If you've never laid eyes on a dogfish — or tasted one — you're not alone.
Yep, it's in the shark family. (See those telltale fins?) And fisherman Jamie Eldredge is now making a living catching dogfish off the shores of Cape Cod, Mass.
When populations of cod — the Cape's namesake fish — became too scarce, Eldredge wanted to keep fishing. That's when he turned to dogfish — and it's turned out to be a good option. The day I went out with him, Eldredge caught close to 6,000 lbs. (Check out the video above.)
"It's one of the most plentiful fish we have on the East Coast right now," Brian Marder, owner of Marder Trawling Inc., told us. Fishermen in Chatham, Mass., caught about 6 million pounds of dogfish last year.
So, who's eating all this dogfish? Not Americans. "99 percent of it" is shipped out, Marder says.
The British use dogfish to make fish and chips. The French use it in stews and soups. Italians import it, too. The Europeans are eating it up. But Americans haven't developed a taste for it. At least, not yet.
The story of the dogfish is typical of the seafood swap. "The majority of the seafood we catch in our U.S. fisheries doesn't stay here," explains Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, who leads the Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
And while we export most of what is caught off U.S. shores, what do Americans eat? Imported fish. About "90 percent of the seafood we consume in the U.S. is actually caught or farm-raised overseas," Kemmerly says.
To sustainable seafood advocates, this swap doesn't make much sense. "We're kind of missing out on the bounty we actually have here," Kemmerly says.
And, it's not just dogfish.
The Environmental Defense Fund has launched a campaign called Eat These Fish to tell the story of a whole slew of plentiful fish caught off our shores. The group is trumpeting the conservation success of U.S. fisheries. Some species have been brought back from the brink of extinction through a system of quotas and collaboration between fishermen, conservationists and regulators. They point to fish such as Acadian Redfish and Pacific Ocean Perch.
"If people start to buy these fish more, we can really drive some more economic success to hard-working fishermen," says Tim Fitzgerald of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Sustainable seafood advocates want Americans to re-think our fish-eating habits. "We import salmon, tuna and shrimp," says Nancy Civetta of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance. But "we do not eat the [fish] we're bringing to shore, right here!"
Civetta says it's good that fishermen have a market for their dogfish in Europe, but she argues we should be eating it here, too. She says a strong domestic market would strengthen the fisheries, making them less vulnerable to shifting preferences overseas. "If we continue to import and buy from other countries, then our fishing industry could wither away," Civetta says. And this would be a loss for coastal communities, she argues.
So, is it possible to turn Americans onto dogfish? Chef Bob Bankert at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst thinks so. The university has contracted with Sea To Table, a company that connects domestic fishermen with chefs, universities and other buyers, to purchase dogfish.
The campus serves 55,000 meals a day and has made a big commitment to buying locally sourced foods. "Being in western Massachusetts, we love to support the Massachusetts fisheries," Bankert says. I watch as he grills dogfish fillets — "it tastes great," he vouches as he flips one over.
We were curious to see if students agreed. We hung out for an afternoon as students sampled dogfish tacos, dogfish sushi and an Asian flash fry made with dogfish fillets and drizzled with wasabi mayo.
"Oh, it's so good — amazing!" student Ruth Crawford told us as she finished off a taco. I asked her what the biggest appeal was. "It's new, it's local, so healthy," she told us.
Some students were a bit turned off by the display of the whole dogfish — with its menacing shark appearance — that was showcased on the dining line. "That's scary looking," one student told us as he walked by.
Dining hall manager Selina Fournier says that's where the storytelling comes in. When they saw the fish here today, she says, a lot of them didn't know what to make of it. But once they learned more about - where it comes from, who caught it - and they got the chance to taste it, "the whole association really ... brings [the story] to life."
It's not just universities that are promoting locally caught fish. Chefs, environmentalists and eaters across the country are embracing the concept of eating fish caught in a way that won't lead to overfishing or environmental problems, while also supporting local fishing communities. The National Restaurant Association has named "sustainable seafood" as one of its top 20 food trends for 2017.
Sea to Table is about to launch a direct-to-consumer, online fish market. It's scheduled to launch by the end of January. And this means that soon, Americans will be able to get dogfish and many other types of under-loved species from U.S. fisheries delivered to our front doors.
This story was reported as part of a collaboration with the PBS NewsHour.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Over the next few weeks, we're going to meet a series of people who are pursuing the American dream through the most basic part of life, food. Today we're going to meet a fisherman in Massachusetts, a place where people once made a living fishing cod. Well, that fish has been disappearing, including in Cape Cod. But the seas aren't depleted. Different fish are still plentiful.
NPR's Allison Aubrey is going to tell us about a man who's making a living catching and selling a fish that a lot of us haven't heard about. Allison, thanks so much for being with us.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Before we meet any people...
SIMON: I want you to introduce me to this fish you've brought into the studio.
