Sunday, January 25, 2015
WE JUST DON'T KNOW WHAT WE'RE MISSING...
Last week, I was reading a blog called “Phenomena: Laelaps” which appears on the National Geographic website.
It usually deals with fossils and such, but this week, it drifted out of character just a bit, with a post called “The Mediterranean’s Missing Sawfishes.” It described how sawfish had been extirpated from the Mediterranean Sea, and also how, although they were clearly documented there in historical times, some scientists doubted that the Mediterranean ever hosted a breeding population, because its water can grow too cold and reports were so few.
But the blog’s author, after examining the arguments and the evidence, came to a very different conclusion. After observing that the sawfish and humans had shared the Mediterranean Sea for a very long time, and that such sharing didn’t work out too well for the sawfish, he said
“Our species only started keeping track of what was ‘natural’ when the sawfishes were already in decline. Marine biologists know this as ‘shifting baselines’, and it’s the same reason why many don’t feel the absence of ground sloths and mastodons in North American forests. The megamammals were already gone by the time naturalists started paying attention to the woods, and we don’t consider how empty the landscape is. We just don’t know what we’re missing.”
I have to admit that, when I read those words, they gave me a chill that took me back to the waters right here off Long Island. To thoughts of how, in just the past 50 years, those waters that I came to know as a child were already all but empty of some of the life that had thrived there before.
My first thoughts went, as they always do, to the ignored winter flounder.
I can’t look out on the early-spring bay and not recall the way it once was, when boats dotted the water as far as you could see, and in each boat, anglers were filling buckets, baskets or burlap bags with the same sort of flounder that were taken, firm and cold, out of every bay, sound and canal from New Jersey up through New England.
I can recall growing up on the water, catching flounder off beaches and piers on days off from school, and spending weekends on a boat with my parents, when we fished for flounder right through the year, from April well into November.
There is a sad stillness in today’s springtime bay that only we older folks know. The kids and new anglers embrace a new normal in which flounder are scarce, and it isn’t unlikely that in another few years, the next generation will fish in a bay that doesn’t hold flounder at all.
And the saddest part is, they will not miss them a bit.
Nor, down at the West End, will they miss whiting, which used to swarm when the weather turned cold. Party boats ran trips day and night, taking their fares not far from the harbor, but just far enough that they could fill up their sacks with whiting that ran from a foot or so long to “baseball bat” size.
Those who chose not to pay for a place on a boat could go down, at night, to places such as the Coney Island pier, and catch whiting that swam into the glare of the overhead lights.
On cold winter nights, one didn’t even need a hook and line; “frostfish,” as whiting were called at the time, would become disoriented while feeding right up in the wasy, and it was very possible to collect enough fish for a family meal by walking the shore in the darkness, and gathering the frozen bodies of fish that had beached themselves on the sand.
It’s been a long time since that has happened, of course; the whiting left New York Bight a long generation ago. “Frostfish” have become legend since then.
Some fish slip through our fingers without any fanfare, and don’t become legends at all.
Speak with anyone younger than forty or so, and mention the spring pollock run that occurred off Block Island, and they’ll throw you a quizzical stare. It was one of those things that, for whatever reason, got far less publicity than it deserved. But for those of us who lived in Connecticut, Rhode Island or eastern Long Island, and who chased groundfish back in those days, the pollock run was spectacular.
Imagine catching fish the size of striped bass—well, there were no 40s or 50s involved, but fish between 15 and 30—that pulled as hard as bluefish, and doing that throughout the day, and you can get an feel for what it was like. If you wanted a few fish for dinner, you could catch them on bait rigs or jigs; if you were really hungry, you could troll umbrella rigs on downriggers and come close to sinking your boat with the things.
Yet today, that run is long gone.
It’s as dead as the mackerel in Long Island Sound, which once filled the water in such abundance that we caught them five at a time. That run used to stretch out over four weeks in May; it dwindled to nothing two decades ago.
On the South Shore of Long Island, the story is almost the same. A run that once lasted for weeks—a shoal of silvered abundance that sometimes seemed to extend, nearly unbroken, from Manasquan, New Jersey to Montauk, New York for weeks during the spring, is now mostly gone. You might find a few pods of mackerel in winter, moving inshore with the cold, and if you’re extremely lucky, you could hit a school swimming east during April, but it won’t stay for more than a day.
The days of the big schools are past.
Such things have disappeared just in my lifetime.
If we want to go back further, we need to seek written words.
In Heartbeats in the Muck, a natural history of New York Harbor, John Waldman recalls when red drum, sheepshead and salt water catfish swam in local waters. He talks of
“…the regular presence until the middle of the nineteenth century of sharks along Manhattan’s commercial waterfront, particularly the East River. Not little sharks, but eight- and twelve-footers, drawn to the shallows by the raw refuse of the markets and common enough that one market worker, well known for overpowering sharks with the customary tug-of-war gear of handheld rope tied to chain, landed seven in one day.”
Today, a shark in the harbor makes the network news. We don't think of how common they were.
But perhaps his most relevant recollection for anglers is when he points out that
“Black drum, absent for a century, were the scourge of Staten Island oyster planters and were commonly caught around Manhattan to weights of seventy pounds, the Harlem River and the Battery being prime locations.”
If most New York anglers ran into a black drum today—and every once in a great while, somebody does—the odds are good that they’d have no idea what it was.
Should an angler ever catch a black drum, an old provision of New York’s Environmental Conservation Law would require that angler to kill it rather than set it free, helping to assure that the drum would forever remain a stranger in waters that it once called home.
So a hole remains off our coastlines, that only the black drum could fill. There is another hole nearly empty of flounder, and a hole where the whiting once swam.
And just as I know nothing of black drum, there is a new generation of anglers, some already old enough to have fishing-age children themselves, who know little of flounder or mackerel or pollock, and nothing of whiting at all.
We can only ask ourselves what their grandkids will know of tautog (blackfish), of tomcod, of American shad and American eels, of dusky sharks and bluefin tuna, and maybe if all goes completely wrong, even of such Long Island icons as striped bass and weakfish.
And what makes that picture more frightening is the likelihood that no one will care; that such fish will fall into legend, and that even such legends will fade. That future generations will view an empty ocean as normal, and never look out over the rips at Montauk and remember a time when they pulsed bright with striped bass chasing rainbait, just as too many anglers today can look out over an empty Great South Bay without saying, “I recall when the flounders were in…”