February 25, 2008

North Carolina is getting the short end of the stick in dogfish fishery


This winter fish house owner Tilman Gray bought spiny dogfish for just four days before the 6 million pound Atlantic Coast quota was filled and the fishery closed.

“Four days doesn’t sound like a lot, but even that made a difference for fishermen looking for something to do,” Gray said from his office at Avon Seafood in Hatteras.

Gray found a limited market in January with one of the three remaining dogfish processing facilities in the United States.

At one time there was a processing plant in Gloucester, Va., that handled dogfish from the Outer Banks, but profitability for that facility, like other cutting houses, was rooted in moving large volumes of the inexpensive fish.

The plants export the cut product to Europe, where the backs are called rock salmon or grey fish and are used in traditional means, such as fish and chips.

When regulators cut the harvest of dogfish to a pittance in 2001, most U.S. processors closed, and the three surviving plants turned to dogfish from Canada to fill the huge gap in supply.

Modest increases in harvest limits have come with improving health of the stock, but recovery of the domestic infrastructure is uncertain.

Gray’s market in January was with Sea Trader, a New Bedford, Mass., processor, and he arranged to take some dogfish brought in to several other fish houses in addition to his own.

At one fish house, Jeffrey’s Seafood in Hatteras, fishermen drew straws to determine which boats would fish for the sharks.

But just days later the fishery closed.

For the past few years, ocean temperatures have stayed warmer than usual well into the winter, and dogfish have been slow to migrate to the waters off North Carolina.

By the time the fish migrate south, the market is pretty well sewn up by fish dealers in other states, and the regional harvest limit that applies to states from New York to North Carolina is close to being filled.

“The way the fishery is managed now, it disenfranchises North Carolina from participating in the dogfish fishery,” said Bradley Styron, owner of a Cedar Island fish house.

Styron bought dogfish three days this winter, and the 16-hour run from Cedar Island to New Bedford took a heavy toll on profits.

Styron and Gray and many fishermen would like to see the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) replace the regional quota with state-by-state quotas based on historical landings.

“If North Carolina had a hard quota, maybe it would be enough to encourage a processor to invest in the infrastructure to process dogfish in this state,” said Styron who serves on the state Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC).

The idea has the support of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF).

“I’m on record supporting state-by-state quotas for dogfish,” Louis Daniel, DMF director, said.

Daniel said that North Carolina stood behind Massachusetts in dogfish landings right before the ASMFC dogfish management plan went into effect.

“Massachusetts has maintained their fishery, but North Carolina is no longer second or even third in landings now,” he explained.

 He said the ASMFC plans to discuss how the regional quota management system has affected state landings when it meets in April.  

Styron said the MFC has asked its finfish advisory committee to take up dogfish management at that group’s next meeting and make recommendations to the MFC.


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