• The spiny dogfish made history when it was certified as the world’s first sustainable shark fishery in 2011

    The spiny dogfish made history when it was certified as the world’s first sustainable shark fishery in 2011. (Photo: Ben Nelms)

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Fisheries and Oceans Canada record of individual spiny dogfish caught between May and October from 1954 and 2007 (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic; Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

The white-sided dolphins are the first to appear. Within seconds, a humpback whale surfaces 15 metres off the starboard side of the Ocean Sunset, exhaling a guttural breath before diving back down with a mighty crack of its tail. Meanwhile, 100 or so black-footed albatrosses queue up behind us, waiting to pounce on scraps of bait or anything else we drag up from the abyss.

We’re 80 kilometres off the west coast of Vancouver Island, dropping thousands of baited hooks onto the edge of Clayoquot Canyon, a favourite seasonal gathering place for sharks. To the eyes of a landlubber like me, we are surrounded by a near-impossible natural bounty — and that’s just what we can see above the surface.

“The albatrosses look like they’re hungry,” says Captain John Planes, 56, a lifelong fisherman, as he controls a winch that is pulling up hooks from the bottom. Beside him is his son John Jr., 31, who has fished alongside his dad for nearly half his life. Skinny, wiry strong and covered with tattoos, John Jr. has spent the day with his cousin Ryan Planes cutting squid and pollock for bait, which they place on about 3,000 leadered hooks and connect to two main lines stretching nearly four kilometres along the sea floor.

There’s a white flash from below as a turbot appears, two half-moon bites torn out of its body. It’s the work of a spiny dogfish, a shark so voracious that longline fishermen never leave their baited hooks on the bottom for too long for fear the sharks will devour the entire catch, including other hooked dogfish. Before long, a dogfish rises from the depths on a hook: it’s a perfect miniature shark, less than a metre long. From pointy snout to thresher tail, the streamlined body is gunmetal grey but transitions to brown, reddish yellow and, finally, creamy white on the belly. The almondshaped eyes are enormous, filled almost entirely by black pupil, imparting a cartoonish look; if it weren’t such a nasty piece of work, it would actually be cute.

Spiny dogfish are, in many ways, an anomaly among sharks, and that’s why we’re here. In September 2011, British Columbia’s spiny dogfish fishery became the first shark fishery on the planet to earn Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, an international certification program that promotes good management and traceability of seafood. Achieving certification was the culmination of six years of work by the tiny B.C. Dogfish Hook and Line Industry Association, which today represents 28 dogfish fishermen and a single processor on the Pacific coast of British Columbia. By pursuing the certification, the fishermen and processor hoped to differentiate themselves from the many unsustainable shark fisheries in the world, thus protecting their key markets in the United Kingdom, Germany and other European Union countries from the ire of environmental campaigners. It’s the MSC’s hope that the B.C. certification could inspire a domino effect. “On a global basis, many species in the shark family are vulnerable to overfishing,” said Kerry Coughlin, MSC regional director, Americas, when spiny dogfish certification was announced last September. “We hope this will inspire other fisheries harvesting this species to achieve this bar.”

The emergence of the B.C. dogfish as the first “green” shark is an important precedent. Of the roughly 1,050 shark species evaluated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to date, about 20 percent (approximately 180 species) are at an elevated risk of extinction, mostly from legal and illegal industrial and small-scale fisheries. This statistic is especially alarming when you consider that sharks have thrived in the world’s oceans since before the dawn of dinosaurs — 400 million years of well-adapted existence — yet many could disappear after little more than 100 years of human mismanagement.

On that urgent note, we have come to Ucluelet, B.C., one of the province’s top three commercial fishing hubs and a popular tourist town on Vancouver Island’s western edge, to see what we can learn from the spiny dogfish fishery: does it point a way forward for the rest of the world’s shark fisheries, or is it just part of a wider problem? As we soon discover, like almost everything else to do with sharks, the answer is clouded with uncertainty.

The locals in Ucluelet laugh when we tell them we’ve come in search of spiny dogfish. “Now why would you go and do something like that?” asks our waitress with a smirk as we sit down to a last meal at a Ucluelet marina restaurant before embarking on a three-day fishing trip aboard the Ocean Sunset.

