EDITORIAL – Efforts to build US dogfish market could pay off

Groundfish boats need something to fish on, and there are more than enough spiny dogfish around, along with a hefty 40.8-million-pound quota for the 2013 fishing year.  But, at 12-to-14 cents per pound, it’s a rare fisherman who can make a day’s pay even with the current 4,000-pound daily trip limit.

The price to the boat this year is down about 8-to-10 cents, primarily because the European export market is a mess.  Recent changes in European Union import standards, persistent messages from environmentalists discouraging dogfish consumption, market share loss due to years of low US quotas, and the ongoing economic turmoil across the Atlantic have conspired to seriously tamp down purchases.

And there are growing concerns that demand in Europe isn’t likely to snap back any time soon even though the US Atlantic dogfish fishery was pronounced sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) last year.  Processors are trying to carve out new markets in places like Russia and China, but the cost to export to these countries is huge given dogfish’s relatively low value.

The solution clearly lies in the domestic market.  Unfortunately, there isn’t one – at least not at the moment.  But a lot of people are working hard to change that.

Back in June, a dozen industry groups from Maine to Rhode Island led by the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance (CCCFA) convinced 19 members of Congress to ask the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to support a request to bring Atlantic spiny dogfish fillets into USDA’s large-scale commodities purchase program.

The groups included:  Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, American Bluefin Tuna Association, Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Northeast Seafood Coalition, Associated Fisheries of Maine, and Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen’s Association, as well as the Sustainable Fisheries Association and its member companies, Marder Trawling Inc., Zeus Packing Inc., Seatrade International Inc., and Eastern Fisheries Inc., which put up the financial resources to obtain MSC certification.

Being in the USDA commodities purchase program would create demand for dogfish, stabilize prices, and help expand domestic markets, keeping fishermen fishing, processors processing, and providing hope for coastal communities faltering under the groundfish crisis.

Approval of the request also would provide a nutritious source of protein to the nation’s school children, food bank clients, and others in need, and help people learn to appreciate dogfish much as they already do more familiar species like cod and flounder.  USDA is now formally considering the request and could issue a decision by the end of the year.

The alliance also has brought teams of fishermen to Washington, DC to explain the situation to members of Congress, congressional staffers, and key people in government agencies.  And it has applied to the
National Marine Fisheries Service for a Saltonstall-Kennedy grant to:  build domestic interest in dogfish; document its health benefits; work with fishermen and processors to develop best handling practices; and collaborate with chefs to develop recipes and best cooking practices.

These grassroots efforts once again demonstrate the commitment of the Northeast fishing industry to find solutions to thorny problems.  With any luck, the payoff eventually will be a thriving dogfish fishery that will help carry the industry through these hard times.  /cfn/ 




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