Pacific Northwest
Illustration from Southern Fried Science

Research expedition: what ever happened to the world’s first certified sustainable shark fishery?

My Postdoctoral research has focused on understanding the causes and consequences of public misunderstanding about shark fisheries management. While scientists overwhelmingly support sustainable fisheries management as a solution to shark overfishing, many concerned citizens and conservation activists prefer total bans on all shark fishing and trade. Some go so far as to (wrongly) claim that sustainable shark fisheries cannot exist even in theory and do not exist in practice anywhere in the world, and that bans are the only possible solution.

There’s an important piece of data that very rarely makes it into these discussions. Amidst the ongoing discussions about whether or not sustainable shark fisheries are even possible, one right in my backyard became the first shark fishery anywhere in the world to be certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

However, a few years after BC’s spiny dogfish fishery got certified, the certification was quietly withdrawn. I couldn’t find any information in the MSC reports, or in associated scientific literature or government reports, that explained what happened to this fishery, which was thriving until recently. No scientists, managers, or conservation advocates who I asked about this knew exactly what happened to BC’s spiny dogfish fishery.

Sometimes fisheries collapse because fishermen kill too many fish, but that didn’t happen here. We know that dogfish populations in coastal BC remain very, very high- more than high enough to support a fishery.

Sometimes fisheries cease operations because it becomes too hard to catch fish of that species, but that didn’t happen here. We know that BC fishermen continue to catch large numbers of dogfish (as bycatch in the groundfish, halibut, and sablefish fisheries). However, these fishermen used to land their dogfish, and now they just throw them back.

Sometimes fisheries shut down because market conditions shift, and it’s no longer profitable to catch that type of fish, but that didn’t happen here. We know that other dogfish fisheries around the world are thriving, and that market conditions have rarely been better for selling dogfish.

So if there are plenty of dogfish in the sea, it’s easy for fishermen to catch them, and people continue to want to buy and eat dogfish, what happened to the world’s first certified sustainable shark fishery? Starting next week, we’re going on a research expedition to try and find out!

Introducing Operation Dogfish 3, a research expedition to help answer this important question!

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