Is One Man’s Trash (Fish) Another Man’s Treasure?

Consumers typically drive demand for products, but can an alliance of fisherman flip this model on its head and create a market for sustainable fish?

Creating sustainable fishing practices has long been a concern for environmental groups, regulators, and increasingly for discerning consumers, as a result of issues with overfishing and the depletion of certain popular fish stocks like cod and halibut[1]. In response, overfishing has traditionally been counteracted through regulation limiting the harvesting of those fish populations during certain times of the year, and by certain catch thresholds[2]. However, even with such limits in place, populations of species like cod in places like the Gulf of Maine and the coast of Massachusetts have failed to rebound as expected.

There’s a significant amount of research that suggests that warming ocean temperatures have played a role in dampening the resilience of these species even with harvesting controls in place. Rising water temperatures, driven by climate change, prevent spawning and increase mortality rates among fish stocks, as well as likely driving the remaining fish to deeper waters.[3]

Commercial fishermen, whose livelihoods depend on the ability to bring these popular fish to the consumer market, have had their already tenuous business model further shaken in light of this climate change driven development.

Don’t throw out the trash

One organization of cooperative fisherman, the Cape Cod Fisherman’s Alliance, is trying to change that through a new effort headed by local Chatham fisherman, Doug Feeney. Feeney has made it his mission to preserve the livelihood of small commercial fisherman in light of shifts to their business due climate change.

Cape Cod fisherman, Doug Feeney, thinks dogfish can help fix the commercial fishing industry
Cape Cod fisherman, Doug Feeney, thinks dogfish can help fix the commercial fishing industry

Feeney and the Alliance believe that incorporating fishing for species like the relatively obscure spiny dogfish into a commercial fisherman’s seasonal fishing patterns can help dampen the impact of climate change on their livelihood. Seemingly impervious to water temperature changes[4], the dogfish offers a compelling augmentation to the commercial fisherman’s dwindling fishing opportunity. The belief is that these “trash fish,” as they are typically called, might provide the bridge that commercial fisherman like Doug Feeney and the other members of groups like the Cape Cod Fisherman’s Alliance need to sustain their livelihood in the face of the threat of climate change.

While the fish are abundant in the increasingly warm waters off the New England coast, the challenge fisherman are seeing now is how to create consumer demand for this “trash fish.” In fact, “here in the United States, dogfish remain so obscure that a 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek article mislabeled them as an invasive species. Such anonymity is disastrous for business: While cod fetch more than $2 per pound, dogfish rarely earn more than 20 cents—mere pennies above a fisherman’s break-even point.”[5]

The making of a market

Essentially what Feeney and the Alliance are attempting to do is create a new market. To do so, they’ve first focused on grassroots efforts to promote their catch, targeting cutting-edge chefs who are looking for a way to differentiate their cuisine to demanding customers. For example, trendy Boston restaurants like Row34 and Catalyst have begun putting dogfish on their menu. The Alliance has also been experimenting with changing the name to reduce the stigma, trying to popularize terms like “Cape Shark,” much in the way that Chilean Sea Bass was created as a hip moniker for the less well known Patagonian Toothfish.

While the Alliance has seen some success taking this tactic, the key is to take the dogfish mainstream, a feat that’s unlikely to be accomplished without some serious uptake by large commercial buyers. Finding a supply chain to consume the fish in bulk and drive prices to an economically viable point to incent fishing behavior is critical to incorporating this species into a commercial fisherman’s business model. Feeny and the Alliance are targeting institutional buyers like hospitals, and universities. Recently, “as a result [of the Alliance’s efforts], meal kit delivery service Plated is now featuring dogfish… Foodservice operator Aramark has also purchased dogfish, along with universities such as the University of California, Berkeley and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.”[6] Feeney is also looking outside the local market of the Northeast to prop up his market, courting buyers from as far as China[7].

