Atlantic Spiny Dogfish Fishery Closed

Too many dogfish caught too fast? Photo by B. Sanders (

Chalk this up as yet another example of me missing the boat on something I should really be posting.  Earlier, I posted on the recent dramatic increase in the spiny dogfish quota, then the closure of the fishery in North Carolina a mere three months later.  It turns out that NMFS quietly closed the entire Atlantic dogfish fishery four days later.  Distracted by Science Online and general grad school tomfoolery, I totally missed it.  Thankfully Shark Year Magazine was on it, picking up my slack.

After a concerted effort by commercial fishermen to raise the dogfish quota, it was fished out in three months.  The closure comes before the time of peak dogfish abundance in Virginia and North Carolina waters, and well short of the end of the season (the dogfish fishery runs from April-May).  The closure of this fishery is noteworthy for a couple reasons.

Spiny dogfish are a contentious fishery to manage.  The slow growth and late maturity of female dogfish makes it easy to fish out adults of this species before they ever have a chance to reproduce, and this is compounded by the fact that females are the largest individuals and therefore the most valuable to fishermen.  However, the sheer unpopularity of spiny dogfish among fishermen means that the motivation for fishing the species is often not commerce, but pest control.  It’s tough to sell dogfish conservation to commercial fishermen.  The quick closure of the Atlantic spiny dogfish fishery is likely due to one of two possibilities, which lie on the extremes of the debate:

1 – The conservationists are right: the increased quota was too much, too soon and the dogfish population has not recovered to a level that can sustain that much fishing.

2 – The fishermen are right: even the increased quota is too low to allow fishermen to make dogfish fishing worth their while, and the quick closure shows how much managers have underestimated the stock.

Whichever way the cause for the fishery closure swings, something obviously went wrong in the management process.  Fishermen are already irate at news from NOAA/NMFS delivering a nasty surprise for the Atlantic cod fishery, and their credibility may be in question here too.  The huge amount of uncertainty inherent in fisheries science does create situations that shock managers and fishermen alike.  However, quotas are set by the regional fishery management councils, and are subject to the influence of politics as much as science.  Fishermen have seats on these councils (as they should), so quotas are usually the result of negotiation between scientists and the needs of the industry.  Imperfect science, a compromised quota, or a little of both lead to this situation.

Another angle on this story is the fact that the Atlantic spiny dogfish fishery is still under sustainability assessment by the Marine Stewardship Council (a story I’ve been following for a little while).  This puts the MSC in a tough position: if they classify the fishery as sustainable after such a quick closure, it throws their whole selection process into doubt.  Like NMFS, the MSC has had its share of controversy.

Of course all of these issues are ultimate the result of trying to count and eat a resource we can’t even see 90% of the time.  Hey, if fisheries management was easy, everyone would be doing it.


  1. John Lee · February 2, 2012

    Chuck, I’m hearing around Block Island that there is a monster school of dogfish. More than usual. So up this way, in the Point Judith area, I’m positive fisherman are shaking their head at the closure. But the real problem I think is the dogfish infrastructure–and the European markets for western Atlantic dogs, has been lost. So even if the quota were raised and raised to levels where fishermen were happy, the question is–who is going to buy and process all the fish.

    I do here that when the season opens many fisherman would like to see an aggregate landings options and not a daily possession limit. If we are allowed 3,000 pounds per day, why not 21,000 for the week. That way we can go out and fish for nothing but dogs put the fish onboard, sell them, and target squid or skate the rest of the week.

    Just some thoughts.


    • Chuck · February 2, 2012

      I agree that having a weekly or just overall quota would probably help. Right now fishermen just treat dogfish as something they go out and get in half a day’s work when they have a free afternoon, or otherwise just keep their day’s dogfish bycatch. There are definitely ways to make this a more valuable fishery for the fishermen.

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  3. Joel Hovanesian · February 2, 2012

    Just another example of how poor our fisheries stock assesments are. Ask anyone who spends their life on the water and they will tell you the same thing.
    There are more dogs spread out over a larger are than they have ever seen or heard of. Could they all be wrong?
    At best this is yet another example of the disconnect between fishermen and regulators. At worst its another example of the governments continued march to destroy the commercial fishing industry and make way for ocean zoning to put up the thousands of wind turbines up and down the east coast that are being sought. I tend to beleive the latter. As for the wind farms… This will turn out to be one of the largest taxpayer financed boondoggles in our nations history. It will make Solindra look like chump change.

  4. lou williams · February 2, 2012

    fyi the dogfish quota goes up may first so the southern area is fishing on 2011 quota hopefully we will all get more than 3 months .next season because thats all we got in the northen area as well this the way its february and we are getting dogs on middle bank never seen that in all my 35 years

    • Chuck · February 2, 2012

      This warm winter has the migration all screwed up. Normally at this time of year we’re loaded with them around Cape Hatteras, but my labmate spent all last weekend out sampling and only caught a handful. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a factor in some of the closures.

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