Thursday, April 3, 2014
IF YOU WANT A FISHING INDUSTRY, IT HELPS TO HAVE FISH
Tuesday kicked off winter flounder season here on Long Island.
I won’t say that nobody went out, and that nobody caught any fish. I can’t know that for sure. But Wednesday morning, I checked the fishing reports section of a popular website, and there was not one…single……report.
And that’s pretty startling.
Usually, from Sheepshead Bay to Shinnecock bay and on up into Long Island Sound, party boats would be sailing.
Sure, during the week crowds would be light, but on previous opening days, a combination of retirees and folks playing hooky from work would show up at the docks to celebrate winter’s end. A handful of private boats would also make it onto the water. By evening, and usually sooner, photos would flood the Internet, showing happy party boat patrons waving flatfish at the camera or a few flounder lying in somebody’s pail.
This year, there was nothing.
For years, the recreational fishing industry here in New York opposed flounder conservation arguing that they were the first fish of the season, brought anglers into the shops and onto the boats, and thus were crucial to the success of their businesses.
But there was one thing wrong with the industry’s strategy—fishing isn’t much fun without fish, and when anglers finally figured out that there aren’t any flounder out there, and that there isn’t likely to be any around for a long time—maybe forever—they stopped coming. (An update since that sentence was written: By April 3, a Captree party boat had reported that its passengers combined their efforts to catch a single flounder on a full-day trip in Great South Bay, and another flounder was reported caught by a private boat on Long Island’s North Shore. Thus, we know that in the first three days of the state’s open season, at least two flounder were landed, and there could have been a couple more that went unremarked.)
At least as far as the flounder go, the industry has pretty well screwed itself for life.
I’d say that they deserved it, and they do, but the problem is that industry greed screwed the rest of us, too.
And flounder’s just part of a much bigger, sadder pattern.
No so long ago, we had a 12-month fishery, and fishing for something was always pretty good.
Around Memorial Day weekend, maybe a little sooner, there was a spectacular pollock bite at Block Island that would last through the first weeks of June. The timing was perfect; it happened during what, in the travel industry, is called the “shoulder season” that abuts the peak tourist times. Fishing for flounder and nearshore cod was over; the good fishing for shark and striped bass hadn’t quite started, so pollock filled an important gap and gave anglers—and particularly the charter and party boats—something to fish for until other fish moved in.
Boats from eastern Long Island, Connecticut and Rhode Island would converge on the ledges south of the island. We jigged, and caught all of the fish we could use; the charter boats, who wanted to load up their passengers’ coolers, trolled umbrella rigs on downriggers, and landed two or three fish at a time—when the fish didn’t tear the umbrellas apart, instead. It was a wonderful reminder of what northeastern groundfishing could be, but by the mid-1980s, it was gone…
The summer codfish were disappearing, too. I’ve got deep roots in groundfish; I first stepped onto a cod boat the week I turned six. It was just a half-day “tourist boat” out of Provincetown, Mass., but back then the fishing was good enough that the guys in the stern caught pollock as long as I was tall, and one cod—fortunately, quite a bit smaller—glommed onto my bait, too. From there, I graduated to a full-day boat—of the Capt. John fleet in Plymouth—where I caught not only cod, but haddock, a cusk and some of the less attractive denizens of the New England coast—ocean pout, sea raven and the like—which just make fishing more fun for a kid in fourth grade.
After that, it was the “big leagues,” boats out of Pt. Judith, Rhode Island that made the long trip out to Coxe’s Ledge, boats with names long gone: the Sea Squirrel, the Super Squirrel, the Julie C. From the time I was thirteen or so, summer meant codfishing with my father and his friends, or just my father or, at times once I could drive, just with my friends when my father couldn’t go. It was the hayday of shirtsleeve codfishing, when boats from Pt. Judith, Montauk and places such as Groton or New London, Connecticut all met out at Coxe’s, and you all anchored close enough together at times that you could see the fish coming up on the other boats and either wonder why they were doing better or exult in riding the top boat in the fleet.
