Old Dog, New Tricks: Embracing a Local Fish

By Lisa Cavanaugh • Photography by Julia Cumes

On the 35-foot fishing vessel Alicia Ann, three nautical miles off the coast of Chatham, Captain Greg Walinski peers at his electronic fish finder early on a warm August morning and smiles.

“Looks like slammers,” says Walinski, and does a quick test set with a light rod and reel.

Pleased with the results of his trial run, he proceeds to set his gear—long lines of 150 to 300 baited hooks dropped to the bottom of the sea with twin anchors at each end. A faded orange poly ball is bobbing on the surface to remind him of where he must return.

It only takes an hour and a half before the deck is full of squirming fish. After the last of the gear is pulled back aboard and the catch contained, Walinski can turn back toward land, past the often treacherous Chatham bar and right up to the fish pier. He has his daily limit of 5,000 pounds, but in this most iconic port of Cape Cod, he is not off-loading the peninsula’s namesake fish. Instead, he is delivering 2-1/2 tons of dogfish.

Spiny Dogfish, (latin name squalus acanthias) has been swimming off the shore of Cape Cod for centuries, and until very recently it was denigrated by most commercial fishermen. This small shark earned its nickname essentially by swarming like a canine pack and remained what some call “trash fish”—low-value species that take bait and ocean space away from more prized fish, such as cod and haddock.

But now the Northeast groundfish fishery has been declared a disaster as the once-plentiful cod stock has disappeared.  The small-boat fishing industry, based in Chatham, has only one choice to survive: catch what’s in the ocean and hope the public wants to eat it. But with something called dogfish, the challenge is formidable.

From the observation deck of the Chatham fish pier, visitors can watch as the day’s catch is moved from boat to the massive metal conveyor buckets that deposit it into the loading dock of the seafood dealers. Locals recognize “dogs” and tend to be uninterested, but tourists can be surprised by the fishermen’s catch. The gray 8- to 10-pound fish have the smooth white bellies and dorsal fins of sharks, and their eyes, positioned on each side of their flattened snouts, ironically resemble those of a cat.

“I’ve never heard of dogfish” a traveler from Wheeling, W.Va., admits. He and his wife and teenage daughter are enjoying their first-ever trip to Cape Cod. “We eat fish out at restaurants and like to try the local stuff.”

The current market for spiny dogfish is mostly in Europe and Asia. Trying to build a domestic market for this fish is something that would undoubtedly benefit the local small boats. A reasonable catch limit with a steady price could offer some industry security for what is traditionally an unstable business.

Market uncertainty is also a concern for another of Chatham’s fleet, John Tuttle, of the fishing vessel Cuda. He only started dogfishing only three or four years ago because of the collapse of the groundfish fishery. Without dogfish, he’d be out of work, at least on the water.

“A thriving fishery is good for everyone in a local economy. Greater demand will increase the price. But people do like nice names for the food they eat and dogfish sounds unappealing.”

“The name is something people always bring up,” agrees Claire Fitzgerald, who works in fisheries policy for the Chatham-based Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. “But hopefully people are seeing that things are changing in our waters and can recognize they should try to enjoy our local, sustainable fish no matter what it is called.”

Sustainability in fishing is key. The dogfish fishery has earned the Marine Stewardship Council’s sustainability certification, and the fact that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service has raised the per-boat daily catch limit from 4,000 to 5,000 pounds, as well as increased the overall regional quota, speaks volumes about the abundance of spiny dogfish in the Atlantic ocean. With millions of pounds available, and fishermen able and willing to catch it, the trick now is to convince people how good it is.

The fishermen’s alliance has been awarded a federal Saltonstall-Kennedy grant to help accomplish this. The funds will be used to work on a domestic market for the fish, including nutritional analysis, product development and an awareness campaign for the public. Fitzgerald feels that creating a demand in America for a local product from our own shores is a worthwhile goal and asks if it isn’t better to try Chatham-caught dogfish rather than tilapia or shrimp farmed in Asia?

Of course, how a fish tastes makes all the difference. And it helps to have a talented chef prepare it for you. Jonathan Haffmans is originally from the Netherlands and opened his restaurant Vers on Main Street in Chatham in 2013. He is thrilled to experiment with dogfish. After Walinski dropped off some fresh samples for him, he happily went to work creating delectable fish tacos (see sidebar for recipe). The texture brings to mind mahi-mahi, and the mild flavor of the fish itself is well complemented by the hot spices and the cool salsa.

“Its a beautiful fish,” says Haffmans. “White, firm, boneless, lean. It has fewer calories than salmon; it’s abundant, good for grilling, smoking … it’s so good and tasty and receptive to flavors!” he says. “I want to contribute to making this fish popular, to helping the local fishermen. We are part of a community here. We put in a big effort at Vers to create memories for our guests, and featuring this locally caught fish is part of that.”

What remains to resolve is the name. In Italy, they call it Spinarolo; in France, Saumonette; and in England, where it is used for fish and chips, Rock Salmon. Atlantic or Eastern whitefish have been suggested.  The Food and Drug Administration in their seafood list has officially approved Cape shark as an acceptable market name for spiny dogfish, and certainly Cape Cod has quickly learned how to embrace everything “shark” in the face of the yearly arrival of Great Whites offshore. But there are some to whom the thought of eating shark brings up concerns about the larger, endangered shark species. Spiny dogfish do not fall into this category in America, where their numbers are abundant and their fishing well-regulated, but perception is everything when it comes to marketing a new product.

It may end up that necessity will rule the day. The cod you order at a restaurant here is very likely imported from Iceland, and eventually, if customers truly want to be locavores and enjoy the fish from our shores, they will have to try dogfish. A little Cajun spice, some beer-batter, or a turn in the smoker, and the next thing you know, we will be calling our home Cape Dog.