Dogfish, considered a pest to anglers trying to catch salmon, have dropped to historic low numbers in Washington’s inland waters, researchers say.
The small shark’s decline is linked to nontribal fisherman who, after the 1974 Boldt decision that allocated half the state’s harvestable salmon to treaty tribes, sought salmon in the deepest parts of Puget Sound, where mature dogfish live, the researchers said.
The area’s population of dogfish was last estimated in 2001 at 1.75 million, down from 10 million in 1987, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Some in the commercial dogfish industry contest the findings, but local sport-fishing guides have noticed the decline.
“To be honest with you, I’ve only caught one,” said Dave Morgison, owner of Possession Point Fishing Charters of Everett. He’s been fishing Puget Sound for five decades and says 15 or 20 years ago dogfish would blanket parts of the water by the thousands.
Known for their painfully sharp spines, dogfish have beady eyes and a pointed snout, making them one of the least appealing of the world’s 400 shark species.
But scientists and a handful of commercial fishermen say the dogfish is a creature worth saving.
“We need to get the message out to the public. It’s an amazing animal that can live up to 100 years,” said Richard Beamish, senior scientist for Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Nanaimo, British Columbia. “In their life history, there are similarities to humans.”
Dogfish begin reproducing when they’re 25 to 35 years old. The gestation period is two years and females give live births, Beamish said, adding, “The babies themselves are quite cute, I think.”
The larger female dogfish is 2 1/2 to 3 feet in length, with an average weight of about 4 to 5 pounds, making it more commercially valuable. And with female numbers plummeting there are fewer pups available.
Decimation of the species could hurt the ecosystem in which it lives, said Beamish, who has studied the sharks for 31 years.
“We don’t understand all of the roles that dogfish serve,” he said. “If they’re the equivalent of scavengers, then they serve the purpose of cleaning up the environment. They are like wolves feeding on the deer that are undernourished. They cut out the weaker and diseased fish.”
Last month, Beamish joined 80 researchers who attended the first international conference on dogfish at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.
A survey by the state and federal government showed that sport fishermen caught 90 percent of dogfish in Puget Sound, said Wayne Palsson, a fisheries research scientist for the state.
Sport fishermen said they mostly released the dogfish alive, said Palsson. But, he added, “people are generally reluctant to admit to killing a dogfish. Technically it’s illegal to kill an animal without harvesting it.”
Dogfish meat is used in England for fish and chips. In Asia, it’s used in shark-fin soup — the dried fins are thought to be sexual stimulants there.
Juvenile dogfish eat salmon smolt as they enter salt water. Autopsies on mature dogfish show they pretty much eat whatever food source happens to be around, “including shrimp, jellyfish, herring, octopus, clam shells,” said Professor Vincent Gallucci, a University of Washington researcher specializing in sharks.
Gallucci hopes the dogfish population here will recover, as it did when it was decimated from overfishing from the late 1930s until 1950.
Dogfish livers were used as a source of vitamin A, but after the vitamin began being produced synthetically, the population rebounded.
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