They weren’t small codfish, either. I never saw a pool fish under 35 pounds, and it wasn’t unusual to have one break 50. And sometimes, that pool fish wasn’t a cod, but a big white hake with a soft, bloated belly and its bladder blown our past its jaws. The boats were loaded with fares, and they weren’t all the “salty” crowd that chase cod these days. There were as many tourists as fishermen on the boats, and I lost more than one pool to a kid who thought he was snagged on the bottom—‘til the bottom began to move—or to someone’s wife or girlfriend with with a green-tinged complexion and no desire to be there who just left her rod in the holder and went into the cabin, to return to her rod—and a “whale cod”—when it came time to pack it in.
But, as I said, that fishery’s gone, as dead as the United States Atlantic Tuna Tournament, that once ran out of Pt. Judith and found plenty of big bluefin on the shallow ledges—Rosie’s Ledge, Nebraska Shoal—just offshore and later, as the great schools began to thin, farther out in the Mud Hole and the grounds off No Man’s Land.
Because offshore fishing was slowing down, too.
Through the mid-1980s, you could find 100-pound-class yellowfin nearly within sight of shore (in ’83, well within sight of shore, when a big bunch of yellowfin—with a few giant bluefin mixed in—showed up on Long Island’s Patchogue Grounds). Deeper, at the Texas Tower and the Barcardi wreck and, particularly, out in the canyons, even bigger yellowfin swam in reasonable, seasonal abundance.
The fish started getting smaller and harder to find in the ‘90s, but you still got a solid run of quality fish in the Butterfish Hole, south of Montauk, particularly during the fall. And then, through the ‘90s, they started to fade, getting ever smaller and farther from shore. There hasn’t been a reliable inshore bite for more than a decade, and even out on the Edge, yellowfin are typically small, few and far between.
But that was OK for a while, because longfin, or “true,” albacore took up the slack. They were only out in the canyons, but when they found you, they came in bunches, with multiple strikes the rule. There are still some around, including some big ones, but mostly now they come one at a time, if they come at all.
Sharks—the old standby—are still being caught, although the season starts later than it used to, with just about no one seeking long-shot makos in May (porbeagles, which once supported a small but consistent fishery off Montauk at that time of year, were pounded by Norwegian longliners, and were mostly gone by 1970 or so). There are still plenty of blue sharks and a few threshers, but they all like cool water, and the summer shark pickings are now pretty slim.
Southern longliners devastated duskies and sandbars; thanks to strict regulations, the sandbars seem to be coming back, but the duskies are still in rough shape. The scalloped hammerheads that used to be everywhere are scarce these days; their prominent fins, sold for soup in east Asia, have pretty well sealed their fate. No one has talked about 1,000-pound tigers for years.
Which puts our local sportfishing industry in a pretty bad place.
Years ago, it was supported by a diverse base of marine resources, that ranged from half-pound scup to huge offshore fish that might weigh half a ton or, in at least one case, more than a ton-and-a-half. The season never ended, with pretty decent fishing for something—even if only whiting, ling or herring—available even in the deepest depths of winter.
If one species had a bad year or two, other fish took up the slack.
Today, Long Island sportfishing rests on a wobbly four-legged stool made of striped bass, summer flounder, black sea bass and scup, propped up at the edges by local and/or seasonal appearances of shark, school bluefin, false albacore and cod (there are bluefish, too, but few actively chase them these days). Some legs are stronger than others; if either striped bass or summer flounder collapsed, there’s a very good chance that the whole thing might come tumbling down.
According to last fall’s stock assessment, striped bass are approaching an overfished condition, and summer flounder recruitment hasn’t been all that good in the past couple of years…
So you’d think that the fishing industry would be jumping onto the conservation bandwagon, but for most, the opposite is true.
Every time regulations to rebuild the stock are proposed, the industry rises in opposition. Whatever the species involved, new rules are treated as plague.
And the props beneath that four-legged stool get a little weaker, and the legs of the stool start looking a little more rickety, too.
For the industry has yet to learn—or, at least, to publicly acknowledge, that the health of our fish stocks is indivisibly tied to their own. You can have fish without a fishing industry, but you can’t have a fishing industry without fish.
Hopefully, they won’t learn the hard way…