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What's in a name? A boon for the lowly dogfish -- and more trouble for New England fishermen

New Hampshire fisherman Tom Lyons says he can easily catch 4,000 pounds a day of a legally harvested, sustainable, tasty fish. But he's kept his boat tied up because it would cost more to catch the fish than he could make selling it.

Americans, he says, won't buy the species that's overrunning New England waters: the Atlantic spiny dogfish.

"There are so many of them, you can't even begin to count them," Lyons said in a recent interview. "They are telling us to take what we want, but there is no market."

Once rich fishing grounds for cod and haddock, the waters off New England are now teeming with the 3- to 4-foot-long shark species. Indeed, there are so many dogfish right now that Lyons says he literally cannot catch anything else.

"The dogfish for us are everywhere. If you could find a place to fish where there are no dogs, you might be able to squeak out a living, but because they are so abundant and there's nothing to do with them, it's just crazy," Lyons said.

After nearly shutting down the dogfish fishery for several years, federal managers have increased dogfish quotas dramatically over the past five years, and the Marine Stewardship Council last year certified it as a sustainable and well-managed species. Now dogfish is one of many species fishermen used to consider "trash fish" but hope to promote for the dinner plate.

They are working to persuade everyone from individual chefs up to the secretary of Agriculture to buy some. But it hasn't been easy.

"It is a very unstable market, and because of that instability there is a lot more supply than demand," said Eric Brazer, who manages longline and gillnet fishermen on the Georges Bank, rich fishing grounds from Massachusetts to Canada. "It is very limiting."

New England fishermen may have once thrown the species overboard, but now they are eager to sell any species they can legally catch. In recent years, fishermen in the region have faced dramatic reductions in their catch for more commonly served fish. Fishery managers cut the cod allocation by 78 percent this year in an effort to help the depleted stock recover.

"Given the groundfish crisis and all they've been through in New England, the thriving dogfish population is the thing that could be keeping fishermen afloat, and one of the only opportunities for the next generation of fishermen to get their foot in the door," Brazer said.

A white fish with a firm texture, dogfish is commonly used for fish and chips and other dishes in Europe, and its fins are prized in Asia. But many of the export markets dried up earlier this summer, and some processors stopped taking the fish altogether. Others cut their prices, as more and more fishermen brought dogfish to port.

Lyons said even if he found buyers, the current price of dogfish may not offset the hundreds of dollars he would pay for fuel, labor and broken equipment from the feisty species, which is notoriously rough on gear for gillnetters like him. Most New England fishermen who can sell their dogfish get 10 cents to 13 cents per pound for the species.

"What can you buy at the supermarket for 12 cents? Nothing. It is ridiculous the price is so low," Massachusetts fisherman John Tuttle said after he spent a day hauling in 4,000 pounds of dogfish with longlines.

Tuttle got 13 cents a pound for his dogfish in New Bedford, Mass. He said he "didn't feel very good" about selling it for such a low price, but he is relying on dogfish as one of the few income sources he has left.

"It's very important, because basically right now the groundfish is in dire straits and so there's not many options out there, so we're really counting on dogfish," said Tuttle, who has been fishing out of Chatham, Mass., for 34 years. "Dogfish right now are not real profitable; they are very marginal at best. But they're a good eating fish, and we're really counting on developing markets in this country so we can have a sustainable, profitable fishery."

Recovery success

Dogfish were considered at risk 10 years ago but quickly became a success story for fisheries managers.

Fishermen brought in boatloads of dogfish in the 1990s for export to European markets. But scientists were concerned the reproductive capacity of the stock was at risk, since much of the catch came from females closer to ports. The species, like most other sharks, is slow to reproduce and has a long gestation period, 18 to 24 months.

By 1998, scientists determined the stock had fallen below the minimum level determined to be sustainable. Fishery managers put reductions on the catch, and domestic markets never developed. But by 2010, they declared the stock rebuilt.

"Dogfish are abundant and are rebuilt," said Paul Rago, who oversees the stock assessment for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It did recover quickly. There was a bit of a surprise of how much it changed in the mid-2000s, but it was consistent in terms of what we had anticipated over the longer term."

Stock assessments have continued upward, and managers have raised the quota in response. The annual catch limit for spiny dogfish in the Northeast this year is 23.6 million pounds, five times what it was six years ago. Actual catch is predicted to be far below that level.

"What we see is a robust population. ... It is a stock that I think we can sustain a reasonable harvest on for some time to come," Rago said.

