Over the past year I caught eight good-sized fish in the waters around New York City, and I ate five of them. Photographer AJ Wilhelm and I have been chasing local and sustainable food - anything with fins, scales and gills -- wherever we could: we fished for bluefish off Orchard Beach in the Bronx, striped bass in the Verazzano Narrows, blackfish from the bottom of the New York Bight and everything that swims in Jamaica Bay.
But around New York City, fish are plentiful, at last for recreational fishermen. In fact the outlook is almost rosy, although it is a matter of discretion whether you want to eat the ones you catch. One of the spots to fish from efficiently in the city is Sheepshead Bay, where fishing boats tie up in slips on the north side of the inlet. There are eight of the boats now, down from the 45 boats when a local resident named Bernie Perlman started fishing years ago.
Every Friday in the early morning, 79 year-old Perlman carries his fishing pole up to those piers off Emmons Avenue, and chooses one of the boats. Though Perlman has had a half dozen careers, his most memorable was as an actor, and he played a character named Wizzy the Bum in a 1987 horror cult classic called "Street Trash." Perlman, who is still pretty spry, has been fishing out of Sheepshead Bay ever since 1945, when an aging furrier named Schlotzberg took him out on the water. They caught flounders by the bushel near the Rockaway Jetty.
Earlier this year I met Perlman flounder fishing on a boat called the Captain Dave. For bait, the boat's mate smashed open green mussels with a mallet. The flesh of a fresh mussel is weak and insubstantial, and it's like putting a raw egg yoke on the hook as bait. Perlman, short and old, had a NY Yankee's hat on his head and a cigarette in his mouth and he had to fit a mussel onto each hook on his fishing rig and then let the bait drop into the cold water below. What Perlman catches in the waters off New York, he always eats, or gives to his neighbors. Things have changed since Perlman started fishing decades ago. The big difference is far fewer fishing boats. Far fewer fish, too.
Fishing seems a simple enterprise but behind each rod and reel is an invisible and elaborate net of laws and regulations and shifting enforcement. It is all driven by complex and competing interests: not just fisherman versus fish, or environmentalists versus seafood companies, but also New York vs. New Jersey and commercial boats versus recreational fishermen. Indeed, one hint of how feisty the debates can get: Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo has twice sued the federal government on behalf of New York's fishermen.
Here at Sheephead Bay, painted signs fixed to the wood pylons advertise "The Captain Dave," the "Bullet," the "Brooklyn IV" and other boats. In front of the Sea Queen VII, last week, 35 year old Vince Torr, a Chinese fishing boat mate in a white t-shirt, cargo shorts and rubber boots, called out "Stripers! Stripers!" to anyone driving or walking by in the summer heat.. Three slips down, a competitor, Captain Dave Paris of the "Captain Dave," and his mates were calling out loudly to prospective customers, like carnival barkers. Hawkers have been selling fishing trips here for decades. They don't sell actual fish, though; what they sell is opportunity. For $45 you can head out for seven hours of fishing on a "party" -- or "for-hire" -- fishing boat.
Party boats are a poor man's charter boat. They feel industrial and workmanlike, like a tugboat or a ferry. Up to 40 or 50 people can crowd aboard and fish, although that's a rare day now. The mates hand out rods and reels if you don't have one, and the worms, clams, or bunker you use for bait. It is a far cry from the elite and dainty rhythms of a freshwater fly fisherman at some stream stocked by his fishing club. This is rougher and dirtier stuff for effectively catching big salt-water fish.
The 77-foot Sea Queen VII, bristling with rods and lines, can be an effective fish killing enterprise all on its own. Anything swimming directly below the boat will be lured in by an array of 40 or 50 baited hooks bouncing on the bottom, under the direction of some of the most proven, if old fashioned, fishing technology there is.
Summer nights at 7 pm the boats head out for striped bass and bluefish, nocturnal feeders. It was a foggy night and a vast freighter passed us on a stretch of water called the New York Bight. Inside the helm, Captain Mike Mazza's bearded face was lit from below by the screen of the FURUNO sonar fish finder.
Mazza used to take out the bluefish boats to these same waters. "Night bluefishing," he said, "you wouldn't bring a woman in that crowd! Rough crowd. They were hard-core fisherman. You got in somebody's line or got tangled they'd cut your line and throw your pole overboard. It was no rules and regulations."