We soon learn that spiny dogfish have been considered a nuisance throughout British Columbia for the last century or so, routinely getting ensnared in fishing nets and commanding a relatively tiny price. “It’s considered a garbage fish compared with expensive salmon and halibut,” explains Ryan Planes. “People think it’s trash.”

But scientists such as Nick Dulvy, Canada Research Chair in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University and co-chair of the IUCN’s Shark Specialist Group, have nothing but awe for the fish. For one thing, it has a roughly two-year pregnancy, one of the longest in the animal kingdom. “That beats everything on land or sea, including elephants and most large whales,” says Dulvy. Unlike most fish, dogfish typically give live birth to around 12 “pups” every two years. Dogfish can also outlive humans, reaching up to 100 years old, and take as long as 30 years to attain sexual maturity. “Based on its reproductive history alone,” he says, “it doesn’t make sense that this thing could sustain fishing.” Despite his concerns, however, Dulvy remains cautiously optimistic that B.C. dogfish can be fished sustainably, in part because of their diet. Unlike many sharks, dogfish eat other creatures that are abundant and low in the food chain — in B.C. waters, they chase herring and krill — and it’s these that are believed to sustain their numbers.

There may be a local, green market for spiny dogfish fins used in shark fish soup. (Photo: Ben Nelms)

But it’s the behaviour dogfish exhibit while feeding that can have a significant impact on the sustainability of fisheries. The males and females are known to congregate separately in large schools to chase prey and therefore can appear abundant to fishermen — and fishery managers — even if they are not. “You can be deluded into thinking you can have a big fishery because you can catch lots,” says Dulvy. “But what that means is that the fishery can crash very rapidly.” That’s what happened in the Atlantic between 1988 and 2002, when American fishermen removed about 75 million Atlantic spiny dogfish, almost all large mature females. The shark population decreased and, in 1998, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service declared the U.S. spiny dogfish overfished. (At the time of writing, that fishery has started up again and is in the late stages of getting MSC certification.)

Still, the B.C. fishery is very different from most other shark fisheries. It is governed by an innovative “integrated management” system, in which everything caught must be accounted for. John Planes, for instance, has licences and quotas permitting him to catch and sell most of the groundfish we encounter on our trip: not just dogfish but also the more lucrative halibut, sablefish and skate. So when he’s out targeting halibut and brings up a dogfish or a long-nosed skate, he can keep it and sell it. “That’s revolutionary,” says Dulvy. “Spiny dogfish have the potential to be managed very well and very carefully here.”

Marine ecologist Scott Wallace, a sustainable fisheries analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation, which supported the MSC certification, says it’s important that mandatory 100 percent coverage of the fleet fishing dogfish is in place because it means Fisheries and Oceans Canada has “a very good understanding of how many are being caught.” But the coverage goes beyond the standard on-paper licences and quotas — it also includes other methods, which come at a steep price. In the Ocean Sunset’s case, it has cost $10,000 to install on-board surveillance cameras to view the landing of fish, and Planes currently pays an independent auditor $100 per hour to sort through his multi-species catch when he lands it at the processor in Ucluelet.

Planes, who has fished dogfish since 1988, is paid as a contractor to captain the Ocean Sunset, which is owned by the nearby T’Sou-ke Nation. He says spiralling costs have combined to wipe out the small players. For example, our three-day trip will consume $600 in diesel, $1,200 for bait and $100 a day for food. “We’re a dying breed. The small guys who just fished dogfish have been squeezed out,” he says. “When I started, there were 20 boats that fished dogfish, and it was down to around 12 a few years ago. The only way to make money now is to fish ’em all.”

There’s a herbalist shop in Vancouver’s Chinatown that displays a dried shark fin nearly a metre tall from base to tip; a shy young shopkeeper says that he would charge $1,000 for the fin alone and that it would be used for “display only.” This shop is just one of about two dozen similar establishments in a three-block radius that sell dried shark fins, most of which are displayed in jars and ranked in order of size and quality, ranging from $260 per kilogram for dogfish-sized fins to over $1,500 per kilogram for larger fins. Most of the fins here will be used to make shark fin soup, a Cantonese dish that is a regular staple on Hong Kong menus but whose popularity has spread to an increasingly prosperous mainland China and around the world, where it is a fixture at weddings and seasonal banquets as a symbol of status and affluence. It is believed that as many as 73 million sharks are traded each year to feed the international demand for shark fin.

