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Largest U.S. Shark Fishery: Coming to a School Lunch Near You?

Spiny dogfish sharks have had a complicated history when it comes to fisheries management, going from hated pest to crashed fishery to conservation concern and now one of two certified-sustainable shark fisheries ever (the other is the Pacific species of spiny dogfish).  The story didn’t end with being certified sustainable though, and recently this fishery has been in the awkward position of keeping itself sustainable while also making sure fishermen can actually sell their catch.  Dogfish quotas have been leaping up annually since the Atlantic fishery was first considered for MSC certification, much to the chagrin of conservationists who would prefer the management plan pay more attention to the life history of these small but slow-growing sharks.  However, these increased quotas, combined with weakening demand in Europe as a result of the economic downturn, have lead to a massive surplus of dogfish in the U.S. market and dramatically lowered the price fishermen receive at the fish house.  Meanwhile, seafood chefs are attempting to get consumers to try out species they’ve previously overlooked (mainly because many of their former favorites are severely depleted), with dogfish sharks among the former “trash fish.”  While this movement gains momentum, fishing industry groups and 19 Senators and House Reps from coastal fishing states are exploring a different option, one that may put spiny dogfish in your local school lunch.

The Congressional Reps and industry groups have petitioned the USDA to help unload some of that surplus dogfish with a Section 32 purchase.  A Section 32 purchase occurs when a commodity such as fish or crops reaches such a surplus that the price is driven down to the point where harvesters are literally losing money trying to sell it, so the USDA buys it.  This purchased food is then dispensed to places like charities, needy families, and public school lunches.  Basically, it’s a way to get some of that surplus food out there where it will be eaten, while freeing up some of the market for new product.

To be fair, it’s probably better than those weird rectangular pizzas. Photo by Andy Murch (elasmodiver.org).

The argument for such an action is that frankly, fishermen need to eat too.  While their former target species (things like cod, flounder, etc.) are still mired in recovery plans, spiny dogfish are comparatively abundant and can be caught without having to replace any of their old gear.  Dogfish can also be an important seasonal species: for example, in Hatteras, North Carolina this is often the only species available (and therefore the only available paycheck) during the winter.  Fishing dogfish can potentially keep fishermen going until new opportunities arrive or old opportunities come back, but this can only be accomplished if the market price for dogfish stays at a decent level.  Too many dogfish in storage at the processors and the price drops.

On the other hand, are dogfish an appropriate species for fishermen to lean on?  While there are plenty of theories that attempt to explain the sometimes uncanny local abundance of dogfish, the science on their life history is pretty much settled.  Despite their relatively small size, these sharks grow very slowly (becoming reproductively mature after 12 years), have a very long gestation period (2 years, among the longest for any vertebrate), and produce only a handful of pups (usually around 6).  Spiny dogfish are legendary for surviving being caught and released, but this is a very easy species to deplete once they start being kept.  We know this because it’s happened before: in the late ’90s a population crash of mature females lead to the closure of the fishery.  After being declared rebuilt and even sustainable, is it in the best interest of the fishery to essentially force the expansion of the market?

Like most natural resource management stories, there isn’t a clear answer.

(Tip o’ the hat to Sonja at Shark Advocates International for bringing this story to my attention via Twitter.)