Mazza was trying to position us right so we'd drift right over a shipwreck the skippers call "Stardust." Shipwrecks are perfect places to find striped bass, because the fish are "ambush predators," who like to hide behind cover. Like a lot of effective hunters, cougars in the American West, for example, striped bass stay still until their quarry passes by, and then they grab it from behind.
Most of us used bloodworms for bait on the Sea Queen, but Alberto Rosario, a young mate, was fishing too and had brought himself some special bait: high-tech realistic looking rubber eels called "Gulps" he'd bought. They aren't cheap at $20 for 10, and they are stored in a plastic jar floating in artificial red liquid scientifically designed to smell like old fish.
Alberto's fishing pole bent crazily like a spring. "Bring a light," he yelled at the captain, who turned on the spotlight. A huge striped bass peeled off glistening in the night light below the surface, a silver streak pulling parallel to the boat. The captain gaffed the fish and hoisted it aboard - a 36 inch striped bass gasping on the non-slip grey deck.
To keep a striped bass, these days, the law in New York says the fish has to be at least 28 inches. By that time, it has lived 7 years, swimming up the Hudson to spawn over and over, ever year. So Alberto's fish was well over the size limit, at 36 inches. It must has survived for about 10 years.
It's tough to describe the excitement of a striper fish on the line: it's a live, tough, heavy predator out there on the other end, pulling, aggressively. It's also like fishing for an animal saved from extinction. In the 1980's the species was considered almost wiped out, an over-fishing horror.
"It was guys like me killing as many as we could," Tony Dilernia told me the other day. Few people know as much about catching striped bass as Dilernia, who put himself through college selling them to restaurants. Now he is a professor and marine biologist at Kingsborough College. He also is a fishing charter captain and keeps his 26-foot fiberglass boat in Manhattan at the marina at 23rd street near the FDR drive.
He says the striped bass has a unique history that resulted from a boom in recreational fishing after the second world war. "After World War II," Tony said, as we sat on coolers aboard his boat, "the striped bass developed their own mystique."
Stripers are big, meaty fish with a wholesome, silvery, even athletic look, and of course as their name indicates they have dark stripes, horizontal, along their sides. They are perfectly proportioned. "It's the perfect fish." Dilernia explained. And he began talking fast. "If a little kid was to draw a picture of a fish, he would draw a picture of a striped bass. It can live in fresh water; it can live in salt water; it can live in brackish water. It's a great fish. And up till 1986, in New York State, you could catch as many as you wanted, 16 inches or more."
That's when the fish seemed to disappear. Eventually it was as if they had never really been there at all. Authorities saw the same thing all along the coast. States declared them a threatened species, and in 1986 there was a complete ban on catching stripers.
The breathing room worked. Without the pressure, the species had another chance. It was one of those astonishing success stories of ecology. "Striped bass, baby," says Dilernia, "they came back gangbusters!"
Indeed, Jim Gilmore, at New York States Department of Environmental Conservation, says there was a boom. And there are more striped bass now then ever recorded. No one really counts how many fish exist, but the scientists use elaborate methods to parse it out, netting, trolling and sampling from whatever spots they can think of.
The way they do it is "spawning stock biomass," says Gilmore. "It's a fancy way of saying the number of females you have in the population that are capable of spawning." The target set for striped bass, from South Carolina to Maine is 80 million pounds - or about 42 million fish.
Gilmore says the striped bass are now "overpopulated." The current spawning stock biomass is 120 million pounds, or 61 million fish. "There's good evidence," he said, "we have too many striped bass around."
The striped bass is an easy fish to cook well: simply throw a fillet on the broiler.
I caught one 28-inch fish earlier this summer aboard the "Captain Dave." The next day a friend came over for lunch with a bottle of chilled Sancerre. My fish had been caught just 13 hours before my friend and I ate it. It was sweet and flavorful, with a texture that was chewy, tough, but still buttery.
There is a significant downside to eating striped bass though: they are to one degree or another toxic. That's the paradox surrounding striped bass: The "Seafood Watch" website rates them a "Best Choice" for sustainable fishing, but the Environmental Defense Fund has issued a health advisory. The reason: Some striped bass show alarmingly high levels of PCBs. Most of the toxins are legacies of decade old troubles. "You had the Diamond Shamrock plant, in the Passaic," Jim Gilmore pointed out. "They made Agent Orange. Dioxin was the chemical of concern. You had the GE plant. There were ton of these places. All of those chemicals accumulate in the sediment and then bioaccumulate in the fish."
