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

But while Feeney and other fishermen found themselves knee-deep in dogs, they struggled to find anyone who’d buy the damn things. Dogfish have long been lumped into the same caste as scup, Atlantic pollock, redfish, and other unloved species, a category labeled “trash fish” by the seafood cognoscenti. The European market had gone ice cold, and domestic demand didn’t exist. For many fishermen, pursuing the sharks wasn’t worth the hassle. In 2014 and 2015 the industry landed only half as much dogfish as it was permitted to catch.

Feeney, however, wasn’t dissuaded. If dogfish demand was lacking, he’d build it himself. “Early on, guys told him he was crazy, that fishermen have no power to drive markets,” recalls John Pappalardo, CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, a Chatham-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting New England’s fishing industry. “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘If you support me, I can fix this problem.’”

 

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Mitchell Kelleher, 19, sorts through an ankle-deep pile of dogfish at the Chatham fish pier. / Photograph by Greta Rybus

The alliance soon had ample support to give. In 2014 the University of New England, in conjunction with the alliance, received a quarter-million-dollar grant from NOAA to study dogfish-market development. Most of their early efforts centered around the culinary scene. Chefs such as Carolyn Johnson, of Concord’s 80 Thoreau, and William Kovel, of Cambridge’s Catalyst, served dogfish pâté and spice-crusted dogfish at fancy Trash Fish Dinners. The Corner Store, a Cape Cod sandwich and burrito spot, now peddles dogfish burritos, courtesy of Doug Feeney, on Fridays in summer and fall. The way boosters see it, restaurants serve as crucial beachheads in the war for the American diner. “People are more willing to order something unfamiliar off a menu from a chef they trust than bring it home from a fish counter,” says Jen Levin, the sustainable seafood program manager at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

But while gourmet restaurant preparations might win hearts and minds, they can’t support fisheries on their own. The Corner Store, for instance, sells around 30 pounds of dogfish each week; during the dogfish season, by contrast, fishermen are each allowed to catch 5,000 pounds each day. “Only volume can save this fishery,” Feeney claims. “I don’t need orders you can measure in pounds—I need orders you can measure in metric tons.”

That kind of volume can come only from massive buyers, such as hospitals, universities, and military bases. At those institutions, the nondescript cafeteria fillet is often pangasius, a Southeast Asian catfish. And it’s those institutions that dogfish advocates have been most eager to court. Feeney has filleted dogfish for tastings at Harvard and UMass Amherst; has sold his smallest dogs, called “whips,” to a Wisconsin lab that supplies dissection samples to biology classes; and is trying to launch a dogfish processing co-op that would guarantee local fishermen a fair price for their catch. “I don’t look at dogfish as trash,” says Greg Walinski, a longtime cod fisherman who increasingly relies on the dogs. “They’re too important.”

Dogfish fans claim the species is approaching critical mass. “Thirty years ago nobody knew what calamari was, and now every bar in the world sells calamari,” Jared Auerbach says. Yet the species hasn’t yet gone mainstream. Although Auerbach sells haddock, flounder, and other whitefish to universities and hospitals, few of those buyers have yet accepted dogfish. And despite lobbying from New England lawmakers and fishing groups, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declined to make a bulk purchase that would have placed dogfish everywhere from food pantries to school lunchrooms. Dogfish might be on the cusp, but the dominoes haven’t quite toppled.

That sluggish progress has Feeney, like many shrewd American entrepreneurs, looking to China. In May 2015 Feeney and Auerbach enticed a consortium of Chinese seafood buyers to visit Chatham and hear their dogfish pitch. Feeney later buttered them up at a Red Sox game, where the beer flowed freely and everyone left Fenway with giant foam fingers.

Six months later Feeney flew to Qingdao for Asia’s largest seafood exhibition. He set up a booth overflowing with monkfish, mackerel, skate wings, and, of course, dogfish, and wore his red Grundens bib pants after he heard the Chinese associate the color with prosperity. He hollered a cheerful “Ni hao!” to everyone who passed and sang Beach Boys songs in vast karaoke rooms with his local hosts. Though he left without a deal, he sensed China’s potential. We Americans are milquetoasts in our seafood preferences, uninterested in anything more exotic than mild fillets; the Chinese, by contrast, are intrepid eaters from the waste-not, want-not school. In China, Feeney says, each dogfish contains six separate products, from its skin to its liver. Here, at last, were his metric tons.

Of course, it’s hard to overlook the irony of a Cape Cod fisherman peddling American fish to China, even as Chinese tilapia floods the United States. “I’d much prefer to keep our product local,” acknowledges Auerbach, who helped fund Feeney’s trip. “But the goal is to sustain the livelihood of the small-boat American fisherman. If that means selling to China, then we’re selling to China.”

 

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Dogfish take the bait. / Photograph by Greta Rybus

Back on the Noah, the afternoon has taken on a Murphy’s Law quality, checkered with minor accidents. A long line snags on submarine garbage, and the hauler breaks down. Between the lost gear and the lost time, Feeney catches only half of his 5,000 permitted pounds. At the Chatham pier, he pulls the Noah snug against the dock. Though most of his dogs will end up shipped to New Bedford and, eventually, Europe, Feeney sets aside the choicest specimens for the Corner Store. He slices the sharks along the belly and flings the guts into the harbor, where fat seals scarf down the scraps. A few embryonic pups, still attached to their golden egg sacs, slide around the deck.

Elderly tourists lean over a wooden railing, cameras whirring, entranced by the boat and the gulls and the goateed guy with his catch, a Winslow Homer painting come to life. “Excuse me, but what kind of fish is that?” one onlooker asks.

“Dogfish,” Feeney sighs. He’s been awake since 4 a.m.; he looks beat.

The tourist gapes. “Dogfish?”

“Dogfish,” Feeney confirms, turning back to his task. Suddenly, though, his face softens, and he seems to remember his ambassadorial role. “Nice white fillet, delicious fish,” he says, warming to his favorite subject. “Anything you can do with cod, you can do with dogfish. Certified sustainable. Caught local, right here in Chatham. Crazy fresh.” He pauses. “You ever hear of cape shark?”

The term “cape shark” is the latest marketing weapon in the arsenal of Feeney and the alliance, a neologism approved for use by the FDA in 2015. The unsavory moniker “dogfish,” and its connotation of frying up Fido, had always been accused of stunting sales. (Never mind that diners seem to harbor no misgivings about chowing down on catfish.) The rebranding’s timing was fortuitous: Great white sharks, once persecuted, were recolonizing Cape Cod’s waters, and locals were buzzing about the comeback. Sharks had captured the zeitgeist. The Corner Store named its dogfish burrito a “SharkRito,” and the Ipswich Shellfish Group created “Shark Bites,” baked nuggets coated in gluten-free batter.

The cape shark campaign highlights dogfish’s promise—and, perhaps, its risk. Renaming seafood is a well-worn strategy: Witness the little-known Patagonian tooth fish, which became a white-hot global commodity after American buyers dubbed it Chilean sea bass. In that case, economic success spawned ecological disaster, as a rush of overfishing and poaching pushed the tooth fish into steep decline. Closer to home, monkfish stocks are just now recovering after a similar market-driven boom and bust.

Sharks, too, come with their own environmental baggage. As many as 100 million are hauled from global oceans every year, many victims of “finning,” a wasteful practice in which fishermen lop off sharks’ fins—a delicacy in China—and discard their still-living bodies. (Finning is illegal in American waters, and Massachusetts law prohibits the possession or sale of fins, though dogfish are exempt.) An estimated quarter of the world’s sharks and rays are at risk of extinction.