Changes to the off-shore fishery, most obviously the disappearance of harvestable quantities of cod, forced the Cape's commercial fishermen to alter the species they target. Dogfish and skate now constitute the vast majority of the more than 14 million pounds of fish landed by Chatham's dayboat fleet at the fish pier last year.
Local culinary tastes, however, have yet to adapt. Most of the fish brought in over the caplog here is shipped off Cape, and much of it is sent overseas, where those species receive wider acceptance. Cod remains popular on these shores, and understandably so, but the vast majority available to consumers comes from Iceland and Canada.
There's a long tradition here of trying to encourage locals to try different species. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a Cape-wide program called Seafest tried to make what were then referred to as under-utilized species – or trash fish, in more common parlance – more palatable to Cape consumers. Dogfish and skate were among the species highlighted in the effort, which was backed by regional and state agencies and promoted by Congressman Gerry Studds, among others. Unable to sustain interest in these more sustainable species, the event eventually faded away.
Thirty years later, those under-utilized species are the only ones being landed in significant quantity, and more efforts are being made to create markets for them close to home. Pier To Plate is the latest, sponsored by the Cape Cod Fishermen's Alliance and funded by a Saltonstall-Kennedy grant from NOAA Fisheries Service. About 20 local restaurants will be featuring dogfish and skate on their menus this summer, and several special tasting events are being held in the area. The benefit to creating local markets for these species, the Alliance points out, includes not only supporting local fishermen working with sustainable species, but also cutting down on the energy it takes to get the fish from the boat to the market. Revenue also stays in the local economy where it benefits the entire community.
People are creatures of habit, and it's not always easy to get them to try something new. Even though cod is our geographic namesake, skate and dogfish (sometimes know as Cape shark, a not altogether inappropriate appellation) are the species available to us now, and Cape Codders have always been willing to adapt to circumstances. Check out the skate tasting at Chatham Fish and Lobster June 3 and the dogfish available at “Bowling for Dogs” at the Orleans Bowling Center June 15. Visit www.PierToPlate.org for a list of participating restaurants. And try out your own recipes for these “under-loved” species. You might just like them.