Supporters Hope That Dogfish By Another Name Sells Better, And Benefits Consumers

By: Doreen Leggett

Topics: Commercial fishing and shellfishing

The Fishermen’s Alliance is working with fishermen, and the public, to change the name of dogfish. DAVID HILLS/FISHY PICTURES FILE PHOTO

Longtime fisherman John Our knows some people who love calamari, but won’t eat squid. Doesn’t matter that they are same thing; calamari just sounds better.

“Dogfish” seems to provoke a similar visceral reaction; people turn their noses up at the name.

“I’ve always thought that if you changed the name you would make it more attractive,” Our said. “It would only help.”

Our’s feeling is backed by research. Fishermen, processors and others have spent years trying to turn local palates on to dogfish. Not that it’s all about the name; there are a host of other problems with making the abundant fish a popular choice, including the lack of nearby processing facilities, but inroads have been made.

The popular “Pier to Plate” program launched by the Fishermen’s Alliance in 2017 introduced more diners to dogfish (and skate) by working with restaurants to promote it. Supporters hoped to increase the domestic demand for dogfish, as now 99 percent of this plentiful white fish is being shipped to Europe and Asia. In England it takes the starring role in many pubs as fish n’ chips -- called “rock salmon” there, which might help prove the point.

Pier to Plate supported more than 40 food establishments; 4,000 pounds of dogfish were distributed at no cost to the restaurants, and many chefs experimented with different ways to prepare dogfish. Customers benefited from finally being able to know where to go to try local fish and restaurants were able to serve it risk free.

“It was difficult to get people to try dogfish because of the name, but after they tried it they really liked it,” said Ellie Leaning, project coordinator at the Fishermen’s Alliance.

“Americans might just be too connected to their pet dogs to overcome the idea of eating a dogfish,” mused Melissa Sanderson, chief operating officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance, who has been immersed in fisheries issues for more than 15 years.

“We hear complaints all the time…They see the name dogfish listed and they say, ‘Oof. That’s a terrible name.’ It’s an instant turn off,” agreed Leaning. “A new name would be one of the puzzle pieces, part of a larger strategy.”

So the Fishermen’s Alliance, partnering with others in the industry, including fish processor Marder Trawling, Inc. in New Bedford, is hoping to build off the success of Pier to Plate with the launch this fall of another program supported by a federal Saltonstall-Kennedy grant, this time for $40,000, to investigate whether and how a new name can be created for dogfish.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will only consider issues of mislabeling, misbranding, safety concerns or “adulteration” – adding another substance to the food item to increase its quantity. So the argument for renaming dogfish must address one of these four concerns.

Improving the economic viability of the fishing industry, and making an underutilized source of affordable protein more available to the public, are both important goals, said Leaning, and will be part of the application of the Fishermen’s Alliance. But, she added, the agency is mainly concerned with making sure the public knows what it is buying and receives what it expects.

It turns out dogfish has promise in meeting the FDA’s requirements, which have tightened since the days when “Patagonia toothfish” was turned into “Chilean sea bass” (and suddenly sales of the flaky fish skyrocketed). The FDA wants to ensure that consumers are not being fooled, a concern already of major importance in the fishing industry; the advocacy group Oceana has alleged that an average of one in five fish was mislabeled during the process of getting from dock to dish.

Spiny dogfish actually belong to the shark family, are very abundant locally and fished sustainably according to all current reports. And so the FDA has already allowed two alternative names: Cape shark and dogfish shark.

But those monikers have consumer resistance problems of its own.

“Americans have rightfully developed a stigma associated with eating any species of shark as a result of successful efforts to reduce consumer demand for other, less abundant, much larger sharks that are protected in the United States,” said Sanderson. “The word ‘shark’ on the box confuses wholesalers and consumers. To add further confusion, domestic Atlantic spiny dogfish are sustainably managed, but the FDA lumps 10 different species of shark under the market name ‘dogfish,’ including catshark and some species of dogfish that are not as sustainably managed or are solely bycatch fisheries.”

So changing the name requires a stringent process including research, paperwork, political and public support. On the public side, the Fishermen’s Alliance is asking people to weigh in on possible names on social media and at educational events that will unfold throughout the fall and winter.

Success isn’t assured, but the attempt is well worth the effort.

More than 90 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported, while hard-working American fishermen harvest delicious, healthy, wild-caught, sustainably-managed seafood destined for export at low prices. There is plenty of local fish, like dogfish, to be eaten if we can develop the domestic market demand for more landings, and work through supply-chain issues, said Leaning.

“We are trying to promote the industry,” said Our. “The potential is there.”

Doreen Leggett is the community journalist for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. Her work appears monthly. She can be contacted at doreen@capecodfishermen.org.