Fishermen are allowed to catch up to 4,000 pounds of dogfish a day. But so far this year, fishermen are bringing in less dogfish than last year and are overall far under the quota, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Dogfish is really a rebuilding success; the problem is now the price is so low because we don't have domestic markets, so it's not really a fishery success," said Tuttle. "So we're working hard to get the fisheries going, because there is a tremendous amount of product out there, but the problem is we've lost the market."

Marketing 'trash fish'

Sharks concentrate urea in their blood and skin, so if not handled properly, dogfish can develop an unpleasant ammonia smell and flavor -- part of the bias against the fish.

But when processed properly, dogfish have a sweet, mild flavor and a firm, slightly flaky texture, according to fishermen and distributors who work with the fish. It can be breaded and fried or broiled in fillets.

With the catch reduced for more popular species, fishing groups and environmentalists have teamed up to host dinners and promotional events that try to show consumers -- from home chefs to major institutions -- that dogfish and other species are not trash at all, just lesser known and still delicious.

"We need to get more people to understand there are fish out there besides cod and haddock and flounder that are worth buying and worth giving fishermen a good price for," said Timothy Fitzgerald, who manages the sustainable seafood program for the Environmental Defense Fund. "We not only want this fishery to survive, we want to see it thrive. It is unfortunately not going to be able to do that on cod for the time being."

But New England fishermen need bigger buyers to create a market large enough for the massive amounts of dogfish they could bring in.

That is why they are turning to the government for help. In their most ambitious bid, New England lawmakers and fishing groups have asked the Agriculture Department to make bulk purchases of dogfish for use in federal food aid programs.

"If the federal government could create a place where we could sell it ... that is a thread all of us are hanging on. It would sustain us," Lyons said. "Then we could go out and make a day's pay."

A dozen fishing groups petitioned USDA in June to make a "section 32" purchase of dogfish fillets -- a program that supports the purchase of surplus food to stabilize the market. The program often sponsors the purchase of fruits, vegetables and nuts, but even salmon and catfish have been included in past years. USDA uses the products for school lunch programs and other food aid.

New England lawmakers sent a letter in June to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack supporting the request, which they said would provide a healthy, sustainable protein to food programs and "disaster relief" for fishermen. Eight senators and 11 House members signed on to the letter.

USDA is still evaluating the request, and department officials have no estimate of when they will make a decision, according to Erin Morris, a spokeswoman for USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.

'Potato of the sea'

In the meantime, New Hampshire fishermen have marketed the fish as a delicacy as part of a "community seafood" co-operative (CSF) that sells fish to weekly subscribers, much like farmers sell shares of their produce in "community supported agriculture" subscriptions. They call them "dayboat dogfish" and take special care with the fish, cutting them and bleeding them at sea to keep the fillets fresh.

"Through the CSF we are giving people a taste of what this product could be, and we've done a pretty good job of promoting it," said Josh Wiersma, who manages the New Hampshire fishing sector and developed the CSF. "We get people who are disappointed to get cod now because they really wanted dogfish. I never would have expected that."

Wiersma pays fishermen more than a dollar per pound for their dogfish, but the CSF can use 1,000 to 2,000 pounds in total for the eight-week season -- which is why fishermen like Lyons are still spending most of their days on land.

"I am the only one buying dogfish in New Hampshire, and we're selling it for $10 a pound. It's ridiculous. Why is there no other market?" said Wiersma. "It doesn't make sense to me and is one of the most tragic examples of poor marketing and promotion and noncreativity that you could ever imagine."

Keith Flett, the CEO of Open Ocean Trading, a Massachusetts-based startup that connects fishermen with large purchasers, said dogfish is a "potato of the sea" that can be served in any form, but it is hard to convince large caterers and institutions of that.

"There is some fear of dogfish, and we have some hurdles we are trying to get over with institutional buyers," said Flett, who blames it on a shark association or concern about bad, ammonia fish. "People are scared of it, but our surveys ... gave overwhelming support for dogfish."

Flett worked with fishermen, environmental groups and the University of Massachusetts's catering company on a tasting event last spring for less-popular fish species. Students gave positive reviews to the dishes, including dogfish in a marinara sauce.

The university was sold on the idea and signed a contract with local fishermen for its nine-campus school system -- going from no local fish to 100 percent local supply for its whitefish.

Its first delivery is this week and includes redfish, pollock and white hake. The school has not yet ordered dogfish, but Flett is hopeful it will be on the menu eventually.

"It is more a fear of the dogfish, that's a big piece of the puzzle. It has such a bad rep, and we're battling hearsay more than the product itself," Flett said. "People have to understand it is a very good fish, they have just never utilized it."

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