Chatham Dogfish Goes To College

By: Rob Conery

Topics: Commercial fishing and shellfishing

Dogfish being iced at the Chatham fish pier. Several universities now feature the fish on their dining hall menus. FILE PHOTO

Dogs are going to college and it's not a case of affirmative action run amok. The Cape Cod Commercial Fisherman's Alliance is spearheading a new program to get dogfish into university dining halls.

A new “from boat to campus” version of a fish-to-table program is putting the fish on the tables of some of America's leading universities including Yale, UMass, and Ohio State.

UMass has already ordered thousands of pounds for this academic year, and Yale plans to feature spiny dogs for their next Thanksgiving feast.

Christopher Howland is director of purchasing for UMass. He says, “Supporting local and regional farmers and fishing communities is extremely important to our team at UMass Dining. We're very excited to be able to feature local and sustainable dogfish on the menu. Our talented chefs have been able to develop creative recipes that our students love.”

And seemingly, they do love them.

A recent PBS NewsHour documentary tracked spiny dogs from waters off Chatham to boat to the processors in New Bedford to dining halls in Amherst. There, they spoke to chef Bob Bankert, who said, “Being in western Massachusetts, we love to support the Massachusetts fisheries.”

In the video, Bankert is shown rubbing the dog fillets in a spicy dry rub mixture and then grilling the portions for fish tacos, served up hot. Another food station was offering a dogfish Asian flash fry with wasabi mayo.

Students are seen sampling the goods, which they describe to the camera as “new, local, and fresh. And healthy.”

The program is still new. UMass bought 2,000 pounds of the spiny dogs (aka dogfish, aka Cape shark). Which sounds great, but this at a university where they serve over 50,000 meals a day. It's also less than a single fisherman can take in a single day (daily limit is 6,000 pounds, and they often hit it or come close). But it's a great start.

Institutional buyers like schools, hospitals, prisons and the military are the kinds of macro movements that can move the needle with their massive buying power. That hasn't happened yet, but it is starting to change and programs like this can only help.

Stubborn lack of demand on the domestic market is the primary obstacle separating a seafood-loving public and a locally caught, abundant, sustainable fishery, right off our beaches. Dogfishermen work their tails off for pennies – domestic prices hover around 25 cents a pound.

Programs like this that introduce younger people to Cape shark are one key to opening markets.

Selling them to the Chinese is another one that is being explored.


Herring Buffer Zone

Last fall they showed up. Massive factory ships, some 170 feet long and working in tandem, dragging nets that scoop up herring by the metric ton, right off our beaches.

What can be done to prevent this? Doug Feeney, newly named to the Atlantic Herring Committee, a subcommittee of the New England Fishery Management Council, favors a buffer zone.

With a buffer zone we could keep these big factory ships further offshore – proposals include anywhere from six to 50 miles (the current limit is three miles for state waters).

These big metal ships are coming here from New Bedford, Gloucester and beyond, scooping up millions of herring and then leaving. This has a terrible effect on local fisheries, where herring and menhaden play a crucial connector role in the diets of fish like striped bass, tuna, bluefish and sharks.

The meeting, held last week in Plymouth, was the first to address the issue.

Speaking against any regulatory changes were commercial lobster groups, who use herring for bait, and fear catch restrictions would driver up the price of their primary bait. Feeney counters that most of the herring caught by these companies is exported. “Hey, I buy herring too,” said Feeney, who uses it for bait to catch dogfish. “But why do they have to come in here and ruin [several overlapping] fisheries just so they can send it to Canada?”



Striped Bass Black Market

At the first of four public meetings, this one held on Wednesday, Feb. 8, at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Division of Marine Fisheries Deputy Director Dan McKiernan said the state agency is seeking to close a loophole in commercial striped bass regulations.

They hope to reduce bass caught by commercial permit holders from shore from 15 fish to two.

The problem? Cheaters.

Commercial permit holders are allowed to catch 15 fish per day on the commercial days – currently two days a week. But there is a loophole that allows holders of boat permits (as opposed to the less expensive individual permit) to fish from shore, too. The idea was that during rough weather, when commercial bass guys, many of whom fish from relatively small boats like center consoles and might be unable to put to sea, could still fish and maybe make a few dollars even when the weather was bad, by catching fish from shore.

In practice, however, it merely created a black market.

In cases of cheating that some called obvious and widespread, recreational guys would sell their catch – illegally – to holders of boat permits, who could then represent that they had landed the fish.

This was only the first of four meeting, and the DMF has not made a final ruling on 2017 striped bass regulations yet.


Voices From The Wheelhouse

Another new program is “Voices from the Wheelhouse.” Airing on WOMR 92.1 and WFMR 91.3, the half-hour show features a local fisherman telling salty stories about their time in our various commercial fisheries.

The program debuted on Jan. 29 and will be broadcast monthly.

Future shows, which air at noon on Sundays, are scheduled for Feb. 19 with Beau Gribbin of Provincetown; March 19 with Tom Smith or Orleans, who catches blues in an unusual way, April 16 with Jared Bennett of Chatham.

Shows are hosted by Seth Rolbein, an independent radio producer and documentary filmmaker for NPR television, as well as director of the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust.

Says Rolbein, “Our fishermen contribute much more than great fresh seafood in our markets and restaurants, they develop sustainable fishing practices, work to protect our oceans, and provide Cape Cod seafood to hungry families in need. Their stories, their voices, their lives, connect us to both a historic past and a healthy future.”