Creating sustainable fishing practices has long been a concern for environmental groups, regulators, and increasingly for discerning consumers, as a result of issues with overfishing and the depletion of certain popular fish stocks like cod and halibut. In response, overfishing has traditionally been counteracted through regulation limiting the harvesting of those fish populations during certain times of the year, and by certain catch thresholds. However, even with such limits in place, populations of species like cod in places like the Gulf of Maine and the coast of Massachusetts have failed to rebound as expected.
There’s a significant amount of research that suggests that warming ocean temperatures have played a role in dampening the resilience of these species even with harvesting controls in place. Rising water temperatures, driven by climate change, prevent spawning and increase mortality rates among fish stocks, as well as likely driving the remaining fish to deeper waters.
Commercial fishermen, whose livelihoods depend on the ability to bring these popular fish to the consumer market, have had their already tenuous business model further shaken in light of this climate change driven development.
Don’t throw out the trash
One organization of cooperative fisherman, the Cape Cod Fisherman’s Alliance, is trying to change that through a new effort headed by local Chatham fisherman, Doug Feeney. Feeney has made it his mission to preserve the livelihood of small commercial fisherman in light of shifts to their business due climate change.
Feeney and the Alliance believe that incorporating fishing for species like the relatively obscure spiny dogfish into a commercial fisherman’s seasonal fishing patterns can help dampen the impact of climate change on their livelihood. Seemingly impervious to water temperature changes, the dogfish offers a compelling augmentation to the commercial fisherman’s dwindling fishing opportunity. The belief is that these “trash fish,” as they are typically called, might provide the bridge that commercial fisherman like Doug Feeney and the other members of groups like the Cape Cod Fisherman’s Alliance need to sustain their livelihood in the face of the threat of climate change.
While the fish are abundant in the increasingly warm waters off the New England coast, the challenge fisherman are seeing now is how to create consumer demand for this “trash fish.” In fact, “here in the United States, dogfish remain so obscure that a 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek article mislabeled them as an invasive species. Such anonymity is disastrous for business: While cod fetch more than $2 per pound, dogfish rarely earn more than 20 cents—mere pennies above a fisherman’s break-even point.”
The making of a market
Essentially what Feeney and the Alliance are attempting to do is create a new market. To do so, they’ve first focused on grassroots efforts to promote their catch, targeting cutting-edge chefs who are looking for a way to differentiate their cuisine to demanding customers. For example, trendy Boston restaurants like Row34 and Catalyst have begun putting dogfish on their menu. The Alliance has also been experimenting with changing the name to reduce the stigma, trying to popularize terms like “Cape Shark,” much in the way that Chilean Sea Bass was created as a hip moniker for the less well known Patagonian Toothfish.
While the Alliance has seen some success taking this tactic, the key is to take the dogfish mainstream, a feat that’s unlikely to be accomplished without some serious uptake by large commercial buyers. Finding a supply chain to consume the fish in bulk and drive prices to an economically viable point to incent fishing behavior is critical to incorporating this species into a commercial fisherman’s business model. Feeny and the Alliance are targeting institutional buyers like hospitals, and universities. Recently, “as a result [of the Alliance’s efforts], meal kit delivery service Plated is now featuring dogfish… Foodservice operator Aramark has also purchased dogfish, along with universities such as the University of California, Berkeley and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.” Feeney is also looking outside the local market of the Northeast to prop up his market, courting buyers from as far as China.
A brave “diverse” new world
Interestingly, there is also emerging research that might suggest that preserving and encouraging biodiversity increases resilience to climate change. This should be another lever that fishing alliances keep in mind when they’re working to build a sustainable business for future commercial fisherman. By promoting new species for consumption that can adapt to changing marine condition, skate for instance, they can naturally prevent overfishing, work to combat the impact of climate change on the marine ecosystem, and preserve the livelihood of commercial fisherman.