Paul Luke – The Province – Sunday, May 04, 2008 / Dan Edwards fishes for one of the most enigmatic creatures in B.C. coastal waters. For the past 12 years, Edwards has pursued the spiny dogfish. It’s a hard living, and not getting any easier, but the 57-year-old Ucluelet man loves the sea.

He makes up to three dozen trips a year with a three-to-four-man crew that takes the small, unlovely shark by hook and line.

Because it lacks a swim bladder, the elusive dogfish barely registers on a fishfinder.

"There’s not a lot known about how they migrate," Edwards adds.

"They’re a funny animal. Sometimes they only bite in the night on a full moon."

The rising Canadian dollar, soaring fuel costs and falling prices for their catch have been squeezing B.C.’s dogfish fishermen.

But perhaps the most serious challenge facing the industry comes from Europe, the main market for B.C. dogfish.

Overfishing has put Europe’s own dogfish populations under severe pressure. Outraged environmentalists there have pushed for a blanket boycott of all dogfish.

In the Northeast Atlantic fishery, near Portugal, the dogfish stock has reportedly declined 51 per cent between 1987 and 2000. Dogfish landings in the Sea of Japan have plunged by 99 per cent.

"What’s happening around the world is something called serial depletion. A fishery gets fished out in one area and then [fishermen] move on to another," says Ernie Cooper, director of traffic and wildlife trade for World Wildlife Fund Canada in Vancouver.

But those boycott efforts fly in the face of evidence that B.C.’s dogfish resource remains in good shape.

"I’ve heard international sources say it could be one of the last truly healthy dogfish populations in the world," Cooper says.

"I don’t know how true that is but there is every indication that this is a healthy stock with a sustainable fishery."

Michael Renwick, executive director of the B.C. Dogfish Hook and Line Industry Association, says B.C. has been sideswiped by Europe’s mismanagement of its own dogfish.

"We are a casualty, perhaps an unintended casualty, of environmental groups hammering at fishery authorities to improve their management of dogfish resources globally," Renwick says.

Some environmental groups say the dogfish, which matures slowly and has a low birthrate, should not be fished at all.

Others, such as the David Suzuki Foundation, consider spiny dogfish from the B.C. fishery a good choice for consumers.

The European boycott has weakened demand for B.C. dogfish and depressed prices, Cooper says.

The industry’s economics have deteriorated to the point that B.C. dogfish fishermen harvest only 35 per cent of their allowable annual catch.

"They’re caught in the middle," Cooper says. "It’s getting harder and harder for them to make a living."

B.C.’s dogfish industry is scrambling to prove it responsibly manages the resource.

The sector recently engaged the non-profit Marine Stewardship Council to assess the B.C. fishery over the next 12 to 18 months.

It’s hoped that MSC accreditation will allay the concerns of Euro-environmentalists, restore demand and help prices to recover for processors and fishermen.

The MSC, through a third-party certifier, will examine the status of the dogfish stock, the impact of the fishery on the marine eco-system and the effectiveness of fishery management systems.

Lisa Bailey, spokeswoman for MSC Americas, says 26 fisheries around the world have been certified, and another 70 are in full assessment.

B.C.’s is the world’s first dogfish fishery to be assessed.

"There’s more and more demand by consumers and seafood buyers and businesses for seafood that is sustainable," Bailey says.

Parallel to the MSC assessment, the Canadian and U.S. governments will do their own appraisal of the west coast dogfish next year — the first time such an assessment has been done in some 20 years.

The B.C. dogfish fishery is already one of the most closely monitored groundfish fisheries in the world, Renwick says. Since 2006, dogfish fishing boats have been outfitted with GPS and two video cameras to track all fishing activity and identify every species of fish brought on board.

A third party surveys the electronic data, checks it against the fishermen’s log and does a dockside inspection when a boat returns.

In 2006, conservation group Ecotrust Canada formed a partnership with seven dogfish fishermen who collectively account for more than 60 per cent of the hook-and-line dogfishing in B.C. They launched a "licence bank" that owns fish quota, and licences and leases quota to bank members to improve the sustainability of their fishing practices.

"Members sign a conservation covenant and commit to a code of conduct above and beyond regulatory requirements," Ecotrust says.

Down at dockside in Ucluelet, Dan Edwards is loading his boat with 3,600 pounds of hake as bait for the next trip.

Some dogfish fishermen were initially wary of an eco-assessment such as the MSC’s, he says. There was debate about the wisdom of giving a third party the power to decide whether the fishery is sustainable, he says.

Fishermen came to realize that European markets are giving them little choice.

"It has become pretty well understood by most fishermen that some kind of independent verification is probably necessary, if the market is demanding it," he says.

"We have been proactive on sustainability for years and this is another step."

Abundant resource

Up to 30 vessels fish for spiny dogfish off B.C. each year.

The annual export value of B.C. dogfish is $8-$10 million. Europe is the main market.

B.C. has two major dogfish food processing operations, one in Port Hardy and another in Delta. Another plant in Delta turns dogfish waste into organic fertilizer.

The industry employs about 100 fishermen and 200 shore plant workers. Dozens of supplier companies in coastal communities also cater to the sector, the B.C. Dogfish Hook and Line Industry Association says.

In the 2007-2008 fishing year, the B.C. fleet landed 3,037 tonnes of dogfish, according to Ecotrust Canada. About 95 per cent of dogfish landings in B.C. are by hook and line.

Almost all of the dogfish is used. Only teeth and skin are discarded.

Fin facts

The spiny dogfish is thought to be the world’s most abundant shark but overfishing has severely damaged stocks in many areas.

The fish gets its name from two spines in front of its dorsal fins. The shark can arch its back to pierce an enemy. Glands at the spines’ base produce a mild poison.

The spiny dogfish averages 30 to 40 inches in length. Its estimated life span is 25 to 30 years.

In B.C., most dogfish are caught by longline, in which a series of baited hooks are hung off a main fishing line. Dogfish are also caught by groundfish trawling.

Dogfish is a popular seafood in England, France, Germany and the Benelux countries of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

In England, it’s sold in fish-and-chip stocks as rock salmon, in France as small salmon and in Belgium as sea eel.

In Chinese cuisine, the fins and tail are used in shark fin soup.