AUBREY: OK. I have brought in a prop here. This is a dogfish. Say hello to the dogfish (laughter).
SIMON: (Imitating dog barking).
AUBREY: This is a long, spiky-looking thing.
AUBREY: Have you ever seen anything like it?
SIMON: Only in my nightmares.
SIMON: Let me just say that, offhand, it's not an attractive looking fish, right?
AUBREY: Well, it's actually a shark. And I was actually with a fisherman in Cape Cod, Mass., who is now fishing these.
JAMIE ELDREDGE: I'm Jamie Eldredge. I'm captain of the fishing vessel Yellow Bird. And we're at the Chatham fish pier.
AUBREY: So Jamie is this really hearty soul. He's been doing this for decades. He's a real fixture in the community. And this is his story. When the cod fishery started to go south, he realized, hey, I'm going to have to find another livelihood. He thought, I still have a mortgage on this boat. So he says he grew up seeing these dogfish. They're really plentiful.
ELDREDGE: It's what we used to call a trash fish - and throw them back or knock them off. And now we're fishing on them for a living.
AUBREY: Are you happy with fishing dogfish?
ELDREDGE: Very happy. Yeah. I enjoy being out on the water.
AUBREY: Now, the day that I went out with him, he caught 6,000 pounds of these fish in just a few hours.
SIMON: But, Allison, I have never seen anything labeled dogfish for sale in a market.
AUBREY: Right. The reason that Jamie can make a living doing this is because there is an export market. The Brits import dogfish. They turn it into fish and chips. The French buy dogfish. They make bouillabaisse. They call it saumonette. It's just Americans have never heard of it.
SIMON: So if you called it, like, mid-Atlantic thistlefish (ph)...
SIMON: ...We might give it a try.
AUBREY: Well, you know what? I don't think it's just a naming problem. Americans are not very adventurous when it comes to fish. We typically like to just buy tuna, tilapia and shrimp. And most of what we buy - 90 percent of what we eat is imported. And most of what's being caught off our shores is being exported. And a lot of people are scratching their heads, saying, this swap doesn't make any sense at all.
SIMON: Well, I mean, it would help if the fish tasted good.
AUBREY: Would you like to taste it?
SIMON: I think I have to...
AUBREY: (Laughter) OK. All right.
SIMON: ...After that kind of introduction.
AUBREY: Well, I will tell you that this has been...
SIMON: No, no. Just - you know, just seeing it - you have prepared - or we should say NPR's test kitchens have prepared...
AUBREY: That's right. The folks down at Seasons Culinary down in Sound Bites Cafe have actually taken these filets of dog fish. And they've sauteed them in a little lemon-caper-butter sauce. I've got a little fillet for you here.
SIMON: Which will be very nice because I actually told you that I had a taste for capers.
AUBREY: (Laughter) You did.
SIMON: Thank you very much.
AUBREY: I'm spoiling you here.
SIMON: Thank you.
AUBREY: I'm just going to drizzle a little bit of this lemon-caper-butter sauce on here for you.
SIMON: You know, this looks good.
AUBREY: Go right ahead.
SIMON: Mmm. You know, I got to say this is good.
AUBREY: You like it.
SIMON: It's fleshy. It's, you know...
AUBREY: It's flaky like other white fish.
SIMON: A little flakier than swordfish, for example, but actually probably a little firmer than sea bass. It's good. I like it.
AUBREY: You know, as you give that a taste, think of it this way. When I went to Cape Cod, what I heard from the fishermen, from the advocates in this sort of sustainable fishing community was this. They say, look. We know where this fish is coming from. We know how it's produced.
Our government now sets quotas so that fish are not overfished in the U.S. - and that this is the direction that we should be going in for sort of long-term viability. One of the advocates in Cape Cod said, look. If we want these fishing communities to be here 20 years from now, Americans should be buying fish that's caught off our own shores.
SIMON: Could you actually buy this?
AUBREY: Well, you can't walk into a, you know, Safeway or Harris Teeter. But the people who are promoting dogfish and other fish that are fished off our shores are saying, we need to get this next generation of eaters. And you know what they've arrived at? College campuses. So UMass Amherst has started serving dogfish in their cafeteria. The day I went they were making dogfish tacos. They were making an Asian flash fry with this wasabi sauce. I interviewed a bunch of students. And they love it. They love the idea that it's local. They love the idea that it's sustainable.
AUBREY: So I think that might be the way that these advocates go when they try to build a market for dogfish.
SIMON: There's a collaboration with PBS that we ought to know about, right?
AUBREY: This whole reporting project is part of a collaboration I'm doing with the PBS NewsHour. So we have pictures of Jamie, his fishing vessel. You can meet some of the students at UMass Amherst who are trying this. So check it out.
SIMON: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thanks very much for being with us.
AUBREY: Thanks so much, Scott.
SIMON: And bon appetit, by the way.
AUBREY: Oh, yes. Bon appetit. I'm glad you enjoy it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.