For Seatrade International in Portland, Maine, business is booming, which is some kind of miracle when you know that its only product is dogfish -- the dandelion of New England waters. Even more, it's the scourge of New England waters.
"I hate them," said one commercial fisherman in Portsmouth, N.H., with vicious gusto. "I just hear the name and the hair on the back of my neck stands up. Dogfish plunge their way through the nets and get them tangled and they bite anything, anything at all."
Also, they are so prolific in the Gulf of Maine that some say you could walk to Europe on their backs if they would just stand still.
Steven Barndollar, president of Seatrade International and a true entrepreneur, decided they weren't so bad and that's why business is booming. His wife, who grew up in Europe, was never put off by those piggy little eyes and toothy smiles and showed him that this despised, if abundant fish was delicious. She dusted the fillets in flour, browned them in butter, then served them up with capers and lemon juice.
He did what any canny Yankee would do considering local attitudes. He cornered the dogfish market and offered it to Europe. Now 90 percent of the catch is sent where it is appreciated.
Our resistance to dogfish is curious, particularly if you know that they are not scavengers and that their diet is crustaceans, mollusks and other fish. If they could just make it to American markets, they would also be inexpensive, less than $2 a pound. But just imagine. You are in a posh restaurant and the waiter is taking you order with the obligatory haughtiness. "May I recommend the basil ravioli with the dogfish filling," he says. Not likely.
The breed is also known as sandshark, which is slightly better, but in Europe, nobody seems to care what they're called.
What is necessary to enhance these marauding foot-and-a-half-long terrors that hunt in packs is a new name to convince customers that these handsome fillets or small steaks cuddled in crushed ice are exactly what they want for dinner. Think of the orange roughy that now appears proudly on restaurant menus -- a lovely sound. But when orange roughy is at home in southern Pacific waters around New Zealand, it is known as slimehead, enough to trigger fear and loathing among the natives. But orange roughy? Who could resist?
The first new name for dogfish/sandshark was a moniker carefully chosen by Barndollar: Gulf of Maine shark. How does it sound on the tongue? Aren't there echoes of good things to eat, so it can ride the coattails of Maine lobster, Maine crab, Maine mussels? But the migratory pattern had to be considered and finally it was called Gulf Stream shark
In the face of dwindling popular fish stocks, eating dogfish/sandshark makes sense. The word "shark" no longer scares the cook. Mako shark has hit the big time, appearing on restaurant grills with salmon and scallop brochettes and swordfish steaks.
Bob Beaudoin, marketing head for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, is skeptical -- at least as far as Mainers are concerned. "You'd think people here would go for something different after one look at the price of haddock and give some other fish a try. 'Six dollars a pound?' they say. 'Haddock was $1.99 a pound and not so long ago.' They stamp around and complain for a while and then say, 'I'll have the haddock.' "
Other areas seem more willing to try. Gourmet magazine, with its reputation for good taste, publishes recipes that call for one pound of shark in the list of ingredients without mentioning the species. One article devoted to shark mentioned "dogfish" right in the introductory copy -- fearlessly -- and included eight complicated recipes that broiled it, pan grilled it, saute'ed, stir-fried and brochetted it.
You'll notice that baked was not mentioned. In Euell Gibbons' "Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop" (McKay and A.C. Hood, 1987, reissue), he wrote, "Baked ... they are barely edible, but when the flesh was cut in strips, dipped in batter and fried in the manner of English fish and chips, they were perfectly delicious with a flavor reminiscent of lobster."
Much of our dogfish/Gulf Stream shark export ends up in England for fish and chips, but the name on that side of the Atlantic is "rock salmon," which proves something.
If Maine fish buyers are so narrow that they won't try a new fish, what about a less finicky clientele? How would Boston respond to Gulf Stream shark?
Legal Seafood is a small prestigious chain of retail markets with restaurants revered for its no-nonsense approach to the freshest fish simply cooked. Manager Roger Berkowitz listened to this new wrinkle of the name change and said, "It's a step in the right direction. Dogfish relates to dog food and who wants to eat that? But what it will take to turn the corner is someone like Julia Child to come along and develop a few recipes to get people's attention. She did it for monkfish, the ugliest creature in the ocean."
Berkowitz does have a few fringe fish on the restaurant menu -- cusk, wolf fish and ocean catfish -- but until the supplies of cod and haddock are seriously diminished, he has no reason to consider Gulf Stream shark seriously.
Bay State Lobster is a wholesale/retail fish market in Boston with beckoning fingers in every fishery to find the most obscure seafood available. It's a window on the piscatory world. "We have no dogfish here," said the wholesale buyer with cool disdain. "We don't handle that species." Under any name, evidently. Ever.
Paul Earl of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Gloucester gets around to all the fisheries in the universe. "Dogfish under a dozen names is popular in France and Germany, Britain and Scandinavia. The Germans smoke it and sell it as shillerlaken, which is very popular." Smoked Gulf of Maine shark? Now, that might give it a boost.
But Europeans are more sophisticated than we are and less affected by silly names. Just the contents of a pot of fish soup would set an American's teeth on edge -- scorpion fish, conger eel, just plain old eel, and all of those bony little rock fish they throw in just for flavor. Bones?
Further down the coast from New England, Gulf Stream shark is doing a big business as "steakfish," "capefish" or "rockfish steak" and is marinated and grilled under all of them, which proves that finding a market isn't impossible.
Shark may no longer scare the cook, but the cook is scaring the shark. Marine scientists with an eye to the future are not amused. This fish's reproductive system is not geared to a mass market. "Think about it," said Kevin Creighton, marine biologist for the Massachusetts Commercial Fisheries. "A cod will lay about 50,000 eggs at a clip, but a shark is a mammal which bears its young alive and may produce only 30 offspring in an entire lifetime."
Already the survival of some varieties of shark is in trouble. A list of 38 species has been targeted by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which will begin to limit the numbers caught this year.
Dogfish/sandshark/Gulf Stream shark did not make the list and probably will not on this side of the Atlantic if they do not become more popular. On the other hand, a little minced salt pork, a few onions and a potato or two, cream and a chunk of butter ... and with its new name echoing the heart of New England, those customers in the fish market may be convinced that it is a terrific chowder fish.
We'll see. Officially, no matter what Seatrade International is calling it, it is still dogfish to the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Agency.
Sally Tager writes from the seacoast of New Hampshire.