A brave “diverse” new world

Interestingly, there is also emerging research that might suggest that preserving and encouraging biodiversity increases resilience to climate change[8]. This should be another lever that fishing alliances keep in mind when they’re working to build a sustainable business for future commercial fisherman. By promoting new species for consumption that can adapt to changing marine condition, skate for instance, they can naturally prevent overfishing, work to combat the impact of climate change on the marine ecosystem, and preserve the livelihood of commercial fisherman.


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Student comments on Is One Man’s Trash (Fish) Another Man’s Treasure?

  1. Great post. Every cloud has a silver lining. I will request spiny dogfish next time I’m at my fishmonger.

    Would love to see more detail on the relative contribution of climate change and unsustainable fishing practices to dwindling fish stocks. I’m concerned that changing the target of the fishing doesn’t address the sustainability of fishing practices. What if overfishing continues and also decimates stocks of spiny dogfish? Also, as some of your references suggest, rising sea temperatures are shifting northward the natural range of cod and other fish previouly present off the coast of Massachusetts. A boon for Canadian fishermen, then.

  2. I loved this post Maria. I really hope the model of changing consumer behavior toward more sustainable fish works. I can imagine there being applications and business opportunities for these types of initiatives in other climate change-affected industries. A prominent example of how that started to come about was the pushback to the water-intensive almond industry during the California drought. Almond products were getting a lot of negative PR for some time, particularly when people were directly affected with water rations during the drought and the Almond industry served as an easy source of blame. I’m not sure how similar phenomena may be able to be capitalized to push more sustainable fish products, but I wonder if there’s something to be said about a strategy of branding certain fish as environmentally sustainable in addition to changing fish names to reduce stigma.

  3. This is an great post!

    I do think there is a growing movement towards more sustainable fishing practices. For example, Sweetgreens, one of the fast growing ‘fast-salad’ chains, recently introduced Steelhead Trout on their menu instead of Salmon. They did this in a move towards more sustainable fishing practices: the provider, Pacific Seafood, became the first farm of its kind to receive a Best Aquaculture Practices certification.

    There is hope for dogfish! Kale is a great example of how clever marketing has changed what used to be a ‘trash food’ (in many parts of the developing world Kale was eaten by people who couldn’t afford other vegetables!) to one of the most fashionable foods in the world.

    I believe the key is building strong partnerships with growing environmentally-conscious food providers, and exactly as you say above, building a broader marketing campaign to make dogfish fashionable. We need to make other people realise there are other fish in the sea!

  4. This post really hit close to home for me. My uncle is a commercial fisherman in Gloucester, MA. Growing up down the street from him, I was exposed to many aspects of the fishing industry. As I’ve grown up, the regulations have become harsher are small commercial fishing operations, putting many fishermen out of business. The argument for dogfish is very interesting, but I am concerned that people who are not used to eating this fish will not be willing to make the switch from Cod. I wonder how feasible it will be to convince people that dogfish is a yummy fish and introduce the species without it becoming invasive. Farm fishing is another alternative solution to this problem, but also has many drawbacks including persistent water contamination, use of pesticides to feed fish, and aquatic ecosystem destruction.

    Here’s a trailer from a documentary about the Cod fishing industry

  5. Hi Maria – What a great read! I always enjoy learning more about an entrepreneur, especially one from such an unassuming background. Doug Feeney has come up with a simple yet brilliant way of combatting overfishing: Eat a different fish!

    However, I worry about the sustainability of Feeney’s plan. On the one hand, diverting attention to the dogfish (or whatever name the Cape Cod fishermen use to re-brand it) might give other species a chance to replenish their population. But it won’t impact the rapidly increasing demand for fish. For example, a recent study estimates that “fish consumption has risen from an annual average of 22 pounds per person in the 1960s to nearly double that in 2012” [1].

    Thus while Feeney’s solution is a smart short-term solution, it doesn’t seem like an sustainable environmentally-friendly solution.

    [1] “U.N.: Record-high Global Demand for Fish Threatens Oceans”, Peter Moskowitz, Aljazeera America (May 19, 2014), available at

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