May 29, 2008

A confrontation may be brewing over spiny dogfish


State fisheries officials have asked a regional commission to reform management measures that have all but shut North Carolina  commercial fishermen out of the spiny dogfish fishery.

And if the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the body that manages dogfish and other migrating species along the East Coast, doesn’t change those measures, North Carolina could decide to buck the interstate management plan.

Up until now, North Carolina has always implemented regulations to comply with ASMFC plans.

But the state Spiny Dogfish Compliance Advisory Panel, a group of fishermen and scientists who have met since 2005 to review the ASMFC plan and its impact on North Carolina, recommended in March that state officials disregard the plan in its current form.

Under a complex allocation system that parcels out the total harvest quota on both a seasonal and a regional formula, North Carolina has dropped from second to fifth place in spiny dogfish landings on the East Coast.

“The only solution we see to these ongoing harvest inequities is for the ASMFC to establish a state-by-state quota allocation system based on historical landings, as has been done for summer flounder, black sea bass and bluefish,” wrote Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) chairman Mac Currin in a letter to the ASMFC.

A large part of the problem is that fishermen in states to the north harvest most of the East Coast quota before dogfish migrate to the waters off North Carolina.

“For the past few seasons, fishermen here just started catching fish when I’ve had to issue a proclamation closing the fishery,” explained Louis Daniel, director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries and member of the ASMFC dogfish board.

Daniel said the ASMFC has agreed to consider a state-by-state allocation system at their August meeting.

“However, I think coming up with a fair system for dividing the quota between the states will be extremely difficult,” Daniel cautioned.

In other programs that have assigned fishing privileges to individuals or to states based on past landings, deciding which years to include in the landings reference point has usually been controversial. 

Spiny dogfish landings in North Carolina have fluctuated wildly, reaching their zenith in the mid-1990s and falling to largely negligible levels in response to regulations that came into play after 2000. 

The state MFC is expected to delay further consideration of its advisory committee’s recommendation until after the August ASMFC meeting.

Should North Carolina decide to take dogfish management into its own hands, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce could approve a moratorium on the harvest of dogfish in the state if the evidence shows that the measures in the ASMFC plan are essential to dogfish conservation.

Fishermen have called dogfish the scourge of the Atlantic, complaining that the fierce predators that travel in packs devour important commercial and recreational species, auch as flounder, weakfish, and bluefish. 

Many recreational and commercial fishermen say the population is thicker than ever and would like to see regulators approve larger harvest quotas and fewer stringent restrictions for the commercial fishery.

And although government scientists agree that the species isn’t overfished, they say there aren’t enough breeding females to sustain healthy population levels.

Regulators estimate that males outnumber females 7 to 1.

But Roger Rulifson, a scientist at East Carolina University who has studied dogfish for over a decade, found a 13 to 1, female to male, ratio in the population off North Carolina.

And, research at the University of New England’s Marine Science Center calls into question the assumption that females stay in shallower waters close to shore.  A satellite tag on a female dogfish showed that it swam to depths of 2,310 feet and stayed at that depth for a week at least twice. 

Fishermen wonder whether government scientists haven’t found more female dogfish because they haven’t looked in the right places.

Rulifson, whose earlier research prompted a downward revision of the mortality rate for dogfish caught in gill nets that is used in stock assessments, will be running an acoustic tagging program to track the movement of dogfish around Cape Hatteras this winter.  He said water quality and current meters will document the “environmental cueing factors” that cause the fish to move.

A total of 38,000 spiny dogfish have been tagged and released under research projects headed up by the East Carolina University scientist.  Information about the tags and a tag return form can be found at


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