By Taylor Witkin, University of Rhode Island Marine Affairs

Posted September 20, 2017


Sustainable Dogfish Gains in Popularity at Maine Universities

Utilizing an Under-Appreciated Fish Source on Campus Dining Menus 

Photo at left: Robby Herbert (left), Production Manager for Sodexo Campus Services University of New England, and Barry Costa Pierce, Director of University of New England Center of Excellence of Marine Sciences and Chair of the Department of Marine Science, show off a tin of "shark bites," a popular new dish served in the dining halls at the University of New England. 

When seafood eaters think of fish in New England, their minds immediately jump to the iconic cod. After all, fishermen used to joke that cod were so big and the population was so dense they could walk from Newfoundland to southern New England on the backs of cod without getting their feet wet. Those days are long gone; fishermen are only allowed to catch a very small amount of cod today in our region, yet cod remains a popular item on menus and therefore, demand is often filled by cod from overseas. Fortunately, Georges Bank in the Gulf of Maine and the waters of southern New England are home to a diverse array of delicious fish, many of them mild and flaky with a similar taste to the famous cod.

While regulations play an important role in the future of our fisheries, the market can help push them in a sustainable direction. Demand for a wider variety of species takes pressure off crashing stocks and allows fishermen to capitalize off the fish that are actually available in nearby water. According to Brett Tolley, a community organizer at the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, it’s essential to persuade chefs and dining directors to adopt sustainable practices by trying a fish source that might be unfamiliar.

“The key is to build upon the good energy around under-appreciated species [to] ensure that an equal amount of energy gets channeled toward our shared values,” says Tolley. “We want to make sure that as we're recommending folks swap out one species for another that we also swap out the old set of dysfunctional values that drove the seafood supply chain.” But how can we convince customers to choose a fish they’ve never heard of and adopt values of sustainability? 

Responsibly sourced cape shark, commonly known as dogfish, is becoming popular on menus at Maine universities. (Photo by Robby Herbert)

The Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), Sodexo, and universities in Maine have teamed up to lead the charge toward a more sustainable seafood system. In 2011, GMRI created an eco-label called Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested®, through which they verify species from the Gulf of Maine region (which stretches from Nova Scotia to Cape Cod) as traceable and responsibly harvested. Sodexo has committed to supplying 100% Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested white fish to all its accounts in Maine by 2020, which includes the University of Maine system. In 2016, the University of New England became the first school to achieve Sodexo’s goal.

Dogfish, also known as cape shark, has been a key to this success and could provide a platform to launch future sustainable seafood initiatives. The University of New England has embraced this underutilized fish by serving “shark bites,” a product conceived and produced by the Ipswich Shellfish Group, a supplier partner in the Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested program, and Elevation Brands. Chunks of dogfish are baked with a coating and served as fish and chips or in tacos. Recently, based on consumer feedback, the Ipswich Shellfish Group updated the recipe, creating buffalo-flavored “shark bites.”

Robby Hebert, Sodexo’s production manager at the University of New England, has been an integral part of the university's shift toward more sustainable fish. At an event featuring dogfish and sustainable fisheries education, Ipswich Shellfish Group’s Dana Bartholomew reported that students at the University of New England were excited about new seafood options and pleasantly surprised at the taste of the “shark bites.” One student commented that dogfish “tastes like haddock” while two others “had no idea that we caught so much fish locally” before trying the shark bites.  

Shark bites are made with responsibly sourced dogfish, aka "cape shark." (Photo by Robby Herbert)

With nearly all of the New England-caught dogfish exported to Europe, ending up in fish and chips in England or on menus in France, “shark bites” represent an effort to support local markets and fishermen. Dogfish populations in northeastern waters have exploded in recent years, so their abundance makes the species a responsible choice that benefits fishing communities and the ecosystem. While they are generally thought of as bycatch, tasty recipes like buffalo “shark bites” or smoked dogfish pate help reverse the stigma that dogfish has historically faced.

When universities like the University of New England and others in Maine commit to integrating lesser-known fish into their dining menus, it sends a strong message to the market and to local fishing communities. Institutions have more buying power than individual consumers and hold the financial resources to support local fishing communities that uphold the values of sustainability that will ensure access to fresh, healthy seafood for future generations. Perhaps it’s time for New Englanders to recognize their reliance on cod and dip a toe in the Atlantic waters to test the market for an alternative, sustainable source of fish.  

Taylor Witkin is a Masters student at the University of Rhode Island's Marine Affairs department and a research assistant at the Coastal Resources Center where he studies the role of underutilized, underappreciated, and unfamiliar seafood in New England's marine food system.