Thursday, April 17, 2014
"IT'S NOT ILLEGAL UNTIL YOU GET CAUGHT"
When the book came out, it caused a bit of a stir, because it gave readers—most of whom were probably pretty dedicated striped bass fishermen themselves—a look at something that they’d rather not see, the huge black market for striped bass that exists on Long Island and elsewhere along the coast. A lot of folks who I know—including some who have tangled with the poachers personally—found the book a revelation. Maybe I’ve just lived around the water too long, and have become jaded, because after I read the book, I just thought “I’ve known a lot of guys like that.”
Sadly, that’s true.
During our time as anglers, we get to know some folks who seem truly gifted. They catch a lot of fish, they catch a lot of big fish and they seem to be on the water night after night throughout the season.
They become celebrities along their section of coast. They give seminars at the local tackle shops, and are sought-after speakers at clubs and regional shows. Folks look up to them in a sort of awe because of their success with the stripers.
In their admiration, everyone tends to ignore the fact that, as a group, they also sell a lot of bass. Some have commercial licenses. A lot of them, particularly in limited-entry states such as New York, don’t bother with such formalities. But they sell fish all the same.
Because when you’re out on the water night after night, burning gas, churning through whatever eels or lures or whatever else you use to tempt the stripers to bite, you run up some pretty big bills. Most of the folks doing that weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths; most aren’t investment bankers or doctors. They usually don’t have high-paying jobs—if they did, they wouldn’t have time to fish every night.
So they do what comes naturally—they sell striped bass in order to be able to catch more striped bass.
It’s easy to tell who they are. They’re the ones bringing back their limits—the 20s, the 30s, the 40s, the 50-plus fish—day after day. I mean, you can only eat so much bass, and you only have so many friends to take it, so when you come back with limits—or more—of big fish on a regular basis, you have to get rid of it somewhere. And there is always someone willing to buy at below-market price.
I grew up in Connecticut, a “gamefish” state since the 1950s. It was the sort of place where “commercial fisherman” was used as an insult, but where the best striped bass fishermen around—just about all of them—had restaurants and country clubs and similar places where they sold their bass. Call them “commercial fishermen” and they’d get annoyed, although given the fact that they were really just poachers, the commercial guys were the ones who should have taken offence.
It’s no different today. When the striped bass start to follow the menhaden schools along the South Shore of Long Island, you’ll see some of the same boats out there day after day, and when you see them come back to the dock, they’ll have plenty of fish on board. And the next day, they’ll go out again…
The same thing happens when the bass bunch up on sand eels in the fall. Boats congregate over the bass, and then the fishermen congregate at the back doors of diners and sushi houses, joining the black market throng.
Officers from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation do what they can, but there are just too many poachers and too many places to unload their illegal fish. For every poacher that the authorities catch, far more slip cleanly away. We can only guess how many have gotten away with far too much for far too many years.
The numbers are certainly higher than we ever want to believe. And it is no one’s fault but our own.
We’re quick to blame the commercial fleet, for real and imagined offences. We like to complain about gillnets and trawlers, and blame them when fish stocks decline.
And sometimes we’re right to do so.
But we’re strangely silent when we know that the guy with the boat in the slip next to ours is out poaching stripers. Or tuna. Or anything else.
And we look the other way when he carts his fish to the restaurant’s door.
As the Bible (Matthew 7:3) notes, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
That’s a pretty good question. Before we worry about what the commercials are doing, let’s clean up our own house.
Edmund Burke may have said it best two and a half centuries ago: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
So let’s stop doing nothing. As the new season dawns, let’s stop turning a blind eye to what goes on all around us. Let’s start giving the enforcement folks the help that they need to keep poachers—those who steal fish for money and those who just steal fish for fun—under some sort of control.
For here on Long Island, those poachers have a saying, “It’s not illegal until you get caught.”
It’s time for them to learn what “illegal” really means.