GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 3, 2012

Dogfish seen as healthy fish stock

Finding should aid local exports

By Richard Gaines
Staff writer

---- — The Marine Stewardship Council has certified spiny dogfish — an income supplement and aggravating pest to New England groundfishermen — as a “sustainable and well managed” stock.

The certification clears an impediment to export markets for the Atlantic coast fishery, led by Gloucester’s Zeus Packing Co., the main Massachusetts processor of the small, voracious schooling shark.

The scientist for the stewardship council who researched dogfish agreed with fishermen that dogfish had become something of a menace, “limiting (the) ability” of groundfish to recover to optimal stock size.

“Without certification, within years, we would have been unable to sell dogfish,” said Kristian Kristensen, owner and president of Zeus and the Cape Ann Fish Exchange, one of the leading local daily fish auctions.

Born and raised in Denmark, Kristensen said he believes concerns in Europe about the methods and sustainability of the dogfishery have already cost him about 30 percent of his business. With the certification, he said, there is now a shark whose fins can be responsibly sold to Asian markets; there, the fins are made into soups that are gastronomical and cultural essentials.

Kristensen said virtually every groundfisherman landing in Gloucester — except for the big, offshore trip boats —also lands dogfish as a supplement to diminishing catch allocations and gross revenues. He estimated dogfish represent 10-15 percent of the gross revenue for commercial fishermen in Gloucester.

About 12.6 million pounds of dogfish were landed in U.S. ports in 2010 — nearly half that in Massachusetts, and about half of that in Gloucester, according to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. Zeus is believed to be the largest volume processor in the nation, and Gloucester is the port that processes the most dogfish.

NMFS reports Massachusetts is the leading dogfish state with 45 percent of landings, followed by North Carolina and Virginia, 10 percent each; New Jersey and New Hampshire 8 percent each, Maryland and Rhode Island 5 percent each). Of the Massachusetts landings, Cape Cod, Scituate and Plymouth account for between 40-50 percent combined.

The stewardship council, one of a handful of certifying organizations that has sprung up over the past decade with public concerns about the ethical dimension of the consuming wild fish stocks, fanned by conservation groups.

Among the organizations that, along with the stewardship council, evaluate consumability are the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute.

Although U.S. fisheries are considered among the best managed in the world — assuring some minds that legally-landed domestic wild seafood is always ethical to eat — others worry that, even though the U.S. carries a fairly constant trade deficit in seafood, with the majority of imports from China.

Among the defenders of wild U.S. caught seafood is Roger Berkowitz, founder and owner of Legal Sea Foods, the chain of high volume, chef based restaurants. Berkowitz has underwritten a series of advertising campaigns that teases the strain of political correctness in the American seafood consumer.

Zeus, together with three other dogfish processors in New England organized into an association to sponsor the analysis of dogfish fishing practices and sustainability by the stewardship council.

The council, which was organized in England and has concentrated influence Europe, hired an independent reviewer to evaluate dogfish. Zeus’ partners in the trade association are Seatrade International of Portsmouth, N.H. and New Bedford, and two New Bedford based companies, Marder Trawling Inc. and Eastern Fisheries Inc.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meanwhile, has put dogfish under rigorous catch controls in recent years — to the exasperation of fishermen, especially gillnetters, who consider the dogfish a plague that lays waste to groundfish in the nets.

Recreational fishermen have come to agree with that diagnosis as haddock, flounder and cod come up with nothing but the heads, thanks to schools of the voracious dogfish.

James Sulikowski, a marine scientist at the University of New England, was retained by the stewardship council to determine the status of dogfish. He reached a conclusion similar to that of fishermen.

“The ecology and biology of the species is much different than once thought,” he said in the release. “(Dogfish are) reaching maturity faster, it’s reproducing at a faster rate, and its rebounding quicker into the ecosystem.

“We hypothesize that it’s feeding on other groundfish stocks and limiting their ability to recover,” he said. “No matter how much you reduce commercial and recreational fishing, these species, such as cod, would never recover because of the pressure that dogfish is putting on them— directly by eating those groundfish and indirectly by competing with them for resources.

Kristensen said the absence of stewardship council certification had begun to close doors to European markets. Most dogfish are exported to Europe and Asia.

One hundred percent of dogfish is utilized, the Sustainable Fisheries Association noted in a prepared statement. Back meat (representing 28 percent by weight of dogfish) is used for fish and chips in Britain. The belly flaps (5 percent) are smoked and eaten in Germany. The liver (10 percent) is used in nutraceuticals worldwide. The head (15 percent) is used as bait for lobstermen and crabbers, and the remainder of the carcass (39 percent) is used to produce organic fertilizer for agriculture, the statement indicated.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.