Sunday, November 1, 2015


Something happened out in the ocean this year after the bluefish gathered to spawn.

Maybe the water was cold, and retarded the growth of the larvae.  Maybe the currents were a little bit different this spring, and failed to bring newly-spawned bluefish inshore to the marshes, where they usually spend the first months of their lives.  Maybe it was something else.

But whatever happened, its effects were clear.  Very few young-of-the-year “snapper” blues showed up on Long Island this summer, and those that did were unusually small.  Folks I know in southern New England reported a similar scarcity of snappers this year, even during the dog days of August, when the little bluefish are usually everywhere.

In itself, that’s not really troubling.  We get a poor year class every now and again, and according to the latest bluefish stock assessment, the population is generally healthy, even if abundance has slipped a little below the target level in recent years.  Recruitment was solid in 2014.

However, from another standpoint, the poor snapper showing was a bad thing, for it left kids with nothing to fish for.

And that’s important, because if America’s fisheries are going to be sustainably managed in the years to come, we’re going to have to have some people around in the future who actually give a damn about the health of our marine resources.

“In the end, we conserve only what we love.  We will love only what we understand.  We will understand only what we are taught.”

“There would be very little point in my exhausting myself and other conservationists themselves in trying to protect animals and habitats if we weren’t at the same time raising young people to be better stewards.”
To put that in the context of marine conservation, if we don’t get the kids out there fishing, then in the long run, our fish populations are pretty well screwed.

There are some who might take exception to that, and argue that it’s not necessary to engage in blood sport to be concerned with the resource, but when it comes to that issue, I disagree.

It’s all very well to be an observer, to look at fish, or birds or perhaps whitetail deer from outside the system, as if you were sitting in the stands at a tennis match or a baseball game.  Plenty of people do just that, drawing a very hard line between what is “human” and what is “natural.”  In today’s world, where virtual experiences are the norm, we can watch elephants trumpet on high-def TV and even those who do venture out of their homes can view the lions of Kenya and the grizzlies of Denali from the safety and comfort of a soft tour bus seat. 

But that sort of thing does not bring understanding; if it leads to anything at all, it is the sort of passionate romanticism that one might feel about a piece of enduring art that may be observed and analyzed from a distance but never, under any circumstance, touched.

To understand, folks must go out among ‘em, and embrace their place in the world.  Acknowledge that they, no less than the flounder, the tern and the seal, evolved on this planet, and that the seeming separation between “human” and “natural” is only illusion; we are as natural as the wind in our hair and the rain that comes on a northeast breeze.

And that’s why, if we care for our fish stocks, children must go fishing.  They must behold wonder, and hold it in their hands, before they ever imagine that make-believe wall.  

To be successful anglers, they must learn the habits of the fish they seek, and understand how those fish react to the movements of forage, to tides and time of day, to algae blooms and the changing seasons.  They must, in fact, become the very definition of naturalists—persons who study plants and animals as they live in nature.

For you can’t consistently catch fish any other way.

And once a person’s eyes have been opened to the greater world we abide in, it becomes impossible to ignore threats to the fishes’ well-being, which are so often also threats to our own.

Which is why so many of the best-known advocates for conservation have been and still are hunters and anglers.

Probably no one made the American public more aware of the wonders of the ocean—and the threats that beset it—than the late Jacques-Yves Cousteau.  His television shows might have been largely bloodless, but his passion for the sea and its creatures arose out of his early years as a diver, spearing fish off France’s coast.

Today, one could argue that, thanks to his popular books and television appearances, Dr. Carl Safina has at least partially donned Cousteau’s mantle as spokesman for the oceans to the public as a whole.  He spent much of his life fishing for everything from snappers to sharks and tuna off Long Island’s South Shore.

So it’s not unreasonable to argue that ocean advocates of the future will be recruited out of the ranks of today’s young anglers.

But you can’t have young anglers unless they have something to fish for.

When I was a boy, there were plenty of kids’ fish around; by “kids’ fish,” I mean fish that fairly young children—say, those maybe 9 or 10 years of age—could catch without fancy tackle or parental supervision.

Back then, we fished off the shore or from local docks from mid-March all the way through mid-December; only the snowy, sledding and ice-skating months were out of bounds.

In the spring, we caught winter flounder and tomcod, both of which were good-eating fish welcomed each time we brought them home.  Today, winter flounder are all but gone from our bays and our rivers, and tomcod have become scarce in the waters that we fished back then, leaving young anglers nothing to fish for throughout the spring season.

Once summer warmed the water, flounder grew harder to catch, but we entertained ourselves by catching eels, which swarmed just about everywhere.  We didn’t eat them at home, but back then, there were usually some retired Italian men who passed the day yarning at the town dock, who were grateful for a pailful of eels that they could take home and turn into traditional Mediterranean repasts.  Today, eels don’t really swarm anywhere; they were nearly listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act earlier this year.

And then, of course, there were snappers in August and September.  Most years, they’re still around.

After that, the flounder and tomcod were back, joined by the first smelt around late October.  We caught them all from the docks; sometimes with simple cane poles.  But the smelt were the first fish of all to go away; I caught my last in 1969.

I grew up in southern New England; elsewhere, the names of the kids’ fish are different, but their fate seems much the same.

North Carolina television station WRAL documented the change in kids’ fishing opportunities as part of a production called Net Effect.  It opens by quoting a local angler.

“Eric Evenson is very, very worried about fish.
“Evenson, 55, a lifelong North Carolinian, says he’s been fishing since he was a 5-year-old tossing a line into the surf at his grandfather’s cottage in Ocean Isle—one of the first two houses build on that beachfront.
“’You could go out there and you could catch a fish almost any time, right from the surf,’ Evanston recalled.  ‘Spots, whiting, black drum.  You would just feel that jerk on the line, and would come in with a bucket full of fish.’
“…Now, he says, the spot run is ‘anemic’—a symptom of the overall decline, he believes, of the state’s fishing stocks.  These days, he says, it’s a good fishing day if he and his son John, 33, catch anything at all, even when they take their boat out to the best spots…”
You would think that the tackle industry would be up in arms about this, because if people don’t start fishing when they are young, most probably won’t take up the sport when they get older.

Yet if a lack of young anglers is bad for future business, it is even worse for the future of fisheries conservation, because without people who grew up knowing, understanding and—yes—loving the life that once teemed in our oceans, they’re not likely to care if it disappears.

We have done a fair job of conserving bluefish and stripers, redfish and snook, speckled trout and silver salmon, the sort of fish that get adults excited and lead them to buy lots of gear and engage in complicated efforts to bring some fish to hand.

However, in all of our efforts to manage prestige species, we have ignored the entry-level sort of fish that capture kids’ imaginations while they are young, and give them their first taste of the adventures that await along this nation’s coasts.

And with entry denied—particularly, in years such as this one, when the snappers don’t show—entire generations will never know the long, wild ride at the edge of the sea that we, their elders, enjoy.

And the sea will lose their affection, which will prove, in the long run, the greatest tragedy of all.

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