Research expedition: what ever happened to the world’s first certified sustainable shark fishery?

My Postdoctoral research has focused on understanding the causes and consequences of public misunderstanding about shark fisheries management. While scientists overwhelmingly support sustainable fisheries management as a solution to shark overfishing, many concerned citizens and conservation activists prefer total bans on all shark fishing and trade. Some go so far as to (wrongly) claim that sustainable shark fisheries cannot exist even in theory and do not exist in practice anywhere in the world, and that bans are the only possible solution.

There’s an important piece of data that very rarely makes it into these discussions. Amidst the ongoing discussions about whether or not sustainable shark fisheries are even possible, one right in my backyard became the first shark fishery anywhere in the world to be certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

However, a few years after BC’s spiny dogfish fishery got certified, the certification was quietly withdrawn. I couldn’t find any information in the MSC reports, or in associated scientific literature or government reports, that explained what happened to this fishery, which was thriving until recently. No scientists, managers, or conservation advocates who I asked about this knew exactly what happened to BC’s spiny dogfish fishery.

Sometimes fisheries collapse because fishermen kill too many fish, but that didn’t happen here. We know that dogfish populations in coastal BC remain very, very high- more than high enough to support a fishery.

Sometimes fisheries cease operations because it becomes too hard to catch fish of that species, but that didn’t happen here. We know that BC fishermen continue to catch large numbers of dogfish (as bycatch in the groundfish, halibut, and sablefish fisheries). However, these fishermen used to land their dogfish, and now they just throw them back.

Sometimes fisheries shut down because market conditions shift, and it’s no longer profitable to catch that type of fish, but that didn’t happen here. We know that other dogfish fisheries around the world are thriving, and that market conditions have rarely been better for selling dogfish.

So if there are plenty of dogfish in the sea, it’s easy for fishermen to catch them, and people continue to want to buy and eat dogfish, what happened to the world’s first certified sustainable shark fishery? Starting next week, we’re going on a research expedition to try and find out!

Introducing Operation Dogfish 3, a research expedition to help answer this important question!

Past “operation dogfish” events have included WWII guerilla fighting in Greece and a campaign to help striking BC maritime industry workers. Our expedition, Operation Dogfish 3, will focus on determining what happened to BC’s dogfish fishery.

To do that, my research team and I will be spending a week driving around coastal BC visiting fishing communities. We’ll speak to fishermen who used to fish for dogfish, seafood market dealers and processors who used to buy, process, and sell dogfish, government officials who used to manage the fishery, and local scientists and environmental advocates. (Note: we will not be meeting with any First Nations communities due to research permit issues, but it should be noted that Indigenous communities have been fishing for dogfish in these waters for thousands of years)

Original expedition logo for Operation Dogfish 3 by Ethan Kocak

We’ll be sharing our adventure with you on social media! Follow #DogfishEh (get it? because we’re in Canada?) on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram!

And if you live in Vancouver, visiting scientists Chuck and Catherine will be giving seminars at SFU and then hosting a meet and greet!

Meet the team

Chief scientist: Dr. David Shiffman, Liber Ero Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Conservation Biology, Simon Fraser University (yours truly). This will be my first time ever being chief scientist on a multi-day research expedition, and I can’t wait to talk about sharks and visit some beautiful places with some of my favorite humans! Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram!

Me with a Pacific Spiny Dogfish at the Seattle Aquarium

Research scientist: Dr. Charles Bangley, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. SFS readers know Chuck for his blogs and research focusing on dogfish on the east coast of the US. Follow him on Twitter!

Research scientist: Dr. Catherine Macdonald, Director, Field School, and lecturer, University of Miami. Catherine is an interdisciplinary marine conservation biologist with expertise in assessing fishermen’s knowledge and attitudes. Follow her on twitter and Instagram

Advisory scientist: Dr. Scott Wallace, senior research scientist, David Suzuki Foundation. Scott is an expert on BC fisheries management, and literally wrote the book on BC’s basking sharks.

Advisory scientist: Dr. Nick Dulvy, Professor at Simon Fraser University, co-chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group. Nick is an expert in shark fisheries management and international trade.

(Sorry Nick I can’t resist using this amazing picture whenever I get the chance)


  1. Bob Hueter · April 3, 2019

    My money is on just that — that for some reason the fishery became no longer economically viable. Interested to see what you guys find!

  2. Ian Campbell · April 8, 2019

    I believe the fishery self-suspended its certification, and at a guess it would be on economic grounds. You should contact Michael (or it might be Mark?) Renwick who was (still is?) the head of the BC dogfish hook & line association.

    I wouldn’t know why a fishery self-suspends, but I used to manage the first ever MSC certified fishery (Thames draft net caught herring in the UK), and we ended up self-suspending and eventually withdrawing the certification due to the associated Chain of Custody and assessment costs for certification.

    MSC is, or at least was, geared up for large-scale fisheries as a certification doesn’t guarentee a proce premium nor access to a market, especially if the environmental lobby deem all shark as inherently unsustainable.

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