On the Way to the Elephant’s Graveyard

Way back in 1883 an English scientist, Thomas Huxley,opened the first London Fisheries Exhibition with a speechin which he declared that

“I believe that it may be affirmed with confidence that, in relation to our present modes of fishing, a number of the most important sea fisheries, such as the cod fishery, the herring fishery, and the mackerel fishery, are inexhaustible. And I base this conviction on two grounds, first, that the multitude of these fishes is so inconceivably great that the number we catch is relatively insignificant; and, secondly, that the magnitude of the destructive agencies at work upon them is so prodigious, that the destruction effected by the fisherman cannot sensibly increase the death-rate.”

Sad experience has taught us that he was very, very wrong.

But his way of thinking, as wrong as it is, is still very much alive.

That became apparent last week when I, along with another 200 or so anglers, attended the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s hearing on Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan.

The striped bass stock has been steadily declining.

Addendum IV was drafted to impose new catch restrictions that will hopefully stem the decline.  We all came out to make sure that it did.

I looked out across the packed theater, and I saw a lot of good folks that I knew, dedicated striped bass fishermen and conservationists who I have worked with, on various issues, for more than twenty years.  And then there were the folks who I didn’t know, some gray-haired and sun-dried veterans, others a little younger, all looking for their first big fight in defense of what we all knew was an all-too-fragile resource.

But we were not alone.

Scattered throughout the crowd were other veterans of the striper wars, folks that I knew all too well.  They, too, were gray-haired and sun-blasted, their faces familiar from dozens of hearings and meetings spread out over maybe two dozen years.

But unlike the rest of us, they weren’t there for the striper.

Or, more properly, they were there for the bass, for as many of the bass as they could kill, in person or by proxy, for so long as the killing might last.

Most were from Montauk, although other ports were also represented.  They were professional captains, who ran “six-pack” charters and party boats; most, if not all, also held commercial licenses and were allowed to sell bass (although not, if regulations are followed, bass caught when they were carrying passengers for hire).

To them, striped bass mean money, and not a lot else; conservation is never high on their agendas.

Like Huxley, they seem to believe that marine resources are inexhaustible, and that, no matter how many bass they kill, more will always take their place.

The Fisherman magazine had reporters at Stony Brook, and interviewed various stakeholders after the meeting.  The resultant tape shows the clear split in folks’ opinions.

While anglers and light-tackle guides were unanimous in their support of harvest cuts, the bigger for-hire boats opposed the management plan’s requirement that fishing mortality be reduced within just one year.

Paul Forsberg, owner of the Montauk-based Viking Fleet of party boats, denied that there was any problem at all, saying

“Nobody mentioned that fish have tails.  They move around…It’s not like they’re overfished.  I don’t believe that at all.  The striped bass, there’s plenty of them around.”

Apparently, he disagrees with the conclusion of the recent peer-reviewed stock assessment, which came to a very different conclusion.

One of his colleagues, Joe McBride, representing the Montauk Boatmen’s and Captains’ Association, made an equally fatuous argument, saying that for-hire boats need to kill more fish because they carry people who only fish a few times a year, while surfcasters and private boat anglers can fish