Cod Is Dead—Is Dogfish the Answer?

With hardly any cod left in the sea, Chatham fisherman Doug Feeney is out to make the dogfish cool enough for New Englanders to eat—and hopes to revive a dying industry along the way. By Ben Goldfarb
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It’s not Jaws—it’s your next dinner. Meet New England’s spiny dogfish. / Photograph by Toan Trinh

On a wind-tossed autumn morning off the Cape Cod coast, the aft deck of Doug Feeney’s 36-foot fishing boat, the Noah, is buried beneath a squirming, slimy, shin-deep layer of sharks.

The Noah’s hauler growls under the weight of the 300-hook long line emerging from the froth-tipped Atlantic. The reek of gasoline mingles with salt. A procession of small gray sharks, each pierced neatly through the jaw by a steel hook, materializes from the depths. Feeney, a lean fisherman whose goatee and hoop earrings lend him a vaguely piratical mien, yanks the sharks from the line with the steady rhythm of an assembly-line worker. A drained cup of coffee perches on the dashboard; James Taylor warbles on the radio.

“Twenty-five years ago we’d catch 10,000 pounds of these things every day,” Feeney shouts over the roar of the engines and “Fire and Rain.” “We’d just throw ’em back over the side.”

Like many Chatham fishermen, Feeney is a jack-of-all-trades. He gillnets monkfish in early spring, he trolls for bluefin tuna in late fall. But no species occupies more of his energy than the spiny dogfish, the dachshund-size shark now piling up on the Noah’s deck. Though the word “shark” conjures visions of the toothy great white, spiny dogfish, the most common shark in the world, bears little resemblance to Jaws. For starters, it rarely grows more than 4 feet long. White freckles dot its slate-colored back and its green eyes glow with an eerie feline light. Stroked head to tail, its skin is almost velvety to the touch.

What Squalus acanthias lacks in fierceness, it makes up for in abundance. From Florida to Maine, populations are flourishing, so much so that the annual quota—the total weight that fishermen are allowed to catch—has increased every year from 2008 to 2015, cresting at a whopping 50 million pounds before dipping to 40 million this year. Such bounty stands in stark contrast to the grim status of Massachusetts’ most iconic fish, the cod, so depleted that quotas have sunk below a meager one million pounds. With the cod industry in a state of collapse, dogfish represent perhaps the best hope for struggling local fishermen. “These guys have been through so many cuts,” says Tobey Curtis, a fisheries policy analyst with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “When we have success, we want to be able to pay them back.”

Yet the dogfish boom faces obstacles—chiefly, the neglect of U.S. consumers. As the author Paul Greenberg reported in his 2014 book,  American Catch, 91 percent of the seafood we eat originates overseas, much of it on farms. Our supermarkets are stocked with shrimp from Thailand, salmon from Chile, and tilapia from China. Although fish-farming techniques in many places are improving, foreign seafood often comes with hidden costs: Some shrimp farms deploy slave labor, many salmon operations pump fish full of antibiotics, and tilapia aquaculture practices in China have been accused of polluting lakes and sickening fish. Meanwhile, a full third of what we catch in American waters gets shipped abroad. “The whole world’s laughing at us,” says Jared Auerbach, founder and CEO of Red’s Best, the Boston-based seafood distributor that buys Feeney’s dogfish. “We’re exporting our great wild fish and importing all their junk.”

Dogfish make a handy poster species for this dilemma. In Europe, the sharks have long been held in high esteem: Order Schillerlocken in Germany, saumonette in France, or fish and chips in England, and you’ll likely be dining on dog. Here in the United States, however, dogfish remain so obscure that a 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek article mislabeled them as an invasive species. Such anonymity is disastrous for business: While cod fetch more than $2 per pound, dogfish rarely earn more than 20 cents—mere pennies above a fisherman’s break-even point.

But Feeney isn’t standing idle in the face of indifferent markets. Over the past several years, he’s launched a multipronged assault on the world’s seafood buyers, promoting his product from collegiate dining halls to local burrito joints to sprawling Chinese convention centers. To dogfish proponents, the humble sharks offer a sort of acid test for America’s seafood future. Can diners be trained to eat a fish they’ve never heard of? Can Cape Cod’s fishermen survive post-cod?

