How to Skin and Clean Shark


If you’ve never cooked up those little sharks one catches in bays and the surf, you’re missing a big treat. Some call them sand sharks but they’re really called smooth dogfish sharks (Mustelus canis). At least this is what is caught along the North American Atlantic seaboard from Main to Florida.

Note that the dogfish does not have those sharp pointed teeth which cut and tear at their prey. They crush and grind instead. The dogfish is relatively harmless and timid. They come in various shades of grey and have white underbellies.

The purpose of this page isn’t to tell you about sharks, but rather to tell you how to deal with them once caught if you intend to turn them into tasty morsels.

The primary thing to realize is that shark urinate through their skin. This also applies to related species such as stingray and skate. They say that smaller and younger shark and related species usually don’t have an off taste, but I prefer to treat them all the same. The off taste is that of ammonia. As soon as a shark or related species dies, the ammonia flavor and odor begin to permeate. The urea-like compounds in shark blood will immediately start to break down into ammonia.

Here’s the key to cleaning shark and avoiding the buildup of offending taste and odor:

1. As soon as the shark is caught, remove the head, gut it, bleed it and skin it:

What you’ll need: A sharp fillet knife, stainless steel needlenose pliers, a towel, a relatively clean surface, fresh water and a cooler with lots of ice. It wouldn’t hurt to have kevlar or metal mesh gloves if handling a shark with big teeth. You also may want to have a hammer or club to kill a shark that’s oversized for your ability to deal with before attempting to remove the head. The cooler needs to be big enough to hold all the shark meat you’ll be storing.

A word of caution. The dogfish shark as indicated above doesn’t have sharp teeth, but other sharks do, and you need to exercise caution when handling a live shark with razor sharp teeth and snapping jaws.

A. Have a relatively clean surface to work with the shark body after the head has been removed and the shark bleeds out. The idea is to keep sand and grit from getting on the shark meat. You can remove the head, then use some water to rinse off the rest of the shark and put it on the clean working area.

B. Place a towel over the head, holding the shark in a stable safe position and use a club on the head to kill it.

C. Use the fillet knife to remove the head and let the body bleed out for a couple minutes. Run the fillet knife down the underbelly of the shark; from where the head was removed to where the inner cavity ends.

Remove the entrails.

D. Rinse sand from the body and from the inner cavity where the entrails were removed and then place the body on your working area.

E. Use the fillet knife to remove all the fins, slicing them off close to the body. Slice off the tail just where the the tail starts to thicken from the underlying meat.

F. Run the fillet knife just under the skin from the end of the open belly cavity to where the tail was removed. Next run the fillet knife under the skin on the top side of the shark where the head was removed and split the skin from the head end down to the tail end. The sharks skin is now separated from the top and bottom into a left and right half.

G. Shark skin is tough to remove, but once you get it started, and have a decent grip, can be ripped off the meat. Take your needlenose pliers and pinch them on a corner of the skin at the top, head end of one side. Get a good piece of the skin pinched and then keeping a tight grip on the pliers, roll the pliers one or two times allowing the skin to wrap around the end of the pliers. Grip tightly and yank a few times to get the skin to start peeling away from the meat. The hole the shark with your other hand (a friend is helpful here), and pull hard to continue to tear the skin away until the entire side of skin has been removed. Once you have a pretty good portion torn away, you can remove the pliers from the skin and use them to grip the skin near areas still attached to the meat to pull more of the skin away. Do the same thing with the other half of the skin not removed yet. Since the skin is so tough, it’s likely you’ll be able to remove the entire section at one time. If the skin does tear away from the main piece, just pinch the skin again and roll it again until you have the skin pulled away more. Continue the process until all skin is removed.

2. Once the steps in item 1 are done, you’ll see a dark or red strip that runs down both sides of the length of the meat. Use the fillet knife to slice just under the dark surface to remove it. Slice under it again if the darkness or red is still fairly pronounced. Depending on the side of your cooler, you can cut the shark into lengths that allow them to fit into the cooler.

3. Immediately put the finished product in ice to keep it chilled until you’re ready to cook it. You can cut small sharks it into 3, 4 or more inch pieces to fit it into a plastic bag when putting it on ice.

4. Fresh or thawed from frozen, you can soak it in milk or a sodium bicarbonate soak for an hour or so.

Note that this applies to shark you’ve caught and know are fresh. If you’re purchasing shark or skate, take a whiff to see if it’s got an ammonia odor. If so, don’t buy it or ask for another piece.

The whole idea is to keep the shark from any deterioration which starts the conversion to an ammonia process. In all likelihood if you follow the above handling steps, you probably won’t have to soak it in milk or sodium bicarbonate. I just do it out of habit.