Who Gets to Fish for Dogfish?

I meant to write about this earlier this month after attending the public comment session related to the spiny dogfish fisheries management plan (FMP).  Since it’s taken this long to actually sit down and write about it, this post isn’t terribly reliable in terms of reporting on current events (a case could be made that this is indicative of the entire blog).  That said, the proposed amendments to the spiny dogfish FMP are interesting as a demonstration of just how complicated things can get when you’re managing a fishery on a coast-wide level.

The brochure describing the proposed changes can be found here.  These changes are entirely concerned with how the Atlantic stock of spiny dogfish is divided up amongst the esat coast states that make up the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).  The amendments have nothing really to do with conservation, and the fact that they concern dogfish is virtually irrelevant too: these amendments could concern basically any species with a season north-south migration.  This is just who gets to fish for dogfish (on a state level) and how much they get to take.

First, a little history about the ASMFC and spiny dogfish management.  When spiny dogfish first began as a managed fishery, the annual quote was set for the entire east coast, covering their entire range from Maine to North Carolina.  What this lead to was the quota being hit before spiny dogfish even entered North Carolina waters in the winter, essentially cutting North Carolina out of the fishery.  Commission members from North Carolina successfully argued for a separate section of the quota for the state so that NC fishermen could have a fair crack at the fishery.  As a result, North Carolina currently has a fixed 16% of the spiny dogfish quota all to itself, and all the other states in the fishery are allocated based on landings.

Now other states want in on the action, notably Delaware and Connecticut, who have been largely absent from the spiny dogfish fishery (it was brought up at the meeting that the spiny dogfish fleet in Delaware consists of two vessels).  The public comment meeting discussed different options for how to reallocate the state quotas, and some of the options severely reduce North Carolina’s share of the fishery.  No matter which option is taken, there will be winners and losers, and the arguments brought up some interesting interstate rivalries.  It seems Virginia and North Carolina have a history of conflicting over migratory stocks, mainly due to Virginia’s ability to fish out the quota just before those species cross into North Carolina waters.  Since spiny dogfish are still managed under fairly low quotas as NOAA/NMFS determines the extent of their recovery, debates over allocation are a little more pronounced.

Perhaps the most interesting amendment is the provision to allow states to trade bits of their quota amongst each other.  Essentially, if one state isn’t able to or doesn’t want to fish its entire slice of the dogfish quota, it can sell off some of that quota to another state.  This is where having a share of the quota becomes valuable to a state like Delaware, which doesn’t really have a tooled-up dogfish fishery and probably won’t be a significant player in the game for a few years.  Until it builds up its own fleet, Delaware can still profit from its bit of quota by trading it off to other states.

Since each state has its own allocated share, the state’s fishermen can wait until good days to go fishing, comfortable in the knowledge that no one else is gobbling up their quota… hey, wait a second…  That’s right, the amendments to the spiny dogfish FMP basically create a coast-wide catch share program.  These programs have been implemented in other fisheries and tend to be quite controversial, with managers and conservationists arguing that they reduce overfishing while some fishermen maintain that they allow huge shares of the fishery to be monopolized.  However, by putting such a program under the control of states rather than semi-private sectors, this plan may theoretically avoid some of the potential pitfalls of catch shares.  Or it may cause fishermen from different states to start shooting each other out on the water.  I suppose we’ll find out.

The Atlantic spiny dogfish fishery will be an interesting experiment.

UPDATE:  Sure enough, minutes after I finished typing this up, one of the options was approved by the ASMFC.  Looks like North Carolina loses 2% of its quota, the state quotas are transferable, and the policy will be reevaluated every three years.  How’s that for covering current events?


  1. Jen · March 26, 2011

    nice summary, Chuck!

  2. Menakhem Ben-Yami · March 26, 2011

    Some time ago I was reading complaints that the spiny dogfish population off the U.S. eastern shores developed and spread on the expense of other more valuable groundfish. There was an ecologically valid assumption that limiting dogfish landing quotas is wrong and that their extra biomass should be more intensively fished.

    • Chuck · March 26, 2011

      Thanks for the comment. The controversy over whether dogfish are threatened or recovered underlies pretty much everything involving the fishery. I’m personally interested in how they interact with other species, but the research I’ve seen suggests that there’s not a really direct link between dogfish abundance and the slow recovery of some of the Georges Bank stocks. That’s not to say that dogfish don’t compete with those fish and occasionally eat them, but that it doesn’t seem to be happening enough to totally explain the lower numbers of cod, flounder, etc. Other things like climate change and habitat destruction might be more important in limiting those fish.

