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

Of course, not all sharks are equally imperiled. While some species, like the scalloped hammerhead, face immediate danger, the Marine Stewardship Council has certified the East Coast dogfish industry as sustainable. “I can’t say it’s a perfect fishery, but this is one of the best examples we have of demonstrating recovery of a heavily fished shark population through management,” says Sonja Fordham, founder and president of Shark Advocates International. Still, Fordham is not resting easy. Although the fishery is sustainable for now, the shark’s long gestation period will always convey some risk. What happens, she wonders, when domestic and foreign markets expand? “It’s easy to follow the scientific advice when you’re not catching your quota,” Fordham cautions. “I can’t say it’s worry-free if markets start to change.”

The dogfish revolution has another major hurdle to overcome: mercury. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health cautions pregnant women and young children against consuming sharks. A 2014 study found that around one-third of a sample of Rhode Island spiny dogfish exceeded 0.30 parts per million of mercury—the guideline the EPA has set for fish consumption. Other research has been slightly more reassuring: A 2015 NOAA-funded study found that winter-caught male dogfish from southern New England contain mercury levels comparable to widely consumed species such as snapper and halibut, and that other ocean dwellers are riskier propositions. “These dogfish contain less mercury than tuna and far less than swordfish, and there’s still a robust market for those fish,” asserts Adam St. Gelais, the University of New England research scientist who coauthored the study.

While dogfish aren’t completely without drawbacks, the diminutive sharks appear unusually resistant to at least one threat: climate change. Global warming and shifting currents are heating up the northwest Atlantic four times faster than the worldwide ocean average, driving ecosystems haywire. Migrating right whales have veered off course; puffins have starved; shrimp have vanished. The heat may also help explain why conservation laws haven’t revived cod, a cold-water-loving species living near the southern fringe of its range in Massachusetts. By contrast, dogfish—undiscriminating predators equally at home in North Carolina and Newfoundland—appear well adapted to our warm new world. “They’ve got ranges of almost 20 degrees Celsius,” says marine biologist James Sulikowski. “Climate change—dogfish don’t know or care what that is.”

Add it all up, and dogfish seem in some ways the perfect modern fishery: temperature-proof, local, and, at least for now, well managed. To Feeney and the alliance, they are CPR for floundering commercial fishermen on the Cape, a reset button for the fisheries managers who allowed cod to collapse. The history of commercial fishing is littered with stories of depletion; whether dogfish represent a sustainable new chapter depends largely on whether fishermen, scientists, and conservationists can set aside old grievances and work together. “We’re sort of where the U.S. auto industry found itself in the ’70s and ’80s,” says John Pappalardo. “We’ve got to retool ourselves, reimagine our place in the world, move beyond old practices and beliefs. It’s time for a new playbook.”

 

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“I have my whole livelihood on the line here,” says fisherman Doug Feeney of his dogfish venture. / Photograph by Greta Rybus

If the United Nations hosted a fish market, it would resemble the Seafood Expo North America. On a blustery March afternoon, the hangarlike Boston Convention & Exhibition Center is packed with booths vending a cornucopia of seafood: South African hake, Icelandic salmon, Korean fish balls of unclear provenance. Flounder and lobster bob lazily in tanks; oysters and scallops glitter atop ice. Suit-clad Chinese businessmen huddle with unshaved Alaskans, and leggy models distribute plastic spoons heavy with smoked salmon. It’s a chaotic scene, redolent of saltwater and money.

At noon, Feeney and the rest of the alliance’s dozen-person delegation adjourn to Row 34, a capacious South Boston seafood restaurant where the alliance is hosting an elaborate dogfish lunch. A course of dogfish fritters precedes pan-seared dogfish and beer-battered dogfish and chips, all of it moist, white, and inoffensive. To the untrained palate it could be cod. Nick Muto, a bearded fisherman with a cinderblock physique, flakes off a forkful. “In uncertain times, it’s something you can count on,” he says. “Skates and dogs—that’s your foundation. You’re not gonna get rich; you gotta grind it out.” The butterscotch pudding dessert arrives, mercifully dogfish-free.

While plenty of Massachusetts chefs are experimenting with dogfish, not everyone in the seafood industry is enamored with cape shark. After lunch at Row 34, Muto and other alliance members return to the convention to meet with representatives from a Canadian seafood distributor. Though Nancy Civetta, the alliance’s communications director, had sent the distributor a case of dogfish samples, the Canadians hadn’t been interested. “It’s a relatively firm fish with a mild flavor,” opines the rep, a gray-haired man in a navy suit. “But when the consumer doesn’t know what something is, then you have to spend more on marketing.” He’d given samples to his girlfriend and her parents, native Bostonians. “They said, ‘Nobody eats that.’”

There’s a long, slightly uncomfortable pause, as though the Canadian has just insulted a family member. The buyer and Civetta go back and forth for a few minutes, discussing fishing techniques, seasonal availability, and value-added products. Civetta mentions Shark Bites and the buyer perks up. “That’s got a ring to it,” he says. They talk marketing, Civetta describing the promotional videos the alliance has compiled, and the Canadian nods thoughtfully. “We wouldn’t be averse to trying it again,” he says finally. “I know what we’re going to struggle with, though: the name.”

“How about Chatham sea bass?” Muto quips, and everyone laughs.

For Feeney and his family, the future rests largely on whether such large-scale buyers, and the customers they represent, can be persuaded to bite. At day’s end, long after most conventioneers have dispersed for happy hour, Feeney reappears at the Red’s Best booth, where Jared Auerbach has assembled a small tower of monkfish and striped bass. Feeney has spent the afternoon schmoozing a Chinese buyer—his white whale—and he has the keyed-up aspect of a gambler who’s just stepped away from a blackjack table. “There are a million people here with farmed salmon and tilapia,” he says with disgust. “You know how you’re raking the yard sometimes and all the dust comes up and gets in your mouth? That’s what tilapia tastes like. Actual dirt.”

Still, he’s in a good mood—the Chinese buyer is interested, and he’s closing in on a deal. “Banner day. Phenomenal,” he says, rubbing his hands together. “The fire’s been lit, can’t put it out now.” He grins slyly. “We gotta kick tilapia in the balls.”