East Coast fishermen are making their strongest case yet against federal protections for the fish everyone loves to hate.
Surging populations of spiny dogfish, the small pack-feeding sharks with seemingly bottomless stomachs, have prompted a group of recreational and commercial fishing interests to call on America's new chief ocean regulator to take steps to beat back the unpopular species.
In a letter to Jane Lubchenco, the recently appointed director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Fishermen Organized for Responsible Dogfish Management describe dogfish as a perfect example of how attempts to rebuild all fish species equally has caused dire consequences for the valuable fish marine economies rely on.
"We have no doubt that the billion or more pounds of spiny dogfish infesting our waters are collectively costing us hundreds of millions of dollars in lost opportunities," the FORDM letter says.
"Considering your strong advocacy for ecosystem-based management and for your high position in the scientific hierarchy in the new administration, we are seeking your support in affecting whatever legislative or administrative actions are necessary to return the spiny dogfish biomass to reasonable levels," the letter states.
Not marketed in the United States as seafood, dogfish have earned their poor reputation among fishermen for their aggressive feeding habits, which lead them to damage gear or get caught by nets and lines set to catch more valuable finned species such as cod or tuna.
More significantly, fishermen argue that dogfish eat almost any form of marine life smaller than themselves, including the beleaguered groundfish species that National Marine Fisheries Service has exerted so much effort protecting from fishermen.
While there is little demand for dogfish in the United States, the sharks are eaten in Europe — smoked or fried with chips — and are part of Chinese shark's fin soup.
Equipped with two venomous dorsal spines, dogfish are labor intensive to fish and process.
What commercial dogfish fishery does exist is focused in Massachusetts, home to two of three remaining processing facilities that take them. One of those is Zeus Packing, located at the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction on Harbor Loop. The other is in New Bedford.
Before this decade, dogfish were harvested extensively until their numbers were significantly diminished by the 1990s.
Along with more valuable species, dogfish stocks have been rebuilt under the protection of the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation Act in the past decade.
Federal research last year confirmed anecdotal observations by fishermen that dogfish numbers are climbing and the species is no longer overfished, prompting both state and federal regulators to recommend increasing the allowable catch for the species for 2009.
The quota in federal waters, which would go into effect May 1 and has not been finalized, would increase by 200 percent from the prior year.
Concerns among scientists that the number of large female dogfish were still depressed prevented even larger catch limits.
But in their letter to Lubchenco, the Fishermen Organized for Responsible Dogfish Management argue that dogfish harvests with the more permissive quotas will only reduce the dogfish infestation by a "proverbial drop in the bucket."
Citing estimates from the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, that there is as many as four times as much dogfish by weight (2 million metric tons) in northeastern waters than NMFS estimates, the letter describes an entire ecosystem out of balance with a voracious predator operating unchecked.
"The depredations of this huge biomass of spiny dogfish on other, competing species are interfering significantly with the rebuilding of those species," the FORDM letter says, "and we — the fishermen — are paying for that through lowered recreational and commercial quotas."
The characterization that regulations have been overly rigid and imprecise to deal with the complexity of the fishery follows the broader complaints by fishermen that NMFS' attempt to totally rebuild every stock simultaneously is incompatible with a living fishing industry.
The letter was written by Nils Stolpe, a columnist for National Fisherman and consultant for seafood industry groups, and Jim Donofrio of the Recreational Fishing Alliance.
Reached by phone yesterday, Stolpe said his group was not proposing one single regulatory change or solution for dogfish, but rather an acknowledgement from Lubchenco that the status quo is not healthy.
"We want them to acknowledge the problem and be responsible for doing something about it," Stolpe said.
Patrick Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org