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Atlantic spiny dogfish image by NOAA

If you can’t eat the fish you want, eat the abundant fish you’ve got from local fishermen

“No Fish – The Gulf of Maine’s cod stock is dangerously low, the federal government says. Fishermen dispute it.  But one thing is certain – counting is no simple matter.”  The title was a bit of a mouthful on the front page of my paper edition of the Boston Globe, November 22, 2014.   The four simple truths of this article are Gulf of Maine cod stock is at 3% of the optimum fish stock population (97% overfished), fishermen dispute the counting of cod, counting of individual ocean fish of a fish stock is very difficult, and reporting on the New England Fisheries is very difficult when fish counts, population estimates, and catch projections are mixed together.

The illustration on my newspaper showed a cod swimming left, one cod swimming right and another swimming back to the left.  Cod don’t swim like there is a Henry David Thoreau in the midst of them.  Cod congregate like church people in a sanctuary (Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary).   Cod do not school like a shoal of herring.  From a fisherman’s point of view over the transom, cod are either there and abundant or not to be found.

In 2008 when a six-inch pencil-thin fish known as sand lance was reproducing on the sands of Stellwagen Bank, cod congregated from distant parts of the gulf to feed on what I like to call “Chuck Wagon Bank.” Scientists counting cod by pulling trawls through the sea water at seven locations in the Gulf of Maine were surprised by the abundance of cod in this one trawl. They fishermen, not sand lance, the credit for an unexpected abundance of cod. (Actually the proximity to a portion of the Western Gulf of Maine Fishery Closure Area, closed to commercial cod fishing for 8 years, did create some expectations of cod increases.)   The cod catch allocation was increased. Yet, try as best they might for three years, fishermen only caught 60% of the allocated cod catch.

The next season the cod catch limit was decreased by a drastic 78%.  Fishermen cried hardship and fortunately the government responded giving out $75 million to Gulf of Maine cod fishermen.  Meanwhile, try as they might, the amount of cod caught never reached the lower catch number. There was never reason to ease the 78% reduction. This year, finally, government is also stepping up to manage recreational fishermen who run cod fishing trips for the public.  For commercial fishermen unable to fish cod to see a day boat coming in with 40 to 80 caught cod on board is not a pretty sight.

While counting fish is not an exact science, the practice of estimating a population of cod based on the empirical evidence dates back to the Pilgrims.  In 1638, nearly a generation after Plymouth Rock was found by a bunch of British expatriates, pilgrims observed a decline in the cod and striped bass population.  The first fisheries management law was passed at that distant time to prohibit the use of cod or striped bass for the fertilization of fields.  Massachusetts cod were overfished in 1638, meaning the cod population of Mass Bay went down.  Likely the cod population was negatively impacted more by changes to their habitat and food in particular what settlers were doing to the streams and estuaries around Massachusetts Bay.  More likely habitat lost than over-taking of individual cod but there are not market landed estimates for seventeenth century Massachusetts.

The answer is not to challenge the science, or to question the agreements forged by the fishery councils, each fish stock taking 3 years. The answer is  If you can’t eat the fish you want, eat the abundant fish you’ve got from local fishermen.  Eating locally also reduces one’s carbon footprint with less carbon dioxide emitted due to transporting food to you.  You can help save the planet from global warming by eating local sustainably caught seafood. (How far did that hamburger have to travel?)

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and 8 fishery councils manage 446 fish and fish stock complexes in American waters including territorial waters.  Of these 230 are commercially significant, the great majority of which are either in the process of recovery, rebuilt, sustainably managed. Since 2000, 34 depleted fish populations have been rebuilt. Since 2000, the number of fish stocks overfished (the problem of fish populations in specific ocean areas not at NOAA’s optimum population number) has decreased from 72 fish stocks to 28.  It should be only a matter of time, money and work before America has sustainable fisheries across the board (a.k.a. a reauthorized Magnuson Stevens  Fisheries Management Act with more funding for fish research.)

