The fish that’s not a fish, or a dog
Story by Bailey Gilliam
The Atlantic spiny dogfish isn’t actually a fish at all, but a shark. Wielding two venomous spines and growing as long as 4 feet, Atlantic spiny dogfish can often be seen hunting prey in dog-like packs (hence the dog-like name). Smaller spiny dogfish tend to feed primarily on crustaceans, while larger dogfish eat jellyfish, squid and schooling fish. Cod, red hake, goosefish, other spiny dogfish, larger sharks, seals and killer whales all prey on dogfish. Dogfish also have a habit of getting caught in fishing nets due to their small size, resulting in a bycatch. Today these little sharks are the most commonly caught and exported U.S. shark species, but that wasn’t always the case.
The U.S. commercial fishery supplies European markets that use dogfish for fish and chips in England and as a popular beer garden snack called Shillerlochen in Germany.
In 2021 commercial landings of spiny dogfish in the Atlantic totaled 11 million pounds and were valued at more than $2 million.
Like all sharks, dogfish grow slowly, mature late in life, and live a long time (35 to 40 years).
A brief history
Spiny dogfish were once one of the most abundant shark species in the world. They were historically considered a nuisance by many fishermen who believed they ate high-priced fish, which turned out to be false. Very few fishing vessels targeted dogfish until World War II, when foreign seafood imports were significantly reduced. The wartime population sought out domestic and nutritious seafood options. Dogfish were plentiful in U.S. waters and high in vitamin A, making them one of the most sought-after shark species. After the war the demand for dogfish waned domestically. However, their light, white meat found a strong market abroad, and today spiny dogfish is still one of the primary species used in British “fish and chips” and other European dishes. As a result they are the top shark species caught in U.S. waters by volume and make up a major portion of U.S. seafood exports. Seafood suppliers have tried to build a market for dogfish here, but Americans favor other white fish. Marketing companies even suggested changing the spiny dogfish common name to make it sound more appealing, but market growth has yet to progress. We still think it’s underrated.
Spiny dogfish are slim, with a narrow, pointed snout and characteristic white spots. They are gray above and white below and, honestly, strikingly beautiful. They have two dorsal fins with ungrooved large spines. The spiny dogfish may inject venom into predators from those two spines near the dorsal fins as a form of protection.
Where to find them
These little sharks inhabit the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans, mainly in the temperate and subarctic areas. In the Northwest Atlantic they are found from Labrador to Florida. They live inshore and offshore, usually near the bottom but also in mid-water and at the surface. They swim in large schools and migrate seasonally with changes in water temperature. Much of the population travels north in the spring and summer and south in the fall and winter. Your chances of catching one now are pretty high.
How to catch them
“It’s a winter fishery that is available in the Broad River,” said Grant Kaple of The Boathouse and John Brackett of Sweet Pea Charters. “The go-to baits are cut mullet or menhaden on the bottom. You would use your classic bottom-fishing rig of egg sinker to swivel to 3′ leader to a small hook. Kahle or circle hook works best. Once you’re on them, it makes for a great day of fishing.”
Based on the evidence of over-exploitation in their range and bycatch fisheries, the global population of spiny dogfish is considered vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. Global populations have declined by more than 30 percent over the last 75 years. Make sure to have a permit when you go, and fish responsibly.
The state record is yet to be set, believe it or not. While the South Carolina Gamefish Record program began around 1970, dogfish wasn’t on the list. Officials receive inquiries about species that are not listed for record catches, and it was decided that since some time had elapsed since any modifications to the program had taken place, it would be a good idea to take a closer look. In February of this year they added nine species following a presentation to the Marine Advisory Committee, and dogfish made the list. So go out and catch a dogfish that is of legal size, and you may become the record holder. Oddly enough, the world record dogfish is 21.5 pounds and was caught in Forest Lake, South Carolina (we’re not sure why this isn’t the state record).
We know that this “fish” is high in vitamin A, but it is also a low-fat source of protein and is high in selenium and vitamins B6 and B12. The meat has a sweet, mild flavor and a higher oil content than mako or other sharks, which keeps the flesh moist. It has a flaky yet firm texture. You can deep fry spiny dogfish, as the British do for fish and chips, but don’t stop there. Use cubed meat for kebabs or in stir-fries. Dogfish smokes nicely because of its oily flesh. The fins can be used in shark-fin soup, and the firm meat makes an ideal chowder ingredient. In short, you can bake, broil, fry, grill, sauté and smoke dogfish.
The raw meat is white, and the outer flesh can have a reddish color. If not cut away, the reddish portion turns brown when cooked. The rest of the meat cooks up white. Dogfish meat should have a faintly sweet smell; although a slight metallic odor is acceptable, an ammonia stench is not. Because, like all sharks, dogfish lack a traditional urinary tract, they concentrate urea, a waste product, in their blood and excrete it through their skin. As soon as it’s caught, dogfish must be gutted, bled and chilled. Otherwise, the urea remains in the flesh, and an ammonia smell develops within 24 hours.
A big dill
This firm, flaky white dogfish has a mild flavor that takes on seasonings beautifully – perfect for the grill. This recipe takes a local catch and adds some Bavarian flavors.
Grilled dogfish with lemon and dill
4 skinless dogfish fillets
2 tablespoons sunflower or peanut oil
2 teaspoons Bavarian Seasoning (a mix of crushed brown
mustard, rosemary, garlic, thyme, bay leaf and sage)
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 lemon, cut into wedges, for serving
3-4 sprigs dill, for serving
Directions  Heat outdoor grill to medium heat.  Place fillets in a large, shallow dish. Drizzle on oil and add Bavarian seasoning, salt and pepper. Rub this mixture all over both sides of the fish fillets.  Grill fish on preheated grill until the meat is cooked through and flakes easily with a fork. Serve with lemon wedges and dill sprigs.
Beer-battered dogfish and chips
2 pounds dogfish
Oil for frying
About 1/2 bottle of beer (ideally a mild English beer, English amber or brown ale)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup self-rising flour
2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, sliced into 1/8-inch thick rounds
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Directions  Salt fish and set aside at room temperature. Heat oil to 350. Place a cooling rack on cookie sheet and put in warm oven.  Mix the flour, salt and beer, stirring constantly. You want enough beer in the batter to give it the consistency of melted ice cream. Put the batter in the fridge to rest for 20 minutes.  While the batter is resting, slice the potatoes into a large bowl of cold water. Remove the potatoes and pat them dry with a paper towel.  Fry the potatoes, a few at a time, for 3-5 minutes or until they start to brown at the edges. Salt each batch the moment it comes out of the fryer. Store each batch on the wire rack in the warm oven.  Take the batter out of the fridge. Dredge the fish in the batter and let the excess drip off for a second or two. Lay each piece gently into the hot oil. Fry in batches until golden brown, about 5-8 minutes. Keep each batch in the warm oven while you finish the rest. Serve immediately.