Thursday, February 23, 2017


A lot of anglers won’t even consider eating a sea robin.

The reddish-brown fish with gold-rimmed blue eyes and broad pectoral fins, which “flies” over bay bottoms in its quest for food, has been historically shunned and reviled by most anglers who catch them while seeking summer flounder and other, more traditionally attractive species.

Yet there are increasing numbers of anglers who know better, and look forward to taking sea robins home for dinner.

My wife and I began eating sea robin years ago, when fluke were scarce and there was little else to eat in the bay.  Porgies were small and hardly worth cleaning, when you could find them at all, and the tiny “pin” black sea bass that we caught in those days, before bag and size limits were imposed, provided smaller fillets than a duck-pond bluegill.  We filleted a few sea robins, and found that they were good.

As the years passed, more anglers jumped onto the sea robin bandwagon.  National Marine Fisheries Service recreational catch estimates show that, for the period 2007-2011, anglers in the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions harvested an average of 61,700 striped sea robins each year; for the period 2012-2016, that average more than doubled to nearly 155,000 sea robins landed.

There is clearly an upward trend.

It was only a matter of time before sea robins began to be harvested commercially, and made the leap into the marketplace.  That seems to be happening now, as reported commercial landings also show an increase over the past decade.  For the period 2007-2011, commercial fishermen on the Atlantic coast landed an average of 93,200 pounds of sea robins each year; that figure increased to an average of 140,400 pounds for the period 2012-2015.

Further evidence that sea robins may be entering the mealtime mainstream recently emerged on the Internet, where the website posted a video of a New York seafood shop owner demonstrating how to clean and cook them.

In some ways that’s good, because diversifying the kinds of fish that we eat will take some of the pressure off the most heavily harvested species.

But it’s also bad, because there is currently no management plan to protect sea robins.  There are no closed seasons, no limits on harvest and, if we want to be honest, probably no data to suggest what such seasons and limits might be.  

Should eating sea robin ever become a dining fad, it is not impossible that the fish that now seem to sometimes carpet the bay could become overfished in a very short time.

There is certainly precedent for such a thing happening.

For years, oyster toadfish were common in New York’s bays.  

Looking like a sort of mutant tadpole, with slimy skin, a wide mouth filled with mollusk-crunching teeth and a willingness to eat anything that might fit in their mouths, they were one of the last things that anglers wanted to see at the end of their lines.

When they were caught—and they were caught frequently in the soft-bottomed back bays—fishermen tended to handle them with rags and/or pliers, and wanted nothing more than to drop them back over the side.

And then, more than two decades ago, something changed.

A new wave of immigrants entered the nation, who didn’t find toadfish repulsive at all.  They were accustomed to eating somewhat similar creatures that lived in their former home waters, and to them, toadfish weren't just something ugly. 

Instead, they were good food. 

Suddenly, baymen who had been trying to eke through the summer catching killies and a few blowfish had a chance to create a completely new fishery, targeting a species that was abundant, valuable—big toadfish, sold live, were worth at least $2.50 per pound, which was good money back then—and not subject to any regulations at all.

The outcome was predictable.

Some folks made for two or three years, selling toadfish to urban live-fish markets as fast as they could be caught.  Then things began to slow down, and get slower yet, until, at some point in the late 1990s, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation finally regulated the fishery to keep the toadfish population from falling into a state of complete collapse.

Today, a bayman on Long Island may harvest no more than 25 toadfish per day, must observe a 10-inch size limit and can’t keep them at all between May 15 and July 15.    Such regulations were better than nothing, but the damage was already done. 

New York’s commercial fishermen reported landing 13,000 pounds of toadfish in 1992, 35,000 pounds in 1993 and an all-time high of more than 42,600 pounds in 1994.  By 1996, that figure had fallen to just 2,000 pounds, then crashed even farther, to 169 pounds, the following year.  Despite the current regulations, annual landings have not exceeded 1,000 pounds since, coming the closest in 2014, when 837 pounds of toadfish were reportedly sold.

It would probably be close to impossible to find a better example of a boom-and-bust fishery, in which unregulated fishermen harvested so many previously underutilized fish that they collapsed the population in a very short time. 

The result of such overharvest was typical as well.  Twenty years after New York’s toadfish population crashed, that population remains far too depleted to support a viable fishery.

Populations of some once-abundant food fish, such as New England cod and winter flounder, are badly depleted, and the populations of many others, while healthy, are under significant pressure.  There is a temptation to seek out so-called “underutilized species”—what fishermen will sometimes thoughtlessly deem “trash fish”—and try to develop markets for them, in order to help fill the demand for local seafood.

While creating markets for erstwhile “trash” species sounds like a good idea, engaging in a fishery for any largely unregulated species is always a risky undertaking.  

Government agencies rarely spend money to research species without any significant economic value.  As a result, fishery managers have little idea what to do when a fishery for a previously underutilized species begins to take off.

For that reason alone, new fisheries should always be developed cautiously, with precautionary regulations put in place to help assure that the sad saga of New York’s toadfish is not reenacted at another time and place, with another species playing the toadfish’s role.

Today, when more desirable species aren’t available, anglers can still find so-called “trash fish” such as sea robins to provide some action and a few fillets.

But if markets for such species are developed, and regulations aren’t adopted at the same time, anglers may one day find themselves asking the question “What do we fish for now, when even the trash fish are gone?”

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