The overfished fish stocks are easy to recognize at the fish counter because they will command the highest prices.  Cod of the Gulf of Maine is one pricey fish stock.  Cod of Georges Bank and south of Cape Cod is another overfished stock.  Likely if you buy cod it will be from Iceland.  Iceland cod is a high quality product that keeps the market price high for locally caught cod. For fishermen catching cod is often the same work for more money as is catching haddock, pollock, and hake.  These three fish are all white fish very similar to cod.  Cod is the Starbucks of fish servings, haddock the Dunkin Donuts, and hake the Seven Eleven.

Broiled cod, you may find a difference from the others by flaking with a fork.  Deep fried for fish and chips or a fish sandwich, you’d be hard pressed to discern the difference, and by then the fries will be cold.  If more Americans ate fish, restaurants would offer a choice as they do in Great Britain.  There, fish and chips with cod costs a third more than do fish and chips with hake.  Haddock was priced about half way between cod and hake.  At push-cart vendors out on the street fish and chip costs even less because it’s made with dogfish.

Dogfish is the most abundant local fish in need of our consumption.  Dogfish fill the same ecological niche in the Gulf of Maine held by cod.  Catching dogfish might be good for restoration of cod stocks.  Today’s Cape Cod Times reports that Doug Feeney, with a hold full of dogfish, waits to be off-loaded at the Chatham Fish Pier in his 32 foot boat named for his son Noah.  More than 4 million pounds of dogfish have been harvested in Chatham this year since the start of the season in June.

“I think we need to re-categorize the ocean,” Feeney said. “Everything is edible.”

NOAA reports dogfish harvests increased nearly 10-fold between 1987 and 1996. Dogfish stock was then overfished and the population fell below the minimum level determined to be sustainable.

By 2012, the stock was rebuilt and dogfish was again fished sustainably. The Atlantic dogfish brought to market were valued at $5 million.  Greater value was gained in 2013 when 8,350 metric tons of dogfish were harvested.  More than half – 4,579 metric tons – were exported, according to data from NOAA.  According to data provided by the Food and Drug Administration, approximately 2,200 metric tons of dogfish have been exported so far this year, with a value of about $8 million.

In Chatham, where Feeney is part of a co-op of about 30 fishermen, more than 4 million pounds of dogfish have been harvested this year since the start of the season in June, said Nancy Civetta, communications director for Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.

One reason for dogfish’s popularity in the UK might be the fact that it is known there by a more appetizing name: rock salmon. And in other regions where the fish is popular, the name has been changed. In France, for example, it’s known as “saumonette,” or little salmon.

While renaming a fish can lead to positive outcomes – just look at Patagonian toothfish, which is sold under the name Chilean sea bass in the U.S. – doing so can be a big hurdle, Civetta said.

“You have to meet a bunch of different criteria with the FDA,” Civetta said.  She said the alliance is looking into the FDA approval process to see if dogfish meets its criteria.  “You can’t deceive consumers, nor does anybody want to. We’re doing our due diligence. I see no reason why dogfish couldn’t be the fish of choice on Cape Cod.  It’s local, it’s sustainable, it holds up really well frying.”

Local chef Toby Hill, who has worked with dogfish, agrees.  “It’s an awesome fish. I like it a lot,” Hill said. He recommends either beer battering and frying dogfish or using it as one would use tuna fish in a mayonnaise-based salad.

“I’ve been trying over and over to push it and market it,” said Hill. He said he sees how dogfish has become a necessity to local fishermen who have dwindling options.

“With the decline in our ground fish stocks, it put a lot of people out of business,” fisherman Feeney said. “The people who got put out of business are fishing again in small boats. It’s brought a lot of jobs back.  It’s sort of alive again down at the fish pier.”

– See more at: http://www.capecodtimes.com/article/20141123/NEWS/141129842/101015/NEWSLETTER100#sthash.bTTml3wz.dpuf

One response on “If you can’t eat the fish you want, eat the abundant fish you’ve got from local fishermen

  1. Michele Pellman

    If you keep taking, you get nothing back! Its takes time for life to recover. It takes deep sea corals thousands of years to recover from one dredge or trawl. Let’s protect ancient lives and not start taking from them.

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