Thursday, October 6, 2016


I write about striped bass quite often, perhaps more than I do about anything else, although red snapper is also a frequent topic.  There are also fish that I don’t write about at all.

Recently, I started thinking about why that is.  My thoughts were spurred by reports that a single angler, fishing in my local waters, killed over 200 blowfish over the course of just two trips onto Great South Bay.

People complain about the way striped bass and red snapper are managed, but maybe it’s time to complain about how blowfish, and some other species, aren’t managed at all.

Blowfish, for anyone not familiar with the name, are more properly called northern puffer or, if you’re a biologist, Sphoeroides maculatus.  Unlike many of the puffer tribe, blowfish have organs that are only trivially toxic; no matter how badly they might be prepared, blowfish will never give anyone a numb-lipped fugu high, and eating the flesh will never, under any circumstances, prove fatal.

On the other hand, they taste very good, and are ridiculously easy to clean.  Make one cut behind the head, shuck the meat out of its skin, and you end up with two boneless fillets, separated by a single, fused length of vertebrae.

If you wanted to call them the perfect saltwater panfish, you won’t get an argument from me.  I’ve been eating—and cleaning—blowfish since I was about six years old.

The problem is, a lot of other people were eating them, too.  

All of the waters abutting New York were filled with blowfish decades ago, but the fish started to disappear in the mid-1960s, and became very scarce for much of the time since.
But every now and again, all the stars align just right, and a big year class erupts in the bay.  And every time one does, it gets wiped out about as soon as it arrives.

Because, as I mentioned, blowfish taste really good.  And without any restrictions on harvest…

Anglers go out and catch them by the pailful, and far too often, they don’t pay much attention to size.  Commercial fishermen pound on them as well, setting pots throughout the bay, for at $5 per pound (dressed weight), blowfish can generate pretty nice profits, so long as they last.

People rarely sit down and think about how nice it is to have a good population of blowfish around.

They’re a great fish for children, easy to catch and fascinating when they swell up in their typical defensive display.  In these days when far too many erstwhile young anglers abandon the sport because it seems boring and dull compared to other, electronic distractions, having a fish around that kids actually find kind of interesting is a big plus.

It’s an even bigger plus for angling-related businesses, because if kids don’t want to go out on the water, families tend to find alternate ways to spend their weekends, and such businesses wilt on the vine.  Blowfish provide a sort of gateway into the world of angling that can capture young imaginations and help to get children interested in the outdoors.

But for that to happen, there must be enough blowfish around.

The same sort of thing can be said for triggerfish.

They’re not a traditional fish of Long Island’s waters.  If you read older books, you won’t see them mentioned at all, as they were considered a strictly southern species.  But at some point during the late 20th Century, triggerfish began to become a fairly regular catch in local waters, and are really appreciated when fishing for other things is slow.

A few summers ago, fluke fishing was awful, and there wasn’t much happening offshore.  Even bluefish were scarce.  Charter boats were searching for anything that their custom
ers could catch.  But some of those charters took things to extremes; one boat pulled over 150 triggers off the wreck of the Roda in the course of a single tide.

Sure, triggerfish can be pretty tasty, once you remove their leathery hides, but that’s still a lot of fish for one boat to take in one day. 

It might not have hurt the population at all, because triggers come up from the south.  I have no idea of how many—if any—survive the trip home once waters turn cold in late fall.  

But taking that many fish off a wreck in one day will certainly hurt the fishing for the next boat that comes along.

That’s when regulations can help.  Even though they might not be needed to protect the fish stock, they can help to spread the catch out among more anglers, rather than than letting a few hungry early birds take it all.  New York’s original, 14-inch size limit on summer flounder wasn’t adopted by biologists to protect the spawning stock, but rather recommended by the party boat industry, to assure that enough fish remained in the bay to keep their customers interested all summer long.

That was a pretty good idea, and probably ahead of its time.  It would be nice to see more of that kind of thinking coming from the recreational fishing industry today.

Such precautionary regulations could benefit a lot of fish, maybe even sea robins.

Once, they were everyone’s nemesis, seen as bait stealers that got in the way while people were fishing for fluke.  

Lately, though, more and more anglers have learned that beneath the sea robin’s spiny and somewhat bizarre exterior lay fillets of fine white meat, which are prized by French seafood chefs, who refer to the fish as “gurnard.”  Should the trend of eating sea robins accelerate, harvest could increase sharply, although no one has any idea how mush fishing pressure the sea robin population can stand.

But perhaps more importantly, despite the fact that sea robins provide perfectly good food, far too many are wasted by benighted anglers who still don’t understand that it’s wrong to just toss an unwanted fish up on the beach and leave it to die.

Placing some regulations on sea robin landings would both provide a buffer against excessive harvest and lend the fish some protection against unconscionable waste.

There is no question that state fishery departments in New York and other coastal states already have plenty to do, and probably lack the time and resources needed to develop science-based management programs for blowfish, sea robins or anything else.  At the same time, it would probably be wise to adopt precautionary regulations, which would help to avert overharvest of any of the less-studied species, and perhaps help to rebuild those populations which, like blowfish, have already begun to decline.

I can hear folks scoffing now, saying that such humble fish aren’t worth our attention.

But the precedent is already set.  When oyster toadfish began to disappear from New York’s bays, due to a newfound popularity in the live fish market and a resultant spike in commercial harvest, New York adopted regulations to protect them (for anglers, a 3-fish bag, 10-inch minimum size and a season that’s closed between May 15 and July 15).

If the lowly toadfish deserves state protection, it’s hard to argue that blowfish, triggerfish, kingfish and even sea robins should not be given some protection as well.

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