Over the 60-plus years that I’ve spent on and around the water, I’ve founds some things to be true:
The best fishing day of the season will be the day that you decide to stay home and work around the house. The kid who thinks he’s snagged on the bottom is about to win the party boat’s pool. And people don’t want to admit that there are no fish around.
That last one first made an impression on me back in the mid-1970s, when I had a summer job at a small tackle shop down in the southwestern corner of Connecticut.
I was fishing just about every morning before work, and fishing a lot of nights after work, too, so I had a good idea of what the striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish were doing on any given day. The striped bass collapse hadn’t yet begun, just about every morning saw big bluefish blitz bunker schools in at least one of the local harbors, and weakfishing was about as good as weakfishing ever gets in western Long Island Sound, so when people walked into the shop and asked how the fishing was, I could usually point them in the right direction.
It wasn’t always somewhere that they wanted to go. "Toss bucktails into the rocks around 4:00 tomorrow morning, when the tide is about halfway down” isn’t always the advice that people are looking for. But my job was merely to sell tackle and bait and provide some adivice; I had no reason to try to force anyone to take whatever advice I provided.
Even during good seasons, there are times when things go dead. The water gets a little too hot, pushing the bass out of the shallows and driving both them and the weakfish onto the night shift. Even bluefish can get lockjaw for a few days, when they sit on the bottom in 60 feet of water and ignore anything that doesn’t just about hit them in the face.
That doesn’t mean that someone, somewhere, won’t catch a fish or two, but it does mean that everyone will be making a lot more casts, and burning a lot more fuel, in return for very slim pickings.
When we’d run into a stretch like that, I’d have no trouble telling customers that “Fishing is pretty awful right now…there’s not much around.”
After that, I’d tell them what I’d been doing that might, if they worked at it, earn them a couple of fish, but I did my best to be honest and avoid creating any false hopes. The owner of the shop had less restraint, and was usually quick to tell anyone to walk through the door that there were “plenty of fish out there,” although he never quite got around to explaining just where those fish were, or why neither he nor most of the other fishermen were able to put even one of those fish into the boat.
Reality, for my former employer, was anything that might put a dollar into his cash register, whether or not it was actually true. Unreality encompassed anything that might well be true, but was also unprofitable.
I used to laugh at such attitudes back then, but as I grew older and got involved with fishery management issues, I saw the same situation repeating itself again and again around the management table.
Fish didn’t disappear because they had been overfished; it was just time for a downward swing in the ever-mysterious “cycle” that caused numbers to decline sharply, or reach new heights of abundance, without any regard to regulations, removals, or fishing pressure. Fish will disappear and come back when they're ready, we're told, despite our best efforts to control such outcomes.
Thus, some people insist that bluefish aren’t overfished, even though the latest stock assessment update says that’s the case. The fish aren't scarce, but merely decided to stay farther offshore (a North Shore party boat captain suggested, at a hearing a few years ago, that they dispersed so someplace between New York and Africa; after all, bluefish are found off Africa, too).
And, if you take some people’s word for it, the bluefish are having such a good time in their new offshore Shangri-La that the striped bass decided to join them.
After the latest benchmark striped bass stock assessment was released in 2019, and found the bass to be both overfished and experiencing overfishing, many folks weren’t willing to admit that the fish were facing problems. Instead, we were told, the stripers were all offshore, in the EEZ, where no one could legally pursue them. Even a particularly reactionary member of Congress, who represents a district here on Long Island, jumped onto that bandwagon, criticizing the benchmark assessment for failing to use
“alternative data, that shows the Striped Bass stock is in a better place outside the 3-mile limit,”
and criticizing the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and New York’s delegates to that Commission for following the best available science in such assessment, instead of the “alternative data” that might have led them to the Congressman’s preferred conclusion.
“the real problem is fuzzy science.”
Some fishermen claim that the cod have just moved from places where they were previously abundant to other, more attractive, areas. According to The [Massachusetts] Patriot-Ledger, one such fisherman, Edward Barrett of Marshfield, Massachusetts, believe that sewage being released into the ocean off Massachusetts is part of the problem.
“Fish have tails. If they’re not comfortable in one area, they’ll just go to the next area.”
For a very long time, no one suggested where that “next area” might be, but a new report released by the National Marine Fisheries Service strongly suggests that the “next area” to holds cod may be nowhere.
Fishermen had argued that large cod were abundant in the Gulf of Maine, but that the survey gear that NMFS used when trying to find them was ill-suited for the job. They tried to convince fishery managers that the big fish were hiding in rocky areas, which trawls have difficulty surveying.
In order to address the fishermen’s concerns, NMFS conducted a new survey, which employed local commercial fishing vessels, and used bottom longlines, rather than trawls, to survey the number of cod that were holding on rough, rocky bottoms. As explained by NMFS,
“Catching a given species depends on whether a fish will be retained by the gear used, as well as the fish’s population size and behavior. When comparing catch results from different gear types, scientists consider how probable it is that a fish will be captured by the gear. Scientists rely on this information to understand how well fisheries survey data represent the population.”
It turns out that the trawl survey represented the cod population pretty well. After running both the trawl and longline surveys for five consecutive years, NMFS noted that
“Our scientists looked at the overlap between the length distribution of cod…from the two surveys in the spring and fall seasons. There were no appreciable difference between catches of cod in the two surveys, with large cod extremely rare in both.
“Large cod had a similar distribution between the two surveys, and were relatively consistent between the sampling years. They were not more prevalent in rough-bottom habitats. This suggests a lower abundance, rather than fish hiding in the rocks, as the reason the bottom trawl seldom catches large cod.”
At the same time,
“scientists did find differences between the bottom longline and the bottom-trawl survey data for large white hake. There was less overlap for white hake than for cod between the bottom trawl and bottom longline survey length distributions. The bottom longline survey detected large white hake on rough-bottom habitats, which shows that longline gear can catch large groundfish not often caught by trawl gear. This suggests that if large cod were present, the gear would capture them.”
Thus, yet another study had revealed that there are no longer significant numbers of large cod in the Gulf of Maine, despite some fishermen’s claims to the contrary. We have reached a point where fishermen are running out of excuses to oppose any and all management measures needed to rebuild the Gulf of Maine cod stock, and must finally admit that the fish are facing a very serious threat.
For the cod haven’t merely moved on to “the next place.” They’re gone.
And the sooner that everyone accepts that truth, the sooner everyone can work together in an effort to fix the problem.