In 18 years of running fishing charters, Capt. Monty Hawkins had never been so disgusted.
One day last month, as he fished 15 miles off Ocean City, the skipper of the O. C. Princess saw three spiny dogfish writhing helplessly on the surface of the Atlantic. One of the 60 customers aboard his boat had sliced off their fins and tossed the small sharks, still alive, back in the water.
"It was the most despicable thing I've ever seen on the ocean. I went ballistic," Hawkins recalled recently. "Wanton waste is against the law for any sort of hunting."
The skipper promptly radioed the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to report what he felt certain was a crime. He was mistaken. The federal government outlawed "finning" of larger sharks three years ago in an effort to halt their slaughter for sale as an aphrodisiac in Asia. But the runt of the sharks -- dogfish -- are not protected.
That may be about to change. Amid growing concern that dogfish are in danger of depletion, a regional council of fishermen, scientists and government officials will meet next week to consider curbing catches off the mid-Atlantic and New England coasts. A decision to impose limits may not go into effect for a year or two.
Spiny dogfish have been all but ignored. Not to be confused with immature sand, or sandbar, sharks, they have white spots on their sides and spines in front of their dorsal fins. They are among the smallest of the shark class, growing no more than 4 feet long, and are harmless to swimmers.
Until a few years ago, dogfish were widely believed to be abundant and in no danger because their meat was not worth much. Conservationists focused on saving larger coastal sharks, which have dwindled by 80 percent or more since the 1970s.
Meanwhile, sports anglers reviled dogfish as bait-stealing pests. Less than a decade ago, federal net-trawling surveys found dogfish in record numbers in the northwest Atlantic.
But as other marketable fish stocks have been depleted, spiny dogfish have been targeted by fishermen from Canada to the Carolinas for their flesh and their fins.
Commercial catches have quadrupled in the past six years, from about 5,000 metric tons a year in the 1980s to more than 20,000 metric tons last year.
Most were landed in Massachusetts, followed by North Carolina, Maine and Maryland.
Almost all the dogfish caught in U.S. waters are exported either to Europe, where they keep the English in fish and chips, or to Asia, where they feed a passion for shark-fin soup.
The meat has risen in price from 7-8 cents a pound to 32 cents a pound last year, according to a report by the Ocean Wildlife Campaign, a conservation group.
Brokers pay up to $35 or $40 a pound for dried fins, which are fancied as a sexual stimulant in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. Germans also snack on the chewy, dried belly flaps of dogfish, which they call "schillerloken."
Though smaller than the commercial haul, recreational dogfish catches likewise have grown, rising fivefold since 1979.
"The fear is that this sudden increased [fishing] pressure may be too much for dogfish," said W. Peter Jensen, Maryland's tidal fisheries director.
Jensen sits on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which under federal law regulates offshore catches.
The council is expected to review the status of dogfish at its Dec. 17 meeting in Delaware.
"Right now, it's more a fear than a fact" that dogfish are in $H trouble, Jensen said. But, he added, "Hopefully we can do something before we have a serious decline."
Federal fisheries scientists concluded two years ago that the spiny dogfish population was stable at best and probably declining because of the increased catch off New England and the mid-Atlantic states.
"It has become another species that's going to be overexploited, if it hasn't been already," said Paul Rago, a scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service at Woods Hole, Mass.
Other experts, though, have little doubt.
"They've been slammed and are in rapid decline now," says Jack Musick, head of vertebrate ecology at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences and the Chesapeake Bay region's leading researcher on sharks.
Musick, who has spent 23 years trawling the bay and coastal waters for sharks, said that spiny dogfish are as vulnerable as their larger cousins, which have been severely depleted to supply the red-hot Asian market for shark fins.
It takes female dogfish a dozen years or so to mature. Unlike most fish, they retain their eggs and nurture their developing offspring during a gestation period of nearly two years -- a longer pregnancy than an elephant's. Each female bears an average of eight pups.
Spiny dogfish can live 30 years or longer, and they migrate from their summer home off Nova Scotia to winter off the mid-Atlantic coast, where they bear their young.
Females tend to grow larger than males, averaging 3 feet or more.
But lately, Musick said, big females have virtually disappeared -- which he said is a sign the stock is being overfished. Females made up more than 90 percent of the commercial catch until a couple of years ago because they tended to be larger, but now fishermen are going after males and smaller, immature females.
Musick said a colleague reported seeing many pregnant female dogfish being processed last year at a "cutting house" in Manteo, N.C.
"When they walked in there, he was up to his ankles in embryos," Musick said. "You can't continue to do that."
Musick said he was encouraged that the mid-Atlantic fishery council seems headed toward imposing catch limits, and conservation and scientific groups have petitioned to have international trade in dogfish regulated as well.
But Musick said, "It's a little late," given the slow maturity and limited reproduction of sharks.
Beyond their value as food, sharks have great scientific worth. For instance, researchers note that sharks don't get cancer, and that major wounds heal within 24 hours.
"The problem with fisheries managers," the scientist said, is "they usually respond according to the value of the fishery and not to the biology of the animals. That's a false economy."
While it may be a year or more before regulations govern dogfish, Hawkins said he adopted a new rule on the spot for anyone fishing aboard his boat.
"I made it clear to everybody that anybody who finned another shark was done for the day," he said. "I shut the boat right down, turned the engines off and made sure everybody heard."
Pub Date: 12/10/96