Sunday, November 23, 2014

OCEAN POUT AND WINDOWPANES

When I was growing up along Long Island Sound, there was a fish that we called a “sundial.”

It was a sort of toothless but large-mouthed flounder.  Very aggressive despite its lack of dental equipment, we’d catch them on sandworms while fishing for winter flounder, on bucktails and soft-plastic shrimp cast for weakfish and stripers and on the small killies that we’d fish for smelt around this time of year.

Sundials are, proportionately, the thinnest fish that I have ever seen.  The dark side provided a decent fillet, but the white side was nothing but skin and bones; on a bright day, you could hold up the fish and easily make out its skeleton.

The dearth of meat, back in the days when far more robust winter flounder were everywhere, might have been why sundials were held in contempt.  It just wasn’t worth cleaning them, although their flesh was as good, and perhaps even better, than the flounder and fluke we all prized.

But we just tossed the sundials back. 

The one exception to that came one fall in the late 1960s, when a lobsterman tied up his boat to the North Dock at the town marina in Cos Cob, right when the smelt run was strong.  If you know anything about lobstermen, it’s that they always need bait, and this guy asked all of the smelt fishermen to just toss their sundials into his boat, where he’d retrieve them in the morning.

All went well until one evening, when the usual crowd was lining the docks, cane poles and light spinning rods in hand, their eyes glued to the bobbers that floated in the rings of light thrown by a dozen or more Coleman lanterns.  It was a cold night, so many of the anglers drained needed warmth from the insides of convenient flat bottles.

It might be that those warming fluids affected their aim just a bit, because when one of those worthies, let’s just call him “Bill,” backhanded his sundial into the boat, he didn’t quite make it past one of his neighbors, who was just then bending over to get a fresh piece of bait.

The sundial hit the other guy full in the face, making a slime-muffled slap that the 12-year-old kid that I was at the time thought was completely hilarious.  The recipient of the sundial’s affections didn’t quite see the humor, and we almost had an impromptu version of the Friday Night Fights break out there on the dock until folks managed to stop laughing long enough to cool the offended party down.

That may have been the most entertainment a sundial ever provided.   Otherwise, they mainly served as lobster bait, although a few anglers ate them and they were sometimes sold as “brill” to a few fish markets in low-income areas.

As time went on, I learned that “sundials” were properly called “windowpane flounder,” that they were managed by the New England Fishery Management Council as part of its Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan and that, from the early 1970s through the late 1990s, they supported a significant commercial fishery, with over 9 million pounds landed in 1985. 


Even though the health of the stocks is better than it was, federal regulations still prohibit both recreational fishermen and commercial “common pool” groundfish boats (that is, those not fishing under sector catch share programs) from landing any at all.

It seems that not only high-visibility species such as cod are getting hit hard up off of New England.  Even species that we rarely think of are overfished, too.

The ocean pout certainly provides a good example of that.

There’s a good chance that you never saw one, either alive or cooked on a plate, although they used to be very common on the wrecks and ledges off New England and the upper mid-Atlantic coast.

Pout are one of those fish that suffered not for its meat, which is small-grained, mild and nearly snow-white, but for its appearance, with a stout, vaguely eel-like body, blunt head and broad mouth that brought inevitable comparisons with the mid-20th Century actor, Joe E. Brown

I first ran into them aboard party boats sailing for cod in the mid-1960s, when mates normally dealt with them by stomping on them, hard, right behind their heads, taking the hook out and tossing the soon-to-die animal back over the side. 

Ten years later, I noticed that the mates had changed their tune, and were collecting the pout that there fares didn’t want and putting them on ice along with their own catch.  Curious, I took a few of the “trash fish” home, filleted them out and that folks had been foolish over the years.

Of course, back when cod were abundant, you could afford to be picky…

Pout followed about the same trajectory as windowpanes, a relatively ignored fish that suddenly saw landings spike, remain high for a couple of decades, and then crash.  

However, pout were never as popular as windowpanes.  Landings peaked in 1987, at 4.8 million pounds, but the fish were never worth much back at the dock.  They usually sold for about 10 cents per pound, far less even then windowpanes, which usually sold for about twenty-five cents per pound, and sometimes brought over sixty.

But in the end, that didn't matter, and the ocean pout stock was driven so low that fishing was halted.

And that may be the saddest, and most significant, thing about New England’s fishery.

We hear about the destruction of cod stocks that fed western Europe and eastern North America for half a millennium, and are shocked by the loss.

We mourn for the Atlantic halibut, overfished so badly more than a century ago that it has never come close to recovery.

We watch the winter flounder collapse all around us, say our requiems for the lost whiting fishery in New York Bight, tell stories of spring pollock we once caught off Block Island.

We hope that the recovery of haddock is real.

But what we don’t see, and for the most part don’t miss, are the ocean pouts of this world. 

When the cod stock collapses, we hear about it on the nightly news and maybe read stories in The New York Times.  But when the trawler fleet drives a “minor” species such as ocean pout into near-oblivion for a dime a pound, nobody reads or hears anything at all.

That is the real tragedy of New England groundfish. 

The failure to properly manage the fishery, and to rein in excessive harvest hasn’t just driven Gulf of Maine cod stocks down to the point that that, in some quarters, the word “moratorium” is occasionally whispered.   

The trawl fleet, in its recalcitrant greed, hasn’t merely destroyed one iconic fish stock and one iconic fishery.  It has disrupted and degraded an ecosystem that includes not just the stars we see in the restaurants and on shows on TV—the cod and the halibut and the yellowtail flounder—but the poorly known supporting players such as ocean pout, spotted wolfish and windowpanes.

Now, the depressed stocks need not only survive fishing pressure, but a warming ocean that is changing the very environment that they live in and provides new challenges to managers trying to recover the stocks.

Hopefully, such challenges won’t be insurmountable.

Managers will undoubtedly try to recover the codfish.  But let’s hope that, in their efforts, they spare a little time for less well-known species.


Ignored and unloved for generations, ocean pout and windowpanes have their niche in the system, and  deserve some attention, too.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your blog and you are absolutely right! The commercial fisheries over fished our northeastern waters terribly.I love to ground fish and always have since I was a youngster. I remember catching lots of ocean pout when fishing for cod and I'll tell you they were very tasty. So let's keep our fingers crossed and hope that someday the ocean pout bounces back and maybe have that tasty dinner once more.

    ReplyDelete