Thursday, July 27, 2017


A few nights ago, my wife and I went out for dinner at a local seafood restaurant.  We ordered a bunch of raw oysters to start, and then the waiter told us about a special appetizer that was not on the menu.

He said that “We have a seared bluefin tuna, just in from Montauk…” and began to describe the dish.

It sounded good.  I wanted to eat it.  But the word “bluefish” got my thoughts going, because a bluefin tuna has to be at least 73 inches long before it can legally be sold, and that’s a lot of fish for a smallish local restaurant to buy.

So I asked, “By any chance, do you know how big the fish was?”

And he said, “One hundred ten pounds.”

At which point, we ordered the crab cakes, because the bluefin was clearly illegal.  A 73-inch bluefin should weigh well over 200 pounds—probably something close to 225—and even dressed, will weigh more than 110.

Besides, there haven’t been a lot of 73-inch bluefin around Long Island lately.  On the other hand, there had been plenty of fish in the 100-150 pound range, and you didn’t have to go all the way to Montauk to find one.  Fish of that size were being regularly brought back to the local docks.

By anglers.

The odds were very high that the “special” bluefin appetizer that the restaurant was serving came from a fish caught by an ostensibly recreational boat, and sold illegally at the restaurant’s back door.

After all, it’s not an uncommon occurrence.  I’ve been fishing offshore since the late 1970s, and a lot of folks who claim to be recreational anglers, and have neither a New York Foodfish License nor a New York Landing Permit, regularly market their tuna, sometimes through seafood dealers and more often through a shop’s or a restaurant’s back door. 

Sometimes they get caught, but the immediate cash return, compared to the remote chance that they will be caught and fined, makes such criminal sale seem like a reasonable gamble.

And yes, the practice is pretty widespread.

Things are even worse in the striped bass fishery, where back-door sales to restaurants by so-called recreational anglers are routine events.  In his book, Caught, author Jeff Nichols shed some much-needed daylight on a thriving black market fueled by the many recreational anglers who have decided that the best way to fuel their fishing habit is to turn their striped bass into illicit dollars that can in turn fuel future excursions, where more bass will hopefully be caught, and illegally sold…

Every fall, if the striped bass set up in front of Fire Island Inlet, as they often do, many local “recreational” boats will exceed their legal bag limits, sometimes making more than one trip each day, in order to illegally sell bass to restaurants and retail outlets.  

Such behavior is so common that it rarely even draws comment, much less censure.  A few years ago, I resigned from a fishing club that I had belonged to for more than 30 years, after a member of its Board of Directors was busted by conservation officers for illegally harvesting striped bass to sell in a restaurant that he owned.  I left because the club completely ignored such misconduct, with the President calling him a “good member” and everyone else shrugging it off.

Such behavior is nothing new.

I grew up in Connecticut, which was a “gamefish” state that outlawed commercial striped bass fishing during the 1950s.  Yet it was common knowledge that recreational fishermen—including all of the so-called “sharpies” that stood atop the striped bass anglers’ pecking order—sold their catch through local outlets as a matter of course, the "gamefish" law be damned.

Thus, I had to laugh when I read a recent op-ed piece in the on-line edition of Sport Fishing Magazine, in which Mike Leonard, spokesman for the American Sportfishing Association, tries to justify weakening the conservation and management provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act by arguing that

“…anglers have always been at the forefront of conservation efforts,”
and that

“Most of the opposition [to weakening Magnuson-Stevens] is based on a fundamental belief that if you give anglers an inch, they’ll take a mile.  They like to promote the idea that any changes to insert flexibility into MSA to improve recreational fisheries management will somehow lead to rampant overfishing.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.
“It’s important during this debate over the need for more reasonable access to federal fisheries that neither the public nor fisheries administrators lose sight of anglers’ long-held commitment to conservation…”
Yes, some anglers are committed to fisheries conservation.  I like to think that I’m one of them, and that the folks who I fish with are, too.  

The striped bass fishing community contains a lot of conservation advocates, particularly among the surfcasters and light-tackle boats, although it also contains a lot of poachers.  Conservationists tend to abound in the “difficult” fisheries—striped bass, red drum in the surf, bonefish, tarpon, billfish, permit—while in the “meat” fisheries, they’re harder to find.

As Mr. Leonard points out, striped bass fishermen played a role in turning back a recent effort at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to increase the striped bass kill; however, he ignores another ASMFC-managed species, tautog, where recreational fishing interests swarmed thehearings in lynch-mob mode, opposing any action to begin rebuilding fish stocksthat have been overfished for more than 21 years.

Mr. Leonard deny that anglers will engage in “rampant overfishing” without the current strictures of Magnuson-Stevens, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that not only anglers, but the same American Sportfishing Association that he represents, recently praised a federal reopening of the Gulf of Mexico private boat red snapper season, thanking

“Governor Scott, the [Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission], and [Congressmen] Neal Dunn and Matt Gaetz for their support of additional Federal days of Gulf red snapper fishing for recreational anglers.  While we are grateful for an extended season, it’s clear that long-term solutions are needed in order to address the shortcomings of our current federal fisheries management system.”
Another American Sportfishing Association representative, speaking for Keep Florida Fishing, an ASA affiliate, said

“An extended Federal Gulf red snapper season will have a tremendous positive economic impact on Florida’s communities, which depend on our state’s $9.6 billion sportfishing industry.  We appreciate efforts to expand access to our fisheries, and we will continue to push for improvements to federal management of recreational fishing.”
They lavished such praise even though, in reopening the season, the Commerce Department itself admitted that the reopening

“will necessarily mean that the private recreational sector would substantially exceed its catch limit, which was designed to prevent overfishing the stock.  [emphasis added]”

The entire annual catch limit for red snapper—recreational and commercial combined—is only around 15 million pounds.  The fact that American Sportfishing Association praised the reopening, and so effectively condoned anglers overfishing their quota by no less than 7 millon pounds,  makes its reassurances that weakening Magnuson-Stevens won’t “lead to rampant [recreational] overfishing” ring very, very hollow indeed…

Because the fact is, anglers aren’t angels.  Some have a stronger conservation ethic than others, and some have no ethics at all.  The only way to protect fish stocks—and ethical anglers—from the poachers and the fish hogs is to have an effective federal fishery management laws.

I keep remembering a conversation I once had with a fluke fisherman from Staten Island.

I was arguing that one of the benefits of a salt water fishing license was that New York would be able to afford more conservation enforcement officers, but he didn’t believe that would be a good thing. As he put it (and I might get a word or two wrong here, but you’ll get the gist),

“You spend all that money on bait, gas and tackle, you wanna bring somet’in’ home ta eat.  You go out, you can’t catch a legal fish, well, you spend all that money, ya gotta do what ya gotta do…”
So if you want to believe that all anglers are on the forefront of fisheries conservation, and you believe ASA’s proposition that they wouldn’t overfish if the law gave them a chance, well, I won’t say anything about a bridge in Brooklyn. 

But they’re a guy in Bay Shore who might sell you a bluefin, and there are plenty out in Montauk who will sell you a bass…

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