Sunday, September 13, 2015


When I was a boy, nobody thought too much about killing fish.

If you caught a “keeper”—and back then, except for sub-16-inch striped bass, everything was—you kept it, cleaned it and tossed it into the freezer, and maybe you ate it or maybe you threw it out, freezer-burned,  when the icebox was cleaned in the spring.

We fished in the shallows back then, with occasional “deep sea” trips for cod.  But when my family traveled to coastal ports, we stood on the docks with the rest of the folks to watch the big fish—the bluefin, the sharks and, rarely, a marlin—hauled out of the boats and put up on the scales, after which they were trucked off to landfills or dumped back out at sea the following day (there was no market for bluefin back then).

As for “trash fish,” well, those you just killed as a sort of revenge for them taking your hook in the first place.  

Cunners—we called them “bergalls”—were bounced off the transom and fed to the gulls, because they were viewed as too bony for eating.  Out on the cod boats, the mates would break the backs of any dogfish that the fares might catch, and toss them back over the side crippled and unable to swim.  With ocean pout, you stomped on the spine right behind the head to be sure that never bothered anyone’s hunk of clam again…

Just writing those words makes me feel some revulsion, but back in the ‘60s, that’s how it was, and it took a long while to even think about change.

Quite honestly, I’m not sure how the change started.  Maybe the collapse of striped bass stocks in the late ‘70s started some folks thinking about curbing their kill.  It certainly had that effect on many who fished for stripers, although twenty years later plenty of bluefish were still being wasted back at the dock when the question “who wants a fish?” went unanswered.

Change came more quickly in the bays than it did offshore; when I started tournament fishing back in the ‘80s, there was always a dumpster or a parked garbage truck to accept entrants’ unwanted sharks and marlin.  At many tournaments today, the dumpster still stands, despite many anglers’ efforts to end such disgrace.  It tends to persist most stubbornly in big-money venues, where the sight of dead fish is thought to attract tourists, and a scale is thought to be needed to determine who wins cash awards—calcutta included—can handily break seven figures.

Even today, the idea of not killing fish is meeting resistance.  The New York Times reported that, when a new all-release shark tournament started up out in Montauk a few years ago

“It [was] enough to make some of the old fishermen here wonder what is happening to the world.  They lament that their friends are letting the environmentalists get to them, and predict that a shark contest without a winning carcass on the dock will not be viewed as a shark contest at all by the hundreds who still come for them.
“’People want to see sharks,’ Jack Passie, the captain of the charter boat Windy, which ties off at the Star Island Yacht Club, declared emphatically.”
The old-timers out at Montauk, and at some other ports, still feel that way.  It’s all about dead fish to them.  But among most folks, attitudes are changing.

A successful charter boat captain whom I speak with quite often, who operates out of one of the busiest recreational fishing ports on the coast, tells me that he sees a big split between generations.  The younger anglers are mostly out for a good time.  They want to catch fish, and hope for some good ones, but aren’t Hell-bent on killing all that they can.  On the other hand, those of my generation are much more likely to go out with the goal of filling the box.

I mention this now because it’s striped bass season, a time when salt-water anglers flood to the coast.  Some will have years of experience.  Others will be fairly new to the sport.  But all will know that the fall offers their best chance for fast action. 

Over the course of the season, a number of anglers, by accident or by design, are going to be in the right places at the right times, and catch more than their share of stripers.

The question is what happens next.

Will they take one fish for dinner and, over the course of the season, let the rest go?  Or will keepers be kept, like in the old days, whether they are eaten or not?

Much will depend on the angler and, on the for-hire boats, on the mates and the man at the wheel.

A lot of for-hire captains encourage customers to “limit out,” doing their best to convince them that keeping fish is their right and something that they ought to do.  And, let’s admit it, a part of us enjoys coming back into port and tossing fish on the dock, to the admiring cries of the tourists; the hunter deep in our souls still measures his worth by the meat brought back for the tribe.

Prior to this year, that was a big problem as anglers killed two fish apiece.  More than a few came back to the dock with a pair of big fish—30s and 40s, with the occasional 50-pounder thrown in—posed proudly for photos of their kill, and then realized that they not only had no use for the meat, but didn’t even have the coolers to take it home in good shape.

The new one-fish bag limit should help with that, but there will still be plenty of times when folks overdo and, over the course of a few trips, a few weeks or the rest of the season, kill more fish than they know what to do with, and end up wasting a part of their catch.

There are some don’t think that’s wrong.  I have argued with anglers, as recently as last summer, who believe that killing fish is their right, and it shouldn’t matter to me, or anyone else, whether they eat it, give it away or bury it in their back yard, so long as they don’t break the law.

I disagree.

Striped bass, and all fish for that matter, are a public resource, and that resource is diminished by each fish removed.

If folks take them to eat them, that’s fine.  It’s what the resource is for.

But people shouldn’t kill fish just because they can.  It’s certainly legal, but like killing a deer just for its antlers, it’s morally and ethically wrong.

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