The answer to that question won’t just determine where your fish comes from—it will also shape Feeney’s future. “I have my whole livelihood on the line here,” he says. He’s already invested $15,000 from his savings; whether that investment pays off may well determine his ability to support his young family, particularly his three-year-old son, Noah, the boat’s namesake. “He’s a very special child, an old soul,” Feeney says, his pride tinged with an undercurrent of anxiety. “I wanna give him the same shot I had if he so chooses.” As Feeney motors toward the next long line, the Noah now sitting a smidge lower beneath its cargo, he nods confidently, his brow creased beneath a baseball hat. “I see a future in dogfish, I really do,” he says, almost to himself, as though repeating a mantra. Flecks of blood speckle his sweatpants. “It’s gonna work. It’s gonna have to work. Because there’s nothing else out there.”

 

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With the lowly but plentiful dogfish, Doug Feeney believes he has the future of the fishing industry in his hands. / Photograph by Greta Rybus

Doug Feeney’s fishing baptism came in the late 1980s, a fleeting moment of optimism before the industry’s crash. Though Feeney didn’t come from a fishing family, his older brother worked on a boat, and Feeney got hooked not long after he turned 15. “The sea stole my heart,” the Yarmouth Port native says. After a six-year Army stint, Feeney moved to Chatham in 1997, crewing aboard a succession of groundfish boats—vessels that pursued bottom-dwelling species such as haddock, flounder, and, especially, cod. He met a Bulgarian barista named Petya and sat in her shop for hours, gulping down coffee after coffee, before he finally summoned the courage to talk to her. They married and bought a house, then a boat. By 2010 Feeney had become a captain himself.

He couldn’t have timed it worse. For generations New England fishermen had built their livelihoods on cod, the bountiful fish that lured Basques and Vikings to the New World, transformed the Colonies into an economic power, and helped launch the American Revolution after the British closed colonists’ offshore fishing grounds in 1775. In the 20th century, however, intense fishing competition and technological innovation—bigger boats, better nets, sonar—demolished stocks and prompted stringent regulations. Fishermen suffered alongside their quarry: Between 2001 and 2011, the number of licensed groundfish boats in the Northeast plunged from more than 1,000 to just 344. Working waterfronts and seafood processing plants shuttered along the New England coast, often replaced by the second homes of wealthy out-of-towners, or by nothing at all. In 2012 the federal government declared the industry a disaster.

But Feeney, a sinewy 45-year-old with the barely contained energy of a coiled spring, isn’t a complainer. Over the years, he’s seen his engine crap out during a hurricane (“Sucked pretty bad”), watched 20-foot waves crash over the Noah’s cabin (“Took it like a champ”), and survived cancer after his fellow Chathamites raised $14,000 for his recovery (“That’s the kind of tightknit community we are here”). Besides, he didn’t have much choice: As a new boat owner, he couldn’t afford to buy or rent the rights to catch cod, which rested mostly in the hands of older fishermen. With cod off the menu, he turned to a fish that had experienced its own roller-coaster ride: dogfish.

The dogfish had once been New England’s most despised sea creature, an alleged nuisance that clogged nets and crowded out more-desirable species. “If John Cabot were alive today, he would not recognize Georges Bank,” Massachusetts Congressman Gerry Studds lamented in 1991. “Instead of a sea swarming with majestic cod, he would find dogfish…. Instead of a fisherman’s dream, he would find a nightmare.” By the mid-1990s, however, Studds’s nightmare had become a thriving—and loosely regulated—export fishery targeted at Europe, whose own dogfish stocks had been devastated by overfishing. But North America’s sharks soon crumbled beneath the pressure. Dogfish give birth to live young after a gestation period of up to two years—among the longest in the animal kingdom. That sluggish reproduction, scientists claimed, was preventing the sharks from replacing their numbers. In 1998 NOAA declared the species overfished, slashed the quota to 4 million pounds, and limited fishermen’s daily catch. Another fishery had apparently gone down the tubes.

Yet by the mid-2000s, fishermen soon began noticing something strange: Dogfish were turning up in big numbers again. In retrospect, the population had likely never dwindled as much as the government feared, and the tough restrictions expedited recovery. More than anything, though, scientists may have underestimated the shark’s resilience. Dogfish travel in packs that sometimes number in the thousands; have Wolverinelike healing powers that help them survive after being caught and discarded; and scarf down anything that fits in their tooth-studded mouth. James Sulikowski, a marine biologist at the University of New England, has found that dogfish are reaching sexual maturity more quickly than in the past, and breed throughout the year. “There’s no time off—as soon as they give birth, they start over again,” Sulikowski says. “They’re like little machines.” The government officially declared the little machines recovered in 2010; today, scientists estimate that the Gulf of Maine contains 23 pounds of spawning dogfish for every pound of cod.


Yiqing Shao Yiqing Shao, Digital Editor at Boston Magazine bmagdigital+yshao@gmail.com