Is there hope in ‘junk fish?’

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Dogfish might be a species shunned by recreational anglers these days, but the introduction of “nuggets of dogfish” to the marketplace could be a harbinger of things to come in the world of angling.

Recent reports by the Associated Press that “trash fish” could become sought-after meals are more than fascinating. After all, the more species anglers might pursue with success, the more appealing buying a new boat could be. Now, I’m not suggesting people are going to buy a new boat to go catch junk fish — or am I?

In New England, so-called “trash fish” are being called “fish sticks for millennials” by some observers. For example, Ipswich Shellfish of Massachusetts is reportedly producing “nuggets of dogfish” coated in a gluten-free, allergen-friendly crust.

The dogfish is actually the name for various small bottom-dwelling sharks of several different families. Spiny dogfishes have two spines, one in front of each dorsal fin. The common spiny dogfish is found in most oceans and is particularly abundant in shallow, temperate waters. The spines in this species contain venom that can cause a very painful wound.

East Coast fishermen catch millions of pounds of dogfish annually and sell them for just pennies at dockside. But it’s part of a growing trend toward junk fish in fish markets around the country.

In New England, for example, the traditional food fish has long been the Atlantic cod. But it has faded in the face of overfishing and environmental changes. Restaurant owners, fishermen and food-processing companies say a growing shift to other species is already helping to fill that void. An increasing awareness among consumers about fish sustainability has helped spark the trend. Consumers are also learning that more often their seafood is coming from Asia despite having abundant, albeit lesser known, supplies of domestic fish.

Dogfish feed on a variety of fishes and invertebrates and cause great damage to populations of commercially valuable fish. It’s a similar story for other fish species, including the Asian carp (threatening the Great Lakes) and the lionfish (threatening reefs and oceans).

The Asian carp are voracious eaters that are expected to destroy the native fish in the Great Lakes if they succeed in entering Lake Michigan near Chicago. They are currently being kept out by a series of electric fences in the Illinois Waterway. But these carp are edible, even considered excellent fare in Asian countries, so why not harvest and market them here?

The non-native lionfish are gobbling up other reef fish and mollusks and even attacking commercially important species like grouper and snapper. One experiment in the Bahamas found that lionfish can gobble up 79 percent of juvenile fish in a reef in just five weeks. But a filet of this trash fish is rated as delicious.

The commercial industry is putting more emphasis on fish that have traditionally lacked market appeal or economic value as old staples like cod, tuna or haddock decline or become the subject of restricted fishing quotas. For instance in Florida, regulators have incentivized the taking of the undesirable lionfish. Over on the West Coast, the Jonah crab has also found acceptance as an alternative to the popular Dungeness crab, and so it goes.

Interestingly, as more and more unscientifically-based restrictions are put upon the nation’s saltwater recreational anglers and as confiscatory actions like sector separation are employed in the name of fish management, popularizing abundant trash fish could help sustain recreational fishing. In cases like these, it just takes time to change the fishing (and dining) culture. We are on the right path.


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