July 18, 2008
Call off the dogs
By KIRK MOORE
There's an old photograph that Mike Karch likes so much, he had it made into a poster. It shows a younger and shaggier Karch ? circa 1994, with the sun setting after a long day at sea ? and his boat low in the water, loaded to the gunwales with dogfish.
"It was pretty good," Karch said of the 1990s directed commercial fishery for small sharks. "If we could do it now, I think it would be even better."
New Jersey commercial fishermen would like to partly re-open fishing for spiny dogfish, a plan that has support from the state Department of Environmental Protection, and encouragement from the recreational sector that has come to see the voracious dogfish as a plague. But captains won't be bringing the dogs in until federal and state fisheries managers resolve questions over the size of the East Coast dogfish stock.
"Disgusting. It's such a nuisance. Some days you get overrun by spiny dogfish," Lenny Elich, a captain on the party boat Miss Barnegat Light, said. "There can be 30 or 40 of those things coming up at a time. The mates are running around trying to help customers. People get stuck by their spines, hurt by them."
This spring it started when Elich was taking customers for black sea bass, with a water temperature around 54 degrees, and a pack of dogfish forming a barrier to any baited hook, he said. Typically, the onslaught continues until water temperatures get up around 64 degrees, "when they'll ease off," Elich said. But he and other fishermen said it's not unusual now for dogfish to persist into mid-July.
"The new data shows they are much more active than we thought," said James Sulikowski, an assistant professor at the University of New England whose satellite tagging study of three dogfish has created a buzz in the East Coast fishing community. Preliminary results from the first two tags that stayed with animals for three months suggest dogfish move all through the water column ? sounding to depths of 2,000 feet ? and stomach content analysis show Gulf of Maine dogfish may be eating a lot of the cod, herring and other fish that New England fishermen now miss so dearly.
"We were fishing on the bottom for cod, and all the dogfish were midwater," said Sulikowski, who works out of the University's Biddeford, Maine, marine laboratory. "Most of the baits couldn't get through the dogfish. When we did reel in a cod, 10 or 15 dogfish would be following it up."
"There should be a lot more priority placed on this species. It is a voracious predator," said Sulikowski, who decided to study dogfish after seeing the weird disconnect between apparent abundance and population estimates that led to closing the directed fishery back in 1998.
Most dogfish then were processed in New England for the European export market, chiefly for fish and chips in the United Kingdom. There's still that processing capacity in New Bedford, Mass., Karch said.
Several states allow dogfish bycatch in their waters, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Service has proposed an annual quota of 8 million pounds. But the federal government still allows only 4 million pounds, and most of that gets caught early, Brandon Muffley, chief of the DEP's Bureau of Marine Fisheries, said.
"If that quota is already filled, our guys don't have an opportunity," Muffley said. "Virginia is about the only one that's been able to capitalize on it."
A central problem is the "disconnect" between federal and state survey results, Muffley said. While federal trawling offshore catches mostly male sharks, "most of the females being caught by our trawls are females," Muffley said.
Similar reports are emerging from the Northeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program, an ASMFC-supported effort that used Virginia Institute of Marine Science researchers on a commercial fishing vessel to sample near-shore waters from southern New England to Cape May this spring.
"We're all looking to see what the NEAMAP data shows," Muffley said.
Even if the most recent 2007 federal estimate is correct at 478,000 metric tons of dogfish biomass, the animals' usual appetite for eating 1.5 percent of their body weight per day "means they're eating about 2.4 million metric tons of prey last year. That in itself is crazy," Sulikowski said.
"If 93 percent of the diet of spiny dogfish consists of fish, it is not unrealistic to believe that the voracious appetite of shark species is having a negative impact on local groundfish populations," Sulikowski wrote in a briefing paper this spring.
Moreover, those numbers could be bigger. While estimates show the dogfish stock has grown, information from the University of New England study and some tag-and-recapture tracking efforts suggest the East Coast dogfish are not a single unit as has been supposed, Sulikowski said.
Another common belief that dogfish spend most of their time near the sea floor fell by the wayside when researchers saw tag data with movement through the midwater region, Sulikowski said. Surveys use bottom trawls, so fewer dogfish may be counted simply because the scientific netting misses them, he said.
"There's dogfish out in the canyons, there's dogfish on the beach, 10 months out of the year," said Ernie Panacek, a manager at Viking Village in Barnegat Light. But Panacek said commercial fishermen are not looking for a return to the big dogfish industry of the 1990s.
"We're only looking for a part-time complimentary bycatch fishery, to help other fisheries that have been impacted" by tightening regulations, he said.
Commercial fishermen would like to work with a 3,000-pound trip limit for dogfish, similar to fisheries in North Carolina and Virginia, said Greg DiDomenico, executive director of the Garden State Seafood Association. In May, DiDomenico asked the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to ask federal regulators for a 3,000-pound bycatch limit in the federal waters under its jurisdiction.
Sooner or later, DiDomenico reasons, the commercial fishery will fully reopen, so fishermen and managers should start preparing now.
The council's science advisors said they'd like to see a survey to count dogfish off the edge of the continental shelf.
"These dogfish go much deeper than anyone thought," said James Ruhle, a North Carolina commercial fisherman who chairs the council's trawl survey committee and carried the NEAMAP team on his boat. Sulikowski said his tag data showed one dogfish swimming past 2,000 feet.
"For NMFS to have shut that fishery down was a big, big mistake," Elich said. "It didn't take long (for dogfish to return) right after they shut them down.
"It just goes on and on, the repercussions of these things swimming all over the ocean," Elich said.