B.C. spiny dogfish fins are removed, frozen and exported to Asian markets, but the vast majority of the Chinatown fins come from much larger sharks. The shopkeeper selling the $1,000 dried fin does not know the shark species or where it was caught, which is the crux of the problem when it comes to the global trade in shark fins, according to Ernie Cooper, a Vancouver-based expert in wildlife trade at World Wildlife Fund Canada. Cooper says the shark fins here are imported largely from Hong Kong and China, where the fin is dried and the skin removed, the latter making identification difficult unless the DNA is analyzed. He says there is no current requirement in Canada to identify the species of the dried fins being imported into the country.

The contrast between the B.C. dogfish fishery and most of the shark fisheries that feed the Chinatown fin market couldn’t be more stark. Every part of a landed B.C. dogfish is used: the meat is used for fish and chips in the U.K. and as smoked belly fillets in Germany; the cartilage is used to make arthritis medications; the relatively tiny fins are removed and shipped to Asia; and everything that remains is ground up and sold as fertilizer. But most of the sharks supplying the global soup market — bigger species such as the hammerhead, mako and whitetip — are used for their fins only. They are typically “finned”: captured alive, their fins sliced off, their bodies dumped back into the ocean to sink and slowly die. And unlike those of B.C. dogfish, the shark fins found in Chinatown are often from animals caught as bycatch in fisheries targeting other fish, most notably tuna. But as global tuna fisheries are depleted, the sharks that follow the tuna increasingly become the targeted species, and it’s for the enormous value of their fins.

To slow what has become a global decline, an increasing number of North American lawmakers are exploring a range of legislated bans on shark products. Fin Donnelly, a B.C. Member of Parliament and the NDP Critic for Fisheries and Oceans, introduced a private Member’s bill in December 2011 that would impose a Canada-wide importation ban on shark fins. The bill may reach second reading as early as this December. At the time of writing, at least five municipal shark fin laws exist in Ontario alone, with three, including one in Toronto, planned to begin before the end of the year. South of the border, Hawaii banned shark fins in 2010, followed by California, Washington State and Oregon in 2011.

Internationally, one hope for conservation is to list the most threatened sharks on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty signed by 175 countries with the goal of ensuring that global trade in wildlife does not threaten species survival. But Cooper notes that CITES has stalled as a means of protecting marine animals generally, as powerful commercial fishing interests continue to block efforts to control trade in lucrative fish such as bluefin tuna and hammerhead sharks.

In Vancouver, a more grassroots approach to conservation is already having an impact on shark fin consumption. Shark Truth is a small not-for-profit organization that raises awareness among the Asian consumers and restaurateurs who drive the demand for shark fins in the first place. Led by first-generation Chinese-Canadian Claudia Li, Shark Truth’s flagship program is the Happy Hearts Love Sharks Wedding Contest. It’s a Facebook photo contest for couples who have chosen not to serve shark fin soup at their wedding banquet, a traditional venue for the dish. To date, Li estimates that about 80 couples have taken the pledge to go fin-free, preventing at least 20,000 bowls of the soup from being served.

Shark Truth’s second focus is restaurants such as Vancouver’s The Original Szechuan Chongqing Seafood Restaurant, the first Chinese restaurant in Greater Vancouver to stop serving shark fin soup. Managing director Lisa Wong, who learned of Shark Truth in 2010, says the wasteful aspect of finning — all for a soup that she says is dependent entirely on ham and chicken broth for flavour — astounded her. (Shark fin does not add flavour or texture to the soup, nor does it impart any health benefit: “It’s a conspicuous consumption product,” says Li.) Although the restaurant was not selling a lot of shark fin soup anyway, it was taken off the menu as a symbolic gesture. “I would like to get people to start thinking about shark fin,” says Wong, adding that even if shark fins could be sourced from a sustainable fishery she wouldn’t reintroduce the dish. “I’m not against people eating it, but I won’t be serving it.”