So for striped bass, there may be tens of millions more of them swimming the oceans then scientists can even hope for, but they are not necessarily safe to eat. Advice can be confusing: Last year seven coastal states from Maine to Maryland warned that children and women of childbearing age, shouldn't eat wild striped bass at all, because PCBs can cause neurological harm to children and fetuses. And on top of that, because of the theoretical cancer risk, everyone else should eat striped bass no more than 4 to 12 times a year. That's not a lot of fish.
For reasons that are unclear, New York State's advisories are generally far more lenient then nearby states. They let consumers eat 12 times more striped bass then the guidelines from neighboring states. Where the other states say 4 meals a year, New York, for most waters, says 4 meals a month, or 48 meals a year.. The fish, of course, don't abide by state lines.
Brian Toll, an epidemiologist from Connecticut's Department of Health says that in Connecticut supermarkets signs even warn that mothers and children should not eat striped bass.
It is a regulatory spaghetti: In its defense, a New York Health Department emailed the Observer to the state's guidelines on stripers are at least tougher then Massachussetts' rules. The Health Department spokesman sniped back at Connecticut in nay case: "Connecticut has issued no specific advisories for American eel and weakfish, while New York State has issued restrictive advisories for these fish."
(A parenthetical tip: some experts say that most of the dangers can be avoided. Look at the Japanese Fugu fish, which contains a potentially fatal neurotoxin. Clean it right and it is fine. Striped bass may be similar. "It is really how you prepare them," A lot of fish, like stripers, have a dark, fatty line running down their sides next to the skin. Gilmore of the state's Department of Environmental Conservation says most of the toxins accumulate in that fatty part. "When I skin them," he says, "I take that dark meat off and if I broil them you don't have much of an issue. I eat them all the time.")
As happy as everyone seems with the striped bass, not every fish is doing well. Flounder, which I fished for with Bernie Perlman, are suffering, and the state may shut the fishery down. But the biggest controversy now is the fluke fishery in New York City. "Fluke," Tony Dilernia pointed out, "is a political hot potato." It's not that they are that rare. It is a delicious fish: white meat similar to grey sole, and can be found raw in any sushi restaurant as "hirame." But in the 1990s the fluke fishery from the Carolinas up to Maine was decimated. Tough new rules were meant to save it.
Because of the arcane way that fishing is regulated, New York fishermen were hit hardest. Fishing rules are drawn up by an alphabet soup of committees, panels and councils, like the "Summer Flounder Monitoring Committee," which reports to the "Summer Flounder Management Board," which implements the "Summer Flounder Fishery Management Program."
And states can form voting blocs in complex alliances. There's a lot of politics in fishing and this time, New York lost out. As fluke - so called "summer flounder" -- recovered, New York had to restrict its take more than anywhere else. Consider the math: In New York State, fluke fishermen could only catch fish over 21 inches long, and could only keep 2 of them per day, in a season that lasted 78 days. "New york is sitting on the mother lode of fluke right now," says the DEC's Gilmore, "but we are restricted by the 1998 quota." In New Jersey, fishing in the same waters, the season was 101 days a year, and fishermen were allowed to keep up to 6 fluke per day, even if they were smaller.
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo filed suit against the feds in 2008, challenging the law, and then he sued again last year: "New York's fishing industry is drowning under the weight of arbitrary and ineffective fluke regulations," he announced in a press release.
It didn't work. A judge tossed out the case.
Still, for fishermen like Bernie Perlman the restrictions aren't enough to stop them, and he persists.
"I'm surprised with fluke, that people are still going for fluke," Tony Dilernia said. I agreed with him. With that small a chance of getting a fish I said, it seems "like a waste of time."
He did a double take.
"Stop!" he said. "Stop. Why is it a waste of time?" he asked slowly, emphasizing the words. It was a slip, I protested. "It was a Freudian slip!" he said.
Tony Dilernia the professor and Tony Dilernia the fishing boat captain had come together, as if to catch a student saying something wrong. For a fisherman, of course-- someone used to waiting with a hook and line in the water -- the phrase "waste of time" is meaningless.
(A version of this story ran in The New York Observer.)