Jeff Nichols gives us an intimate, on-the-ground look at some glaring problems in the striped bass fishery
Let me start by saying I have no interest in how many books this guy sells. Other than a couple of email exchanges this fall, I know Jeff Nichols from a hole in the wall. Having said that, after reading CAUGHT, One Man’s Maniacal Pursuit of a Sixty Pound Striped Bass and His Experience with the Black Market Fishing Industry, I have a great deal of respect for the guy. Frankly, I’m a little surprised he is still alive, or is at least isn’t in hiding somewhere. What he offers with this book is a candid, no-holds-barred biographical account of the underbelly of the East End striped bass fishery.
Having heard pretty much nothing at all about this book, someone passed it to me at a recent Council meeting, with the precursor “you should really read this”. Since then, it sat tucked away in an obscure pocket of my laptop bag for a few months. One of the unfortunate circumstances of my life these days is that, having two four-year-olds, and three (arguably four) jobs, I have very little time to read anything except for Council briefing books and grant requests. Yet, on a recent flight to the West Coast, after three hours my laptop battery began to die, and I began to panic, faced with the real possibility that I may be stuck reading Sky Mall for the next 3 or 4 hours. It was then that I remembered I had the book.
For the next several hours my surroundings disappeared as I entered the seedy, pathetic and the sometimes strangely-hilarious world of a striped bass addict and flat-out poacher. Not only did I find the book incredibly insightful and eye-opening, on a number of levels, but it was also very entertaining. First thing I did when I got home was buy several copies, mostly for my fishery-manager colleagues. In short, if you really give a crap about striped bass, you NEED to read this book.
The author’s background is an interesting one. Not what you’d think would be the standard poacher profile. He grew up a privileged NYC kid with a well-to-do family. Went to college, held a few good jobs, had a brief but successful career as a self-deprecating stand-up comedian, and wrote a well-read book Train Wreck, My Life as an Idiot which was eventually made into a successful movie called American Loser. Not really what you’d call an unsuccessful guy. But somewhere along the way, he was bitten by the striper bug, and in short, gave up everything to fish.
Not unreasonable really… If you are intimately involved in this fishery, you kinda get how this sort of thing could and often does happen. Certainly I’ve developed my life around striped bass, and there are many others who have chosen to scratch out a living as charter boat captains etc. Yet to support his addiction (he likens a fishing rod to a crack pipe) the author starts selling fish, and eventually gets embroiled in the Montauk underground illegal fish trade, which the author admits was at least half of the allure of chasing big striped bass. He also mated for the iconic Capt. Jimmy George, and now runs Second Choice Charters… just that name cracks me up. (Note: One of my favorite parts of the book was when he writes “Whoever wrote that book Do What You Love and The Money Will Follow should be beaten with a stick.”)
I suppose what I thought was really interesting about this book was that not only could I closely relate (to the obsession anyway), I had seen this sort of poaching, although perhaps more blatant, happening regularly in my neck of the woods (Western Long Island) for the last two decades. Lots and lots of it, often in broad daylight. The point is that it’s endemic, not just here and in Montauk, but all along the striper coast. And it’s incredibly destructive. Because it is so difficult to evaluate, there is no estimate of illegal fishing in the striped bass stock assessment or fishery management plan. In other words, because they can’t pin-point it, managers choose to simply disregard it. And so, all these fish caught illegally are above and beyond the fishing mortality estimates from legal commercial and recreational fishing. It is certainly not unreasonable to speculate that the number of fish sold and bought illegally is more than that of the legally sold fish. Of course, one could never prove that. But the point is that given such poaching, we could have been and probably were fishing well over the fishing mortality threshold set by managers for a very long time (read overfishing), and that certainly such overfishing could be a contributing factor to the well documented decline.
That said, there has always been the very real contention that anglers account for the great majority of striped bass fishing mortality. In fact in 2006, when the striper population peaked, according to ASMFC, recreational catch accounted for more than 80% of total mortality. Believe it or not, the number of recreational dead discards (those fish that die after they are released) was actually estimated to be double the total commercial catch. This is something I’ve written about extensively here and elsewhere. This point is and always has been that we can’t just point the finger at the commercial guys and say “it’s all them”. That said, however, I do believe that commercial mortality, at least what’s accounted for (in other words those fish legally caught and sold,) greatly underestimates the real commercial mortality. As mentioned, it could likely be double what it is on paper, maybe even more. Nichols is quick to point out, though, that the stripers’ current troubles are not due solely to such illegal fishing, but simply the sum of all things combined, with recreational fishing of course being a big contributor. He is absolutely right about this.
Moving on though, what the book does, among other things, is shed some light on the practice of poaching, particularly where the fish end up. As the author makes clear, a lot of it is simply sold through the backdoor of fancy New York City and Long Island restaurants. This is something that there was little evidence of before, save a few DEC busts in the last decade or so, but something a lot of us greatly suspected. It’s refreshing to hear someone talk about it so candidly.
What I also thought was particularly interesting about the book was Nichols’ catharsis. How he went from an ardent sport-fisher and pursuer of large fish to striper addict/poacher. Instead of developing reverence for the fish, he kills and sells them, knowing that what he is doing is wrong as the years press on and the striper population is visibly reduced. His gut is telling him that the fish need to be protected. And so, after narrowly escaping a few situations that could have ended very badly he got out, relatively unscathed, and now appears to be an ardent striped bass conservationist, killing few and selling none. In the last 15 pages he gives us his on-the-water perspective of the striper situation, which I found insightful and compelling. The afterward by the books editor, Zac Harvey, is equally so.
But really, I don’t want to give up to much. Get yourself a copy, and maybe one or two for your friends. It’s an easy quick read. It will make you angry, but it will also make you laugh your ass off at times, and it will certainly give you a clearer picture of some of the problems in the striped bass fishery, particularly the poaching one. Frankly, I’m a little bit surprised this book isn’t creating more of a buzz. I mean, it should be required reading for any hard-core striped bass angler, and I really do wish it would end up in some fishery manager’s hands.
As for Jeff Nichols: That dude has balls. I’ve always considered poachers to be cheating little weasels that not only screw the real hardworking fishermen who follow the rules, and of course the resource itself, but also the fish-eating consumer, who really has no idea where the fish came from, (I can tell you first had that a lot of them come from Lower New York Harbor). Nichols, however, is the proverbial prodigal son. Back from the depths of hell to tell us all his story. And that sort of thing takes guts, particularly when you’re dealing with people that are likely to kick your ass, sink your boat etc. Unfortunately, I know this from experience. So my hat is off.
The book is available on Amazon. Caught: One Man’s Maniacal Pursuit of a Sixty Pound Striped Bass and His Experiences with the Black Market Fishing Industry.