Sunday, January 5, 2014
WHEN FISHERIES DIE
Exactly forty-five years ago today, up along the Connecticut shore, the tidal reaches of the Mianus River were freezing over. I don’t remember it happening, exactly, but the river froze every January back then, and 1969 wasn’t an exception.
The freeze ended my smelt fishing season, which began when the first fish showed up in October. Most smelt were caught at night, and those nights could get so numbingly cold that you might slip a thin wire hook right through the bait and into your finger, and not ever realize what had happened. Even so, anglers lined up shoulder-to-shoulder on the docks, a fraternity of wool-clad working men whose blazing Coleman lanterns flared across the black water.
I was a kid back then, longing to join my elders on the dock, where the night and the cold made smelt fishing a rite of passage. Through most of my youngest years, my father refused to take me along, allowing me to fish only for whatever smelt might deign to bite on clement autumn afternoons. But at the age of ten, I was finally allowed to embark on my first nocturnal excursion; as my father predicted, the cold made it a pretty short outing.
But by the time I was in junior high, I had toughened up enough to spend more time in the cold and the dark. When school permitted, though, I’d still fish during the day. More than four decades later, I can still recall one of those days, the Friday after Thanksgiving, 1968, when the sun was as bright and warm as a November sun can be, and the air was surprisingly still. I spent an entire tide on the dock, and when my father stopped by after work to give me a ride home, I toted a pail filled with fish to his car. It was my best day of the season and, all things considered, the best of my smelt fishing career.
I didn’t know—I couldn’t have known at the time—that when ice put an end to that season, I would never fish for smelt again.
They just never came back after that. We didn’t know why. No one tried to explain it and, as far as I know, no one ever tried to restore the runs. It was the first fishery that ever died before my eyes.
Unfortunately, it was far from the last.
It’s dismaying to look back and realize just how much we’ve lost since then. Winter flounder, which once seemed to carpet the bottom of every cove and bay, have grown so scarce that inbreeding threatens local stocks. The once ubiquitous American eel is now being considered for an Endangered Species listing; that decision is expected next year. And tautog, a once obscure and abundant denizen of rocks and wrecks, has become the victim of a destructive—and often illegal—commercial fishery that supples urban live-fish markets.
In the spring, silver hordes of river herring once clogged Atlantic coast waterways as they made their spawning run. Today, some of those runs have been lost completely, and many more are hanging on by tenuous threads; only a handful retain some semblance of their former health. When I was a boy, mackerel invaded Long Island Sound and remained for the entire month of May; today, that run is gone. In the ocean south of Long Island, a spring run that once lasted for more than a month now endures—in exceptionally good years—for a couple of days.
As late as the 1970s, packed party boats from Montauk, Connecticut and Rhode Island converged over Cox’s Ledge in the summer, where they loaded up on cod that sometimes weighed more than 50 pounds; today, fishing is limited to the winter, when the biggest fish rarely break 20. The once spectacular spring pollock run at Block Island died in the mid-1980s, about the same time that the winter whiting fishery collapsed in the New York Bight.
I could go on, but why? The point is already made. Many of our fisheries have been badly depleted. Others face real and immediate threats. The future of many seems dim.
Yet, it’s not all bad news. After the striped bass stock collapsed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, strict limits on harvest, including complete moratoriums in many states, brought the stock back to health by 1995. In the mid-Atlantic, populations of three important bottom fish—summer flounder, scup and black sea bass—bottomed out around 1990, but have since been fully restored. No stock managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is overfished, and none are experiencing overfishing.
It is clear that things can be turned around.
If you’re willing to keep your mind open and your mouth shut long enough to let the facts speak for themselves, it quickly becomes obvious that, when it comes to restoring and conserving fish stocks, some approaches usually work and some are dead ends.
The approaches that work aren’t rocket science. Boiled down to their simplest terms, they just require more fish to be left alive in the water, and allow fewer fish to be killed. They require fisheries managers to treat fishermen—commercial and recreational alike—as adults, who understand the concept of making a short-term sacrifice in order to reap a long-term gain. They impose some temporary social and economic pain.
But since pain is unpopular, you don’t see such approaches praised much these days.
Instead, you see erstwhile conservation advocates turn into born-again preachers for the “anglers’ rights” movement, sounding like diet food salesmen on late-night TV. But instead of “Eat what you want and STILL LOSE POUNDS!” you hear “Get rid of federal laws that rebuild stocks and restrict our harvest, turn management over to the states so we can kill more fish, and WATCH FISHING GET BETTER!” It doesn’t make a lot of sense when you stop to think about it, but these folks don’t want you to think at all; they want you to hear the main message with your gut, not your brain: They want you to believe that they can rebuild our fisheries without pain, without responsibility, without cost.
And they want you to be—hope that you are—gullible enough to buy their snake oil.
But we anglers, who have spent years on and around the water, enjoying its pleasures and its gifts, have seen too many fisheries that we loved and knew well sicken and wither away. If there is any sense of honor or duty in our souls, we know that we have an obligation to generations yet unborn to leave behind an ocean that is as vital and abundant as the one we have known. And if it hurts a little to leave that legacy, it is a pain that we should feel proud and honor-bound to bear.
For I have seen the smelt fishery die. Each winter I remember fishing in the night with my father, and fishing in the cold daylight alone, and I recall that of all the generations that followed mine, and all who will be born and grow old after I am gone, none will have the opportunity to be tested, shaped, strengthened and delighted by the night, the cold and the company of decent, good-hearted men, all brought together by a fish scarcely longer than their middle finger. That rite of passage is gone forever, and the sorrow of remembering what has been lost brings another sort of pain every time I remember. And that pain is worse, my friends.
Believe me, that pain is truly worse.