Sharks Could Be the Future of the Seafood Industry

Earlier this month, a great white shark named Julia arrived in Massachusetts. While she's likely the first one to hit the Cape this year, the species' has surging numbers that beg the question of overpopulation. Great whites are still out of bounds for...

Jun 25 2014, 2:35pm

Photo by rumpleteaser via Flickr

Over the weekend, footage surfaced of a peckish great white shark's close encounter with some friends on a small fishing boat off the coast of Cape May, New Jersey. The video is chilling in an almost Freudian way, dredging up the real life filmic monster that left generations of moviegoers scared shitless at the prospect of swimming in the pool let alone the fucking ocean.

But for some, this rare encounter didn't come as a surprise. Earlier this month, reports trickled in with news that Julia, a great white shark fitted with an acoustic tag, had arrived on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Detected first on June 13th, off of Chatham, Julia is likely the first great white to the cape this year. It's also likely that she won't be the last.

In a comforting report published this month in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded that great white numbers are surging in the oceans the Eastern US and Canada after decades of decline. This is thanks to conservation efforts, like a 1997 federal act banning the hunting of them. If frolicking with a few more great whites than usual makes you squeamish, you'll be happy to hear that they aren't the only species of shark that are plentiful in the chilly waters of the Atlantic these days, either.

But surging numbers beg the question of overpopulation, and, as humans, it is our duty, of course, to regulate ecosystems as we see fit. Sometimes, this means asserting our position in the food chain. Don't grab your harpoon yet, though; great whites are still out of bounds. But all along the northeastern coast and scattered throughout the country, there is a burgeoning movement promoting the domestic consumption of certain shark species, and it's growing in popularity.

Excluding the beleaguered and reviled shark fin industry, the spiny dogfish is generally the most popular shark meat out there. It's smaller, ranging from three-to-five feet long, and is nowhere near as menacing as its belligerent great white uncle.

While there are recreational and commercial fisheries that bring in different types of sharks across the US, spiny dogfish is by far the most fished. "Out here, the spiny dogfish fishery is the biggest shark fishery in the country," says Sonja Fordham, president of the DC-based Shark Advocates International. "With quotas going up to 50 million pounds [per year], that's a lot more than any other shark," she says. Dogfish populations are even healthy enough to be declared sustainable.

But while the US market is still in its shark meat infancy (you pansy), the market across the pond is well established. "People are fishing for it, but unfortunately the US market is not strong," said Maggie Mooney-Seus, Communications Officer at the NOAA. "Most of it gets shipped to Europe."

In fact, the Europeans fiend for dogfish so much, they depleted their native populations years ago. In the UK, it's known as "rock salmon," and is used widely for fish and chips. Germans call it "sea eel," while the French gobble it up as saumonette, or little salmon. These markets were a crucial sector for shark fisherman in the US. But in the recent year, shipments have been turned away after the European Union issued safety concerns with the meat.

But those are known concerns, according industry folks familiar with preparing larger fish. "The larger predators in the sea have a tendency to pack pretty high amounts of mercury and PCBs in certain parts of their meat," according to Even Mallett, chef and owner of the Portsmouth restaurant Black Trumpet, where he routinely prepares dogfish. Those contaminants are "not necessarily in all of their meat or in some of the choicest cuts," either, he added.

Whatever the reason for the sudden EU stonewalling, it pushed US fisherman to look back to their stodgy domestic market to sell the shark. But their quandary there was multifaceted. Not only were they abandoned by their usual market, but catch limits on more traditionally popular fish there like cod have been tightened in recent years as populations dwindle from overfishing. It also doesn't help that dogfish both compete for food and prey on cod.

Efforts since then to popularize the less-than-desirable dogfish have ranged from grassroots to suit-and-tie. About a year ago, Congress members from the Northeast penned a request to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy up spiny dogfish under the Section 32 program, which scoops up surplus foods and turns it around for federal programs like school lunches and prison meals.

While a Section 32 bailout hasn't necessarily caught on yet, partly because of mercury concerns with everyday consumption, other groups continue to advocate eating dogfish in moderation.

"The flavor of really fresh dogfish that's been properly butchered and packaged is tremendously delicious," explained Mallett. One of many chefs throughout the country, Mallett has been involved in preparing "trash fish" dinners through organizations like the Chefs Collaborative to prop up local, under-utilized fish species—one of which is the spiny dogfish.

"The purpose of these dinners is to put a spotlight on undervalued species, fish that we should be enjoying and paying more for," said Melissa Kogut, executive director of Chefs Collaborative. "The reason being is that we want to support local fishing businesses so that they can continue doing what they do sustainably," she continued.

"Dogfish have caught our interest because they're plentiful here in the Atlantic, [and] fishermen will tell you that it's just about all they're catching these days. So we've been putting it on the menu and seeing what chefs can do, and it's definitely something we're talking about and trying to learn more about," said Kogut in a phone interview.

Some conservation groups are concerned with fishing for sharks in general due to their late gestation periods—some females are pregnant for two years before giving birth—along with unsustainable fishing methods used to catch them. But the problem is more nuanced than that, says Fordham. "As a lot of NGOs get into shark conservation, there are a lot of blanket statements about not eating shark," said Fordham.

Shark species are increasingly protected internationally from population depletion, but smaller sharks like the dogfish are often exempted from regulations, and that's the danger according to Fordham. "I'm not for stopping the fishing or the trade, but at the same time there's not a lot of people that care. I want more public discussion and consideration that these are true sharks, so we should have [fairer] policies when we're talking about sustainability," she concluded.

Unlike in Europe, the US market will no doubt take some time to develop. But with open-minded chefs like Mallett and programs involving trash fish, it seems to be on its way. Tasty new dishes and well-paid fishermen are mutually beneficial, too. But if you're still unsure about eating what cultural consciousness dubs "eaters," take comfort in the fact that you likely had it on your last trip to London. And after all, at least "fish" is still, technically fish. Imitation calamari? That's a different story.