I tried to eat a shark last week and couldn’t find one. Recent estimates suggest that as many as 100 million sharks are killed by man each year whereas fewer than 20 people are killed by sharks. That means that I had about a 5,000,000:1 chance of being the eater, not the eaten, but I still struck out.
My plan was to kick off Shark Week by feasting on Squalus acanthias, aka Spiny Dogfish, and reporting my impressions. A local chef achieved minor celebrity status last year by feeding one of the omnivorous TV cooking show hosts the “best dogfish” he’d ever eaten. While this particular diner’s habits must be approached with caution– he pretends to like beetles and calf brains, for example–I thought this would be a fish I could try in good conscience.
Spiny dogfish are one of the few fish populations in good biological condition that New England fishermen can still catch, having recovered from a crash back in the early 1990’s. Once a fish despised because of the havoc it caused with fishing gear and its voracious predation on more valuable commercial fish, many fishermen who can no longer find cod or other prime species are turning to dogfish out of financial desperation. Eating shark for one meal seemed the least I could do to stimulate market demand.
Spiny dogfish has cycled through fish markets several times in the past. Stuck with a name that reminds many consumers uncomfortably of their cherished canine at home, dogfish mechandisers have resorted to various aliases over time, from “rock salmon” to “mud shark” to “Japanese halibut” (seriously!). The most recent New England marketing label is “Cape shark,” a reference to the swarming abundance of these sharks off Cape Cod.
While most sharks are decidedly more valuable left in the oceans, I was willing to make an exception for dogfish, at least in the short run. They, together with their cousins, the skates, have moved into the vacuum created by overfishing of cod and a number of types of flounder. More than “moved in” to that niche, they seem to have almost overrun it. Without some focused removals of dogfish and skates, some scientists think it might be difficult, if not impossible, for a number of groundfish species to recover.
In any event, dogfish are abundant, the dogfish fishery in New England has been blessed by an eco-labeler as sustainably caught, and all that is missing are markets. Most dogfish are destined to the whims of the European fish markets to become the “fish” of “fish n’ chips”, but that market is unreliable and prices to the fishermen barely cover costs.
In fact, fishermen in New England recently asked to have the U.S.D.A. purchase dogfish for the nation’s school, prison, and institutional menus: a surefire way to build demand and markets. But I was interested in eating it in a restaurant, not a school cafeteria. Rather than low grade the markets for this fish, if it was indeed tasty, why shouldn’t it occupy a place of honor for New England diners?
Alas, there was no finding a single place that served dogfish. I dropped in on my local chef and he was serving a fabulous skate wing recipe but no dogfish. He couldn’t get any for me, but whenever he did get it, he said, it always sold out each night and early. I called one of the New England Fishery Management Council members, who works for the redoubtable Foley’s Fish in New Bedford and she told me, “No, we don’t buy it or sell it.” The Cape Cod fishermen told me that they were told not to land any dogfish.
So despite the 5,000,000:1 odds of me being the one who ate shark, there was no shark on the table for me for Shark Week.
Maybe it is just as well. There are all sorts of challenges to having a truly sustainable dogfish fishery, including the fact that New England fishermen are not known for producing sustainable fisheries. Moreover, dogfish reproduce very slowly, and the targeted animals for fishermen in the past have been the females, which are larger. (Not a very good long-term strategy, catching just the females.) In addition to management challenges, the fish have to be handled well from the moment they are caught or they taste bad – like uric acid (urine to the lay people). One bad plate served to the public would sour people on dogfish for a long time to come.
So dogfish is safe from me, at least for the moment. I have a standing order from the street for the chef to call me as soon as he gets a supply and I am looking forward to it. If there is any left on my plate, which is unlikely, I can’t wait to ask for my “doggie bag.”