New England fishermen desperate for revenue are learning to love the ornery dogfish, and they’re hoping the government can help them persuade seafood eaters to do the same.
Industry groups have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy more dogfish fillets to increase industry earnings and build market demand for the abundant but low-value fish.
Last week, 19 New England lawmakers, including the U.S. senators from Rhode Island, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, followed the fishermen’s request with a letter saying such purchases could “bring much needed relief to an ailing industry.”
The desire to promote dogfish is a change for fishermen who have long despised the small shark, a relentless predator they say clogs nets, devours bait and drives out more valuable species, such as cod, for which New England fishermen’s landing limits this year have been cut 78 percent by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
And with those and catch limits for other groundfish species cutting New England commercial fishing opportunities to the bone, fishermen say there’s potential in the plentiful dogfish.
“When life gives you lemons, you drink lemonade, right?” said Rhode Island fisherman Chris Brown.
This year, fishermen in the coastal New England states have about 24 million pounds of dogfish quota. By comparison, their Gulf of Maine cod quota is about 3.24 million pounds, after being cut 78 percent from last year.
The new push for marketing dogfish limits comes seven months after John Bullard, NOAA’s Gloucester-based Northeast regional administrator, also raised a series of proposals to open certain waters for taking dogfish without having to use their limited groundfish fishing days.
Dogfish are not managed under NOAA’s and the New England Fishery Management Council’s Amendment 16, the catch share system for members of fishing cooperatives or sectors. Bullard’s proposals, however, are still awaiting signoff from the Department of Commerce.
“Several of the new measures were conceived by fishermen, and others are the product of collaboration between fishermen, researchers and our staff,” Bullard, based in the Gloucester office in Blackburn Industrial Park, said in a prepared statement at the time. “By working together and thinking creatively, we can find fishing opportunities even in these challenging times.”
With such a massive dogfish allotment, fishermen are looking for ways to increase demand and drive up profits and infrastructure investment along the way.
The limp market for dogfish exists largely in Europe, where it’s sold with fish and chips. Dogfish prices in New England are floating around 22 cents a pound or lower, and the price is often barely enough to cover the cost to go catch it. The fish is handled locally by the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange at Harbor Loop and its affiliated Zeus Packing Co.
Fishermen want the USDA to buy dogfish under a federal program created in 1935 that buys surplus food, relieving downward pressure on the price of that food. The food is then donated to federal programs, such as school lunch programs or initiatives to help needy families.
Fishing advocates from 12 industry groups, in their letter last month to a USDA official, touted dogfish as a low-fat source of protein and a good source of vitamins B6 and B12.
“Breaded dogfish sticks are ideal for use in domestic food assistance programs and are gaining popularity with chefs seeking a cost efficient fish fillet,” the June 20 letter reads.
The appeal of dogfish can indeed go well beyond fish stick aficionados, Brown said. It’s just going to take a lot more care after catching it.
Fishermen haven’t always had the incentive to be attentive to dogfish, when catch limits for big moneymakers such as cod were so much larger, he said.
“They were always the cheapest fish in the boat and the last one you take care of,” said Brown, who fishes out of Point Judith.
But Brown said dogfish can produce a high-quality white fillet if it’s killed, bled and iced immediately after being caught. He said he’s been doing that and getting rave reviews from customers at a farmer’s market where he sells it in Richmond, R.I.
Ben Martens, of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, a Topsham, Maine-based industry group, said dogfish is no industry savior, noting it remains unclear how to build buzz and markets for it. But he agrees dogfish done right can have much broader culinary draw.
“It could be something that can really help get the industry through a very difficult time,” he said.