  3. Menakhem Ben-Yami · March 26, 2011

    Hi Chuck,

    Alright then; if I’d be running your dogfish management, I’d double the TAC and closely monitor (1) changes in the dogfish stock and (2) changes in the other groundfish stocks. After a few years I’d know the answers and could manage rationally. Cheers, MB-Y

    • Chuck · March 26, 2011

      You’d also have to take into account that dogfish aren’t the only things sharing the water with groundfish. Bluefish and striped bass are both, if anything, more ravenous predators than dogfish, and eat a lot of the same prey as cod and flounder. However, both of those species are valuable to recreational fisheries and therefore their potential impact as competitors with other valuable species is largely overlooked. Dogfish on the other hand have long been unpopular and tend to be scapegoated as being a major factor keeping the groundfish fishery down. The justifications for raising dogfish quotas are rarely about harvesting a resource and often about pest control. I’d totally support a dogfish fishery that was about sustainably using the resource, but commercial fishing as population control for one unpopular species leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  4. Nelie · March 26, 2011

    Nice little summary but I have to take issue with one little point…this is not a catch share program. In order for this to be a catch share program they would also have to; 1) limit the number of fishermen in each state and 2) allocate part of the quota to each fisherman. Instead, what they are doing is better described as sector allocation; in this case each sector is a state. Sector allocation means that you are dividing up the resource between groups of fishermen and when that group reaches it’s limit they have to stop. A very common type of sector allocation is recreational vs commercial. The two terms share some traits but they are actually vastly different concepts. I hope this helps!

    • Chuck · March 26, 2011

      Thanks for clearing that up. I’ve heard sector programs referred to under the umbrella of catch shares fairly often, but it seems that “catch shares” has become a catch-all term for basically anything that isn’t a TAC system.

  5. Peter Howard · March 26, 2011

    I have been following this dogfish issue for 12 years. Back then, there was an annual quota of about 50 million pounds. Then, a population study was done by Woods Hole by Dr. Paul Rago. His study indicated the spawning biomass of females had been decimated. As a result, the quota was cut to 4 million pounds. That went on for a couple of years and slowly, very slowly, “they” increased the quota. this past season started out with a 12 million pound quota but got increased to 15 million by the time the fishing season started. Prior to last season, in Massachusetts, we were allowed 600 lbs daily until September 1st when the daily possession limit was raised to 3,000 lbs daily. It is telling that last season, after NMFS got their controversial “catch share” program in place that we were allowed 3,000 lbs daily until the quota was reached. Also telling is how quickly 15,000,000 lbs got caught. Another telling fact is the extremely low rate of tag returns as evidenced by the East Carolina University program run by Dr. Roger Rulifson. Furthermore, any marine scientist who studies dogfish know they separate by gender until spawning making it very likely that if the people doing the study wanted to, could get desired results by just fishing on either males or females. Inshore, we have primarily females. East Carolina University and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science both have studies which conflict drastically with NMFS conclusions. Back 10 years ago, NMFS said 7 to 1 male to female. VMS and ECU both had studies indicating more than opposite results. 10 to 1 female to male and 12 to 1 female to male. I believe this whole groundfish overfishing crisis was designed by NMFS to reduce the number of boats and fishermen fishing. Flounder and cod both spawn inshore and NMFS allowed these dogfish to eat everything just spawned for 10 years. There used to be a time as recently as 6 years ago that cod and flounder fishing inshore was pretty good. Then the dogfish gobbled everything up. The Federal scientists have an agenda directed by NMFS in my view. They blamed all the declines in fish populations on overfishing. HOW COULD THAT BE? Over the past 15 years or so, there have been permit and vessel buybacks, increased size limits on most groundfish species, increased mesh size etc. Add to this regulatory discards and to me it is apparent this was all contrived by NMFS. I have no confidence to be able to prove any of this since Scott Lang, the Mayor of New Bedford was denied over 1,000 documents by NMFS through a FOIA request. This is not national security stuff, this is fish. What are they hiding????? Look at what they have done relative to violations, document shredding etc and it is apparent to me they have a plan to put us out of business so they can do what Canada did in the 80’s and 90’s. they consolidated their groundfish fisheries to a couple of huge corporations. At that time I owned a fish wholesale business and distinctly remember being offered Canadian cod and flounder fillets. Cod fillets 4-6 OUNCE. Flounder fillets 1-3 OUNCE. Because of “environmental” groups like PEW, the favored child of Jane Lubchenko, our government is being run by oil interests. Most likely, they want to drill on Georges and will get their way and get us out of the way.

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