Commercial fishing in the U.S. generates billions of dollars a year in revenue. Massachusetts has long been a top producer, thanks to one fish in particular -- think Cape Cod.
There’s a five-foot-long wooden “Sacred Cod” that’s hung in the Massachusetts State House since the early 1700s. Back then, the saying went that cod were so abundant, you could almost walk across the ocean on their backs.
Today they’re so scarce that the legal limit fishermen can catch was just cut by almost 80 percent to let the species recover.
“When I started fishing 11 years ago, there’d be six boats here lined up right now to unload their limit of codfish,” says Nick Muto, head of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. “We caught two, and we went 100 miles to go get them.”
As Muto helps offload a day’s catch at the town fish pier in Chatham, he holds up a three-foot shark that he says could eventually help fill the void of cod. The “Spiny Dogfish” is so prolific that fisheries managers just raised catch limits to cull the population.
“We use hook and line for them, and they’re every hook for 600 straight hooks, they’re that abundant,” Muto says. But it's hard to make a living catching just dogfish.
Fishermen get about $0.15 per pound for them at the dock, compared to $3.00 for a pound of cod. The issue is consumer awareness, or a lack thereof.
“People aren’t used to it,” says Andy Baler, a wholesale fish dealer in Chatham, who also runs a tiny fish market and fry kitchen on the town pier. “Big problem is the word 'dogfish,'” he adds.
Besides the awkward name, Baler says dogfish doesn’t really look like fish until you cook it. The top markets are France and England, where it’s battered and fried for fish and chips.
“You get an English guy in here, he’s like, ‘Oh yeah great!’ Americans? Forget it,” Baler explains. “But it’s all about marketing, make a nice product out of it and once some people get a taste of something they learn to enjoy it.”
But, he points out, most fishermen don’t have extra money for marketing, so Baler’s and other local businesses are stepping up to help.
At Mac’s Seafood restaurants on the outer Cape, co-owner and fish dealer Alex Hay is putting dogfish on the menu at all three of his locations this summer.
“The restaurant always sort of breaks the ice, so to speak,” says Hay. “Get people used to it there, and then maybe when they go into the retail counter they’ll say, ‘Oh, I had that in the restaurant, it was quite good, so maybe I can try that at home.’”
Hay says it takes time to grow the market for new types of fish. (Remember Tilapia?) Fishermen are also trying to introduce dogfish to large-scale buyers like prison systems and universities to increase demand.
They don’t see the dogfish replacing the sacred cod up at the State House, though, at least not anytime soon.