Fish Feature

Atlantic Spiny Dogfish, the Comeback Shark

Spiny dogfish have characteristic white spots and spines on each of their dorsal fins. Image via Maryland.gov

We bring to our fish-loving friends a miraculous fish – the Atlantic spiny dogfish.

This groundfish (which…SURPRISE! is actually a shark) suffered a serious population decline in the 1990s, but stocks have since recovered. In fact, the dogfish is now the largest shark fishery in the U.S.

Small, but Spiny

Spiny dogfish have slim bodies and a narrow pointed snout. They are gray in color, with white bottoms, but no chance you’ll mistake these guys for great whites. Dogfish have characteristic white spots and only grow to 4 feet (females) and 3.3 feet (males).

Typical of any groundfish, spiny dogfish swim in large schools near bottom habitat. They prefer temperate areas (Nova Scotia to Cape Hatteras) and will migrate seasonally as water temperature changes, moving north in the spring and summer months and south in the fall and winter. Some brave dogfish will take on the winter in the north, but will move to offshore waters.

Spiny dogfish are opportunistic feeders. Their preferred meal choice changes as they grow larger: the kids menu features primarily crustaceans, but larger dogfish take on jellies, squid, and schooling fish. And these sharks are more than just teeth – they have venomous spines on their dorsal fins! Unfortunately for the dogfish, the spines don’t seem to deter predators. Cod, red hake, goosefish, other spiny dogfish and larger sharks, seals, and orcas often make the dinner out of the dogfish.

An Attractive Female Fish

Dogfish grow slowly and reach sexual maturity later in life, females at 12 years and males at 6 years. They spawn offshore in winter months, and females give birth to live young, averaging 6 pups per litter.

Female dogfish are larger than males (growing to 4 feet versus 3.3 feet), which make them an attractive catch for fishermen. This, combined with late sexual maturity, makes populations vulnerable to overfishing. Between 1987 and 1996, when traditional groundfish stocks ran low and international demand for dogfish increased, fishermen began targeting these larger females. It only took about ten years for populations to decline to minimum sustainable levels in 1998.

A Return to Glory

A spiny dogfish being measured. Image via NOAA Fishwatch.

A spiny dogfish being measured. Image via NOAA Fishwatch.

Once declared overfished, New England and Mid-Atlantic fishery managers began work on a Spiny Dogfish Fishery Management Plan (FMP), which was implemented in 2000. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council now leads on dogfish management actions, and in 2003 the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission issued an interstate FMP to accompany the original plan. Talk about fisheries management cooperation!

The FMP implemented in 2000 established low annual and per trip catch limits, which were effective. Although the species is still victim to trawler bycatch, NOAA Fisheries declared spiny dogfish populations rebuilt in 2010, and catch limits were increased.

Fishermen use longline, hand lines, and gillnets to catch the species. 28 million pounds of Atlantic spiny dogfish were harvested in 2012, a catch that was valued at $5 million.

SHARK and chips?

With all of this talk about the dogfish fishery, you might be wondering – who even buys and eats dogfish (a shark)?!

Massachusetts fishermen landed over half of the 2012 dogfish catch, but this abundant shark still remains an underutilized species in the U.S. The demand for U.S. dogfish comes from Europe where the species is used in common dishes such as British fish and chips and German shillerlocken, a beer garden snack.

Efforts are underway in the U.S. to promote dogfish consumption. GMRI’s Out of the Blue campaign hosted a Cape Shark Week this past July. They partnered with eight restaurants throughout New England to showcase the delicious species and build consumer awareness.

So what does dogfish taste like?! It’s a firm, flaky white meat with a sweet, mild flavor (think dogfish in tomato and citrus). Are we making you hungry yet?! What about roasted dogfish with red curry and bok choy or grilled dogfish kebabs with couscous and salsa verde?

And even more good news: dogfish is available year round and is a great low-fat source of protein, as well as selenium and vitamins B6 and B12!


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