The MSC certification in British Columbia raises the possibility of a new local market niche for spiny dogfish fins from a traceable fishery with relatively strong management measures firmly in place. “There’s an opportunity right here in Vancouver for a sustainable shark fin product to replace other fins,” says Michael Renwick, a marine biologist who is executive director of the B.C. Dogfish Hook and Line Industry Association. “So far there isn’t really enough dogfish being caught to warrant that, but maybe in the future.”

If that day ever does come, however, Renwick likely won’t find an ally in organizations such as Shark Truth. That’s because Li believes education, not certified sustainable shark fin, is the answer to saving sharks. “It’s basically impossible to certify the majority of shark fin with MSC,” she says, because so many illegal fisheries currently supply the market. “It’s not going to save sharks from being finned.”

It’s day three of our fishing trip. I’m standing on deck watching as a quick succession of plump-bellied, mature female dogfish are hauled in. Ryan Planes unhooks them and flings their bodies through the air into a deep compartment filled with ice. I ask about the females. Planes says all the dogfish we have caught on this trip so far have been females. Is that a problem? “Yes, probably,” he answers. “Eventually, yes.” For the time being, though, he isn’t worried. “The biomass is so large, and there really isn’t anybody left fishing them now.”

Fellow Ucluelet-based longline fisherman Dan Edwards echoes Planes when asked about the effect of catching a disproportionate number of large females. “With the low amount of overall catch, it’s not considered a major problem if more females are harvested,” he says, adding that there will be a new, full stock assessment of B.C. spiny dogfish within five years as a condition of MSC certification. By the time that work is done, the MSC will also re-evaluate the fishery, and if serious concerns emerge, the certification can be suspended.

Currently, British Columbia hook-and-line fishermen are allowed to catch about 9,500 tonnes of dogfish a year, but John Planes laughs at the mention of this figure. “We won’t catch anywhere close to that,” he says. Last season, hook-andliners caught just over 900 tonnes, way down from the 35,00- tonne annual catch they’ve been averaging over the past 10 years. The reason for the decrease is mostly economic: the price premium that dogfish fishermen anticipated from green certification has not materialized, in large part due to the reopened U.S. east coast dogfish fishery that sells to the same European market at lower prices, and it shows in the amount of cash the 225 dogfish, 115 halibut and dozens of big sablefish and rockfish in the Ocean Sunset’s hold are expected to yield. John Planes will get roughly 66 cents per kilogram for the big dogfish and half that price for the small ones, compared with about $15.40 and $17.60 per kilogram for halibut and sablefish, respectively.

We chug into Ucluelet Inlet and past a cluster of houses at Stuart Bay, where at least eight sun-bleached fishing boats have been abandoned to decay just above the high-tide mark. On the opposite bank are three closed fish-processing plants, two for salmon and another for hake. John Planes displays the paradoxical optimism of a man who has spent an entire career on the water witnessing the slow decline of an industry yet clings to a life he loves. Garbage fish or not, he believes it’s inevitable that the low price he currently gets for his dogfish will rise. “Given the depletion of everything else,” he says, “I can’t see the dogfish price going anywhere but up in the future.”

B.C.’s spiny dogfish

Canada’s Pacific coastal waters are relatively shark-infested, with at least 14 species either resident or visiting at some point during the year. Seasonal visitors include blue sharks, shortfin makos and even great whites, but the spiny dogfish (Squalus suckleyi) is by far the most abundant and the only target of a commercial fishery.

In local waters, dogfish comprise two distinct stocks: one on the inside Strait of Georgia, which are generally homebodies, and a more migratory stock off the west coast of Vancouver Island, which can range from Baja California to Alaska and as far afield as Japan.

Historically, spiny dogfish are one of the most widely harvested and used fish in B.C. waters. Industrial fisheries have existed since at least 1870, and like humpback whales, local dogfish originally supplied oil for lighting; in the 1940s, their large livers were used as a source of vitamin A. Spiny dogfish have long been considered a nuisance for getting caught in salmon nets, and a federally-sponsored dogfish eradication campaign existed in British Columbia from 1958 to 1967, the same time a similar program wiped out the province’s once-abundant basking sharks.

— Christopher Pollon