Why The Cod On Cape Cod Now Comes From Iceland

Jan 2, 2014
Originally published on January 2, 2014 9:53 am

Good luck finding local cod in Cape Cod, Mass.

The fish once sustained New England's fishing industry, but in recent years, regulators have imposed severe catch limits on cod, and the fish remain scarce.

"I've never seen cod fishing this bad," says Greg Walinsky, who has been fishing on Cape Cod for more than 30 years. "It looks to me like it's over. And I can't catch any codfish."

It's so bad, many fishermen say, that for the first time, they cannot catch enough cod to even reach shrinking government quotas.

At Finely JP's, a seafood restaurant on the Cape, owner John Pontius says he has always served local cod, but the shortage caused prices to skyrocket. So for a while, he took it off the menu.

Now Pontius serves cod imported from Iceland. He is not alone.

"Everybody up and down the road has got the same cod from Iceland on their menu right now. If it's on the menu, it's more than likely Icelandic," he says.

To deal with the shortage, New England fishermen are turning to other types of fish — specifically, dogfish. But dogfish is considered a "trash fish" and has almost no market in the U.S.

Gloucester, Mass., north of Boston, was once the busiest fishing port in the world because of the abundance of cod. But those times are long gone.

"This fishery has been declared a federal disaster," says Chris Duffy, manager of fish wholesaler Cape Ann Seafood Exchange.

In his warehouse, Duffy shows off vats of freshly caught whole dogfish packed on ice. Virtually all of it will be shipped overseas to Asia and Europe.

"This undersection here is called the belly flap — those go to Germany, and they get smoked. They take the skin off of this, and you have the dogfish backs — they're big in Europe, and they'll chop it up into cutlets with the meat in it, that they'll fry it that way," he says.

Duffy and other fish wholesalers are trying to build a local market for dogfish. But it's a hard sell. In America, he says, it's just not popular.

"I know what they do with dogfish. They send it to England mostly, and the English use it as fish and chips — and I believe that's why they put vinegar on their fish and chips," says Romeo Solviletti, the manager of Connolly's Seafood just down the block from Cape Ann Seafood Exchange.

"I mean, I'm sure there are people who eat dogfish around here," he says, "but we don't sell any of it."

Nonetheless, the firm white fish is slowly making its way into markets in New England, including into the dining rooms of some hospitals and universities.

John Pontius says the best way to wean customers off cod might be to change the name of Cape Cod altogether. His suggestion? Cape Dogfish.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I'm not sure if you knew this; I didn't. Cape Cod got its name for the abundance of cod off its coastline. At one time, cod actually sustained New England's fishing industry but times have changed. Over-fishing has nearly wiped out local stocks of cod and severe catch limits have been imposed. As Rachel Gotbaum reports, consumers on the cape are being encouraged to try other kinds of fish.

RACHEL GOTBAUM, BYLINE: Greg Wilinsky has been fishing on Cape Cod for more than 30 years. Until recently, he made much of his living catching cod. But that has changed.

GREG WILINSKY: I've never seen cod fishing this bad. It looks to me like it's over. And I can't catch any codfish.

GOTBAUM: Last year fishermen in New England caught 75 percent less cod than just a few years earlier. It's so bad that many say for the first time they cannot catch enough cod to even reach shrinking government quotas.

Finely JP's is a popular seafood restaurant on the cape. Owner John Pontius says his restaurant is like most places on Cape Cod - he has always served local cod. But the shortage caused prices to skyrocket so for a while he took it off the menu.

JOHN PONTIUS: You know, people come to Cape Cod thinking Cape Cod, let's get some cod fish, right? That's why they named it Cape Cod.

GOTBAUM: Now Pontius serves cod imported from Iceland. He is not alone.

PONTIUS: You know, everybody up and down the road has got the same cod from Iceland on their menu right now. If it's cod, it's more than likely Icelandic.

GOTBAUM: To deal with the shortage, New England fishermen are turning to other types of fish, specifically dogfish. Butt dogfish is considered a trash fish and has virtually no market here in the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE MACHINE)

GOTBAUM: North of Boston in Gloucester the giant ice machines are deafening at Cape Ann Seafood Exchange, a fish wholesaler on the dock. Gloucester was once the busiest fishing port in the world because of all the cod. But those times are long gone.

CHRIS DUFFY: This fishery has been declared a federal disaster.

GOTBAUM: That's Chris Duffy. He's the manager here. In his warehouse Duffy shows off vats of freshly caught whole dogfish packed on ice. Virtually all of it will be shipped overseas to Asia and Europe.

DUFFY: This under section here is called the belly flap. Those go to Germany and they get smoked. They take the take the skin off of this and you have the dogfish backs. They're big in Europe and they will chop it up into cutlets with the meat in it and they'll fry it up that way.

GOTBAUM: So it's popular elsewhere?

DUFFY: Yeah. It's just in America it's not.

GOTBAUM: So Duffy and other fish wholesalers are trying to build a local market for dogfish. But it's a hard sell.

(SOUNDBITE OF RESTAURANT)

GOTBAUM: Connolly's Seafood is located just down the block from the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF RESTAURANT)

GOTBAUM: Romeo Solviletti is the manager here.

ROMEO SOLVILETTI: Well, I know what they do with the dogfish. They send it to England, mostly and the English use it as fish and chips. And I believe that's why they put vinegar on their fish and chips. I mean, I'm sure there are people that eat the dogfish around here, but we don't sell any of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

SOLVILETTI: Hello, Connolly's.

GOTBAUM: But the firm white fish is slowly making its way into markets in New England, including into dining rooms of local hospitals and universities. Cape Cod chef John Pontius says maybe the best way to wean customers off cod is to change the name of Cape Cod itself. His suggestion? Cape Dogfish. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Gotbaum in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.