When I was little, my family used to visit my grandparents on Cape Cod in the summer. Each morning my dad, brother, and I would fish off the beach at the marina in Dennis, next to Sesuit Harbor Café, and I’d wave to the tourist boats and commercial rigs as they headed toward open water. Every once in a while, as a treat, my dad would take us out on one of those boats with a captain named Billy to fish for bluefish and striper.
Sometimes on the boat we’d accidentally catch a dogfish. Billy would bang it against the side of the boat repeatedly, then drop the dead fish back into the ocean. He told me the air was poison to them, that they were as good as dead as soon as you lifted them from the water. As it turns out, that’s not true.
What is true is that dogfish don’t command high prices at market, and sometimes prey on other more lucrative fish, like haddock and juvenile cod. Billy likely saw them as a pest. Now, however, nearly two years into a global pandemic, and with many small commercial outfits struggling financially, underutilized species like dogfish and skate might represent the Cape Cod fishing industry’s best hope for a sustainable future.
For hundreds of years, fishermen on the Cape made their living bringing in codfish, but those are mostly gone due to overfishing and the changing climate. Now they catch an eclectic mix — cod, bluefish, tuna, striped bass, monkfish, skate, and dogfish. The vast majority of their haul gets exported, and most of the fish eaten in restaurants on the Cape are shipped in from other countries. It’s an inefficient cycle, perpetuated by consumer preference for fish, like cod, that we no longer have.
Dogfish, a weird-looking skinny shark that can grow up to 4 feet long, and skate, a winged member of the ray family, are two species that are still relatively abundant in Cape waters. Despite their popularity in Europe — dogfish in the UK for fish and chips and skate in France, where it is commonly served pan-fried or poached — the lack of a robust domestic market keeps their selling price low. Unlike cod, which sometimes sell for multiple dollars per pound, dogfish and skate each sell for only about 25 cents. Nevertheless, small fishing operations have increasingly turned to these fish as other species have seen their numbers dwindle.
Recently I was back on the Cape, and my dad and I visited the Chatham Fish Pier. There happened to be a boat unloading skate when we got there, and we peered over the railing to watch as crates of fillets were winched up onto the concrete, where two guys in T-shirts and baseball caps weighed them and dumped the fish into giant coolers with ice to be loaded onto a truck, the first step in the process of heading to Europe.
These fish shouldn’t have to go halfway around the world. Just steps away, at the Chatham Fish Pier Market, I watched people choose fillets of cod, haddock, and tuna from the display case. The market, owned by Steve Gennodie, sources locally whenever possible. When I visited there wasn’t any skate, but Gennodie will buy it off the dock if people request it. When he does, he can pay more than these fishermen normally make, since he’s selling at retail prices and there’s less shipping involved.
For Gennodie, and others hoping to sell these underutilized species, there’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem. There’s hardly any local demand for dogfish and skate, so restaurants and markets don’t buy them. There’s a lack of demand because customers have often never eaten or cooked with them. The result is that the fish keep getting exported for relatively low prices, leaving margins razor-thin in the industry. For a local domestic market to thrive, which could provide much-needed price increases for small operations, someone has to take the first step.
The Merl family, owners of F/V Isabel and Lilee, a small commercial scallop boat out of Wellfleet, are trying to do just that. They hope to increase interest in these abundant fish populations by selling skate at the Orleans farmers market in addition to their scallops. The Merls don’t catch the skate that they sell, but instead buy it from Red’s, a fish processing facility in Boston with a satellite operation in Chatham.
The Merls have even added skate to the free cooking class they run with Michelle Grillo, a professional chef in Eastham. The classes are on Zoom, and people who sign up can simply watch, or follow along and cook the meal in their own kitchen. Usually, they cook scallops, but at a recent class, Grillo made skate wing schnitzel, which was a big hit.
According to Lilee Merl, whose father captains the family boat, they don’t make a lot of money from skate sales, nor do they have plans to start fishing for skate. The Merls are plenty busy with scallops. Chris Merl operates the boat with a small crew, and Denice Merl, his wife, runs the business: managing payroll and online orders, operating a farmers market booth, doing quality control on the scallops that come in, and packing hundreds of pounds each week. So why go to the trouble of adding skate? The Merls have a simple answer. Their community is struggling, and they believe it’s their responsibility to help out.
This sort of solidarity feels nostalgic, a small-town way of seeing things. It’s true that the Cape isn’t a sleepy set of fishing towns anymore, that its economy is based on tourism, but the working-class, community-centered ethos remains. At the Orleans market in the summer, you’ll find Denice selling scallops caught by Chris and his crew, and skate caught by other Cape Cod fishermen, and chatting with locals and tourists who stop by to pick up dinner.
The Cape is not unlike a lot of other towns across this country — tourist towns, farming towns, university towns. They have something to sell, and they sell it. But someone standing at the beautiful waterfront, looking past the mansions toward the modest houses a neighborhood away, where hardworking folks struggle to pay their mortgage, might understandably wonder if things have gotten out of balance.
The tourism that brings in money during the warmer months often leaves year-round Cape Codders behind when the season ends. There is insufficient affordable housing, lower wages than elsewhere in the state, and a relative lack of quality medical services. In order for the Cape’s economy to be healthy, it needs more stable year-round industry to supplement tourism. Fishing is only one small part of the equation, but perhaps one that is emblematic of larger issues. It’s tempting to throw up our hands and say that nothing can be done. The cod are gone, and at least for the foreseeable future, they’re not coming back.
But the Cape Cod fleet is still full of small-boat fishermen, grabbing a coffee at Sesuit Harbor Cafe and then guiding their 36-footer out toward open water, waving to whatever kid has taken my place on the shore. These fishermen, like the rest of the year-round Cape Codders, are resilient, always looking to adapt, to get by.
In this case, they could use a little help. So next time you head to the Cape, stop by your favorite seafood restaurant for dinner, or one of the many great fish markets. But when you take a walk along the beachfront, keep an eye out for the people down at the docks, unloading thousands of pounds of weird-looking shark and skate wing fillets. And when you’re sitting in the restaurant staring at the menu, buoys and fishing nets lining the wall around you, before you order your codfish dinner or your fried haddock, ask where they’re buying their fish, and tell them next time you’re in, you’d love to see dogfish tacos and pan-fried skate.
Evan Senie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.