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 (

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.)


  1. Jupp Kerckerinck · July 2, 2013

    I am probably too stupid; I don’t have a PhD or anything like it and I don’t understand this. First of all the headline: “Largest U.S. Shark Fishery: Coming to a School Lunch Near You?” Does anybody seriously suggest that school children should eat shark meat, considering that it is full of organic mercury, the most dangerous poison that we can put into our bodies? I find it rather irresponsible to feed it to our children. I would take my children out of any school that serves shark meat for lunch.

    Secondly, I don’t think that spiny dogfish have had a complicated history. It’s the fisheries management that had a complicated history. And it continues to do so. If the U.S. Fishery needs Congressional Reps and industry groups to “petition the USDA to help unload some of the surplus dogfish” than the fisheries are being badly managed. If there is a surplus in spiny dogfish they should stop catching them instead of having the government use taxpayers money to buy the surplus. Aren’t we talking about protecting sharks or is catching as many of them as we can get more important? If a commodity has a surplus, we need to stop producing it. That’s a simple business rule. It’s so simple that one does not need a PhD to understand it.

    • David Shiffman · July 2, 2013

      Not that I’m advocating eating shark, but the mercury levels I’ve seen reported (there may be higher levels out there) are in the “don’t eat more than a few times a month” safety range rather than the “if you eat it one time you’re in trouble” range. And they’re generally lower for small sharks like spiny dogfish than for large sharks.

  2. David Shiffman · July 2, 2013

    The most interesting thing about this to me is who signed the letter- a combination of some of the most extreme liberals and most extreme conservatives in Congress, including a few identified as ocean conservation policy leaders.

    It’s nice to know that some things can still get bipartisan support…

    • Chuck Bangley · July 2, 2013

      They all represent coastal states (or districts within coastal states) with a culturally-significant commercial fishing presence. Even very pro-conservation politicians will support fisheries if they’re something their state identifies itself with. Plus, dogfish have that MSC certification, so they look like a “green” choice.

  3. Jim Kendall · July 5, 2013

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

    By Chuck Bangley, on July 2nd, 2013

    There are several very important facts that aren’t included in your article that need to be considered. While Sonia Fordham did mention a few that they like to quote when advocating for their pet species, here are a few more to better balance the scale.

    Back when dogfish were being considered as a species for management, I was a member of the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), & as such I was involved with making that determination. During this process the Council is presented with presentations regarding the facts & relevant information regarding the species of concern, i.e., “best available science”. This is done to meet the requirement of the law that manages our fisheries, the “Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act” (Mag Act).

    During one of these presentations, several scientists from the Northeast Science Center showed us a power point presentation that explained their life cycles> As Sonia noted, this includes; slow growth, relatively late age of reproductive maturity (10-12 years old), & their long gestation period (18-24 months) with only a handful of pups being born.

    While this is somewhat accurate, what isn’t provided is some additional information that tends to temper some of these facts. While they do have a long gestation period (pregnancy), what was left unstated is that they can be in several different stages of multiple pregnancies at one time, therefore capable of giving birth every 3 or 4 months.

    This handful of “pups” is much more that what that seems to imply, as they are birthed in a fully functioning state of about several inches long, with an embryonic sac still attached. Very much different that what we usually envisioned when discussing fish hatching from a mass of fish eggs.
    As to their relative abundance, it should be noted that the “Bottom Trawl Surveys’ Resource Reports” which are provided done by the NEFSC, dogfish are the predominate species caught during those trips. Their numbers alone often total more than 1/2 of all the other 23 noted species caught combined!

    One of the reasons for their sometimes uncanny local abundance is that they are a “pack animal” like a pack of wolves or hyenas, where they hunt & ravage as huge oceanic packs! Just ask any fisherman about the night he stepped onto the deck in the dark, & saw thousands of glowing eyes looking up out of the ocean…

    As to eating dogfish, just ask our friendly neighbors to the east. Dogfish are very often the fillet of choice for the infamous “English fish & chips”.

