I just cut open a couple the other day and they were loaded with herring, so they're doing a devastating job on the herring I'm certain, and everything else,” he says. “They're just ferocious, and there are large swarms of them and they just come into an area and decimate it.”
One obvious solution is to get more people to eat dogfish.
“I think if people just gave dogfish a try, if it was served in restaurants, if it showed up on menus, I think people would try it and they would love it,” says Kelly Cullen, a professor of Natural Resource Economics at the University of New Hampshire.
Her view is shared by Sarah VanHorn, a co-founder of New Hampshire's only CSF – Community Supported Fishery.
It offers dogfish, among other species, to over 200 members across the state. “We like to start them off with more familiar fish, like our cod and our haddock, and our monkfish, those kinds of things, and get them excited about our CSF,” VanHorn explains, “and then lead them into trying something they may be less familiar with.”
So far, in its small way, this seems to be working.
At the Durham drop-off location, UNH sophomore Alex White says he's happy he joined the CSF, and happy receiving dogfish. “It's got great flavors. It's pretty versatile. I made some ceviche, fried it up, made some fish tacos... It's an under-loved fish and I think more people should use it.”
White, who also works at Cava Tapas and Wine Bar in Portsmouth, says dogfish is just too tasty a fish to not become popular.
Fishermen like Tom Lyons certainly hope so. He and the other fishermen who supply the CSF are pleased to get $1.75 per pound for it, which is ten times what dogfish would fetch on the global market.
But at the same time, he says, the CSF isn't a solution on its own, even for New Hampshire's tiny fishing fleet.
“The problem is it's a small amount of people. They're buying local food which is great, it really helps out the local commercial fishermen, but however it's not enough,” he says.
“There are still another 10, 12, 15 boats that are fishing, and they could land 4,000 pounds each a day, so it's easy to take 60,000 pounds of dogfish. There's no community that's going to be able to eat that many.”
So this summer, fishing groups petitioned the federal government to buy dogfish in bulk, to help fishermen and to use the fillets in food aid. Josh Wiersma, NH’s fisheries manager, and the other co-founder of the CSF, went to Washington to speak before a senate subcommittee about the proposal.
“When farmers produce too much corn or soybeans the government comes in and they buy it up from the farmers,” he explains. “We asked them to buy our excess dogfish quota, which amounted to something in the neighborhood of $12 million for 40 million pounds.”
The subcommittee is still considering the proposal.
In the meantime, Wiersma says a few restaurants, and the CSF, will just keep trying to get people to ease off overfished species, and get hooked on this one.
“They get disappointed when we give them cod,” Wiersma says of the CSF members. “They're like, 'Where's the dogfish?'”
That's a question he'd like to hear a lot more often.