ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Not long ago, the spiny dogfish, a decidedly unglamorous member of the shark family, was just a trash fish that fouled fishermen's nets.
Nobody wanted to catch it, let alone eat it. Fishermen held strategy sessions on how to get away from schools of dogfish.
Only about a decade after being "discovered" in the commercial fishing industry here, the once lowly dogfish is now at the center of an ecological debate.
Research biologists and conservationists claim it is being fished out of existence along the Atlantic Coast.
Fishermen say it is still so abundant it is more like a plague with fins, to the point of interfering with their ability to catch more profitable fish.
"I think we're looking at a train wreck," Charles A. Witek 3rd, a New York lawyer, recreational fisherman and conservationist, told a dozen members of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council who gathered here recently in a casino meeting room to debate the fate of the "dog."
Fisheries management specialist James L. Armstrong told the panel the coastal population was in such decline it might take half a century to rebuild.
James Lovgren, a Brick, N.J., commercial fisherman, glowered. "We have an ocean full of dogfish," he insisted.
"Jesus could walk on the water off Cape Cod, because he'd be stepping on dogfish," Lovgren said later. "This is just anti-fishing propaganda, plain and simple."
This classic fish debate -- conservationists vs. fishermen -- is made more complicated by the dogfish's amazing biology.
The females aren't sexually mature until age 12. And while much younger female codfish, for instance, spew out five million eggs a year, the spiny dogfish bears live young (about six "pups" at a time) and takes two years to do it. Its gestation period of 22 to 24 months is one of the longest on the planet.
In a way, the fishermen are right. There really are a lot of dogfish in the sea -- at least 214 million, if you simply divide the estimated 2002 "biomass" of 857 million pounds of dogfish by the average weight of today's dogfish, which is four pounds.
Ultimately, though, the important question is not how many fish there are in the sea, but whether even the current reduced catch is sustainable.
What alarms researchers, Armstrong said, is that the number of sexually mature females has plummeted. And for five years, the birth of pups has been virtually zero.
Former fisheries council member Alan Weiss likens the situation to an airplane that has just lost its engine.
"It's still flying," said Weiss, president of Blue Water Fishing Tackle Co., a Conshohocken, Pa., wholesaler of commercial and recreational fishing gear. "But you know it's not going to stay up for very long."
The current saga of the dogfish began around 1990. With cod in serious decline because of overfishing, the dogfish was discovered to be an adequate -- and abundant -- substitute in the European fish-and-chips market.
U.S. officials began to encourage a commercial fishery and pushed it for American palates, redubbing it the more eater-friendly "cape shark."
Recipes for "Cape Shark in Essence of Fennel" and "Cape Shark Teriyaki" began to hit Web cooking sites. Cape shark was served at New York Gov. George E. Pataki's 1995 inaugural ball.
Instead of throwing the ones that got caught in their nets overboard, as they always had, commercial fishermen began to target them.
The dogfish is a cold-water species, so the main fishery was in New England. But the fish migrates as far south as North Carolina, and a few have been known to push on toward Cuba.
Landings in New Jersey went from 22,000 pounds in 1989 to 4.5 million pounds in 1990. Dogfish filled the gaps when fishermen -- often family operators with a single boat -- couldn't target species such as cod or haddock because of limits.
"Fishermen don't fish for fish, they fish for dollars," said Bruce Freeman, of the New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife. Even at 10 to 20 cents a pound, dogfish brought in cash when nothing else would.
Naturally, fishermen targeted the biggest dogs, which happened to be the sexually mature females.
Researchers say the situation was a recipe for disaster.
"I guess it's a case of 'be careful what you wish for,'" said Rich Seagraves, coordinator of the dogfish plan for the council.
Even if fishing stopped tomorrow, it could take 14 years -- about a generation -- to bring back the dogfish, Armstrong said. Allow even limited fishing, and it could take 50 years.
Commercial fishermen have an entirely different vision of disaster and the dogfish. They say it's hard to believe the species is being overfished, when there are so many dogs in the sea that they can hardly dip a net or drop a hook without catching one.
When dogs get into a net, they chew up both the net and any other fish in it. Fishermen have to remove them by hand, risking being sliced by their spines, which contain a mild toxin.
"At this point," Lovgren said, "they're the biggest concern of every fisherman on this coast."
The chasm between what researchers say and what fishermen see is so wide that some question the survey techniques.
Researchers evaluate the population by dragging a net behind a research trawler, counting what comes up, and extrapolating.
But if the nets aren't set right, or if the boat goes too fast or too slow, the results could be off.
"I can't disregard what I see on the water and what I hear," said James A. Ruhle Sr., a council member from North Carolina. "I have serious problems with the stock assessment. I question the gear."
Lovgren said, "Those researchers couldn't catch a dogfish if you threw it to them."
Meanwhile, the council has to work with the numbers it has. Over the next few months, the members will have to reach a decision among themselves -- and then come to an agreement with the New England council.
The first time they tried, it was a struggle. The dogfish was officially declared overfished in 1998. Under federal law, any overfished species must have a management plan to restore it in 10 years.
For two years, the New England and mid-Atlantic councils battled. They agreed to set limits, but the mid-Atlantic council wanted an annual quota of 2.9 million pounds and New England balked at anything less than 14 million pounds.
In 2000, Commerce Secretary William M. Daley stepped in and imposed a limit of 4 million pounds, with trip limits of 300 to 600 pounds per boat, depending on the season.
The regulations led to a virtual shutdown of the New Jersey fishery because no one could sell a mere 300 pounds of dogfish. The processors are in New England, and the buyers' trucks hold 30,000 pounds.
Sonja Fordham, a shark expert with the Ocean Conservancy, urged the council to ban all dogfish landings.
To her and other shark conservationists, the dogfish is a valuable member of the ocean ecosystem. Its depletion would dent the image the United States is fostering as a protector of sharks.
"This is a terrible shame," she said. "This is one of the few sharks that, because of its abundance, had a better chance than most. It could have sustained a fishery. But we've blown it. It's too little, too late."
Also at the hearing were William and James Leach, who fish out of Barnegat, N.J., on William's 45-footer, the Kristin Lynn, named for his daughter and wife.
They navigate not just the ocean, but a sea of regulations. "You almost need a law degree to make sure you're legal," William Leach said.
When swordfish are legal, the fishermen put on the $30,000 long-line gear. When monkfish are legal, they switch to the $20,000 gill nets. Back and forth. They used to fish for dogs, but not anymore.
At one point, when the council began to discuss the feasibility of limiting the catch of mature females, but allowing a take of smaller males, they snorted with disgust.
"We're going to post a sign on the net," James Leach muttered. "No females allowed."