    Jim Kendall – NBSC
    July 5, 2013

    • Chuck Bangley · July 6, 2013

      Thanks for the comment Jim, and it’s always good to have insight from the management council side. I’ve worked pretty extensively on dogfish off of North Carolina so can speak to some of the biological aspects of the species. Regarding reproductive output, they are capable of developing both eggs and pups at the same time and the eggs move down into the uterus and start developing as soon as the pups are born. This doesn’t really speed up their gestation, but does allow them to get by without a resting period between gestation periods, which is an advantage they have over other slow-growing sharks like sandbars and duskies. I have heard of dogfish being found with other stages of development, but haven’t seen or heard of any evidence of them being able to give birth every 3-4 months.

      There are a lot of different theories about why the “overfished” designation may or may not have been warranted. These include previously-undocumented masses of dogfish moving offshore for several years and just now coming back in, and NMFS trawl surveys missing a lot of the juveniles (which tend to be up in the water column where bottom trawls can’t adequately sample them).

      As of right now the best available knowledge says that there was a decline in mature females in the ’90s and that the species is best managed conservatively. The original reason a market exists at all is because the Europeans found out just how easy it was to crash their own dogfish stocks. I’m all for growing markets for underutilized species and a dogfish fishery certainly has its place, but I question whether these sharks are a good choice to take on the role of “the new cod.”

  4. MakoMike · July 6, 2013

    IMHO the “science” behind spiny dogfish is very suspect. If the biology/life history is correct then there is no way the population could have recovered from their overfished status in the amount of time it took. Either the determination that they were overfished was wrong or the description of the life cycle is wrong.

    Either way, as Jim says, there is no shortage of them now, and several people including scientists from the NEFSC think they are hampering the recovery of other species, such as cod and yellowtail flounder.

  5. Jim Kendall - NBSC · July 6, 2013

    Hi Chuck, & thanks for your reply. I don’t have the science background, but as I mentioned I was on the NEFMC when the plan was developed & put into place. The science was very suspect, & the rhetoric was very thick.

    When I asked about the multiple ongoing pregnancies that actually was in a PowerPoint presentation to the Council during one of the management plan deliberations, I couldn’t get a direct answer. Apparently they wanted the discussion to stick to the long gestation periods to make it seem as if they only gave birth every 18 or 24 months. The fact of the multiple birthing patterns didn’t seem to matter, & would only confuse us regular people. Nor did the fact that when they are born, they are ready to go; as fully functioning, miniature versions of their parents, no larval stage, just adolescence with all the benefits .

    When I wrote that they could give birth every 3 or 4 months, it was in reference to being in several pregnancy stages at one time. I didn’t & still don’t know if those various stages are equally spaced, or just a week or month or two apart, etc. The major issue is that they are apparently capable of giving birth to a lot more than 5 or 6 pups every 2 years!

    Since then, one fact that has come to the surface, is the reason they only found small males & not many females in their surveys (a key issue in their designation of the collapsing stock). It wasn’t that there were no females, but that they seem to segregate into male & female groups. With many of the females being much further out to sea for long periods, & not being surveyed!

    Another key to the designation, was the full court press put on by several of the environmental industry groups, with Sonia Fordham at the helm. Dogfish aren’t the only species to be driven into near extinction by the environmental industry. Just to name a few of key species to look at & consider; barndoor skate, Atlantic sturgeon, & the ubiquitous menhaden & herring. Oh yea, let us not forget the Northern Spotted Owl.

    While I certainly understand that some of these species & many others should be of concern to everyone, crying wolf every time you want to try & find a new fund raising poster child will sooner or later diminish the truly needed responses.

    MakoMike above, sums it up very nicely. Apparently you can drive a species into an overfishing designation if you push the right buttons often enough, & hard enough. It should take more than just rising to the top of some environmentalist’s chart, & becoming their poster child of their monthly endangered or threatened species lists, before the NMFS accedes to their demands.

    Jim Kendall – NBSC
    July 6, 2013

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