SIX MILES OFF CHATHAM — Greg Walinski leaned over the side of his boat and pulled spiny dogfish one by one off hooks he hauled from 70 feet below. Within an hour, the floor of the Alicia Ann was writhing with hundreds of the 3-foot-long, yellow-eyed sharks.
Waliniski then pointed the boat back to shore — and into an unfolding international trade controversy over the harvesting of shark fins for soup, an Asian delicacy.
Environmental groups have launched a global campaign to stop fishermen from slicing sharks’ fins off at sea before tossing the animals overboard to sink to slow deaths. But the push is ensnaring New England fishermen and processors, who take fins only from dead dogfish already landed for their meat.
Bans passed, or being proposed, in a number of states do not distinguish between methods used for obtaining fins, and local fishermen say if they can’t sell the fins, dogfish would be unprofitable.
“We agree . . . we don’t want sharks being killed only for their fins, but we aren’t doing that,’’ said Walinski, a slim 55-year old who goes out seven mornings a week in his 35-foot boat to catch his daily 3,000-pound quota of spiny dogfish. “Still, if we can’t sell the fins, we’d be done — there is such a fine margin to make money on dogfish.”
Dogfish is a low-value type of shark but a growing niche of the fishing industry, especially on Cape Cod and in Southeastern Massachusetts, as cod and flounder stocks plummet and the species makes a rebound from heavy overfishing in the 1990s. About 200 fishermen in Massachusetts chase “dogs,” and they caught about 11.5 million pounds last year, up from a low of 1.2 million pounds in 2004.
The killing of sharks for only their fins is already banned in US waters, but environmental groups want to stop the importation of shark fins that are destined for Asian restaurants in the United States. Knowing a federal import ban would likely spark free trade complaints from other countries, the groups are pushing for state bans on possession of shark fins to accomplish the same goal.
In the past two years, legislation has passed in five states – including California, from where some New England shark fins have long been exported to Asia. The laws largely prohibit the possession, sale, trade, and distribution of detached shark fins. Similar bans have been proposed, but not yet passed, in seven East Coast states, including New York, another export hub of local dogfish fins. There has been no legislation offered in New England, likely because of the dogfish’s importance to local fishermen.
The dilemma created by the laws — which environmental groups acknowledge they are struggling with — is one that is becoming increasingly common in global trade: How best locally to stop the overexploitation of a resource when the primary problem is an ocean away?
The environmental groups say they do not want to hurt US fishermen abiding by rules, but worry exemptions for spiny dogfish or other sharks here could erode the impact of any ban; soup sellers across the globe could say their product is legitimate dogfish fin soup and really serve other species finned at sea.
“[You can mistake] a small baby hammerhead fin for a dogfish” fin, said Rebecca Regnery, deputy director of wildlife for Humane Society International, which is working to pass shark fin bans. Even with DNA testing to determine the species of fish, she added, “you can’t tell where it was caught.”
Environmentalists say the expanding market for shark fin soup — once reserved for special occasions such as weddings in China but now increasingly popular there and worldwide — is a major contributor to a dramatic decline of some shark species. The fins’ cartilage gives texture to the soup, which sometimes costs as much as $50 a bowl or more.
One study examining trade data estimated the fins from about 38 million sharks were being traded through the fin market in 2000, a number that includes sharks brought to shore for other reasons and those finned at sea.
There is little argument that slicing shark fins at sea can lead to a brutal death: Unable to swim, hunt, or properly pump oxygen into their gills, the sharks sink to the bottom to be eaten, starve, or drown.
Dogfish, even its defenders concede, do not inspire the awe reserved for its Great White relative. Their name comes from the fact that they chase other fish in ravenous dog-like packs, and fishermen have long despised them because they eat more valuable fish, and because their dorsal fin’s sharp spines can wreak havoc on fishing nets. Walinski had to pull up his fishing line quickly — otherwise, free-swimming dogfish would have devoured the hooked ones.
“It’s unbelievable,’’ he said. “They eat everything.”
Markets have evolved for the fish and virtually every piece of a landed “dog” is used. Its back meat is used in British fish and chips, its head as bait for lobster and crab, and the belly meat is sent to Germany to become a smoked delicacy known as schillerlocken. The small fins do not fetch a premium compared with other sharks’ fins, but they are the most valuable part of the dogfish.
The spiny dogfish recently became the first East Coast shark fishery to be certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, meaning it is well managed and the fish are caught in an environmentally friendly way. The certification is expected to help the dogfish sell better in Europe.
Brian Marder, owner of Marder Trawling Inc. in New Bedford, which processes dogfish, said that he agrees with banning the finning of live sharks but that it becomes a cultural issue if there is a prohibition on the sale of fins from dead animals.
“As long as it is done in a humane fashion and no abuse takes place, why make a distinction over what part of the animal certain cultures have a preference for,” Marder said.
A lawsuit seeking to block the California ban is raising a similar issue, saying it discriminates against people of Chinese origin.
Environmental groups are trying to figure out options. Regnery, of the Humane Society, has suggested that fishermen ship the carcasses of spiny dogfish overseas before detaching the fins, but dogfish processors say this won’t work because dogfish pieces go to different parts of the world. While Oregon exempted spiny dogfish from its recent ban, environmental groups do not see that as the answer.
“I would like to see a path forward to deal with the international fin trade problem while recognizing that the US has banned finning,’’ said Beth Lowell, campaign director for Oceana, one of the groups fighting shark finning at sea. “We need a creative solution.”
For Walinski and Marder, a solution needs to come soon: They worry bans will become so common there will be few places from where they will be allowed to export fins.
“I know [environmental groups’] intentions are good,’’ said Marder. “But they are going to hurt hard-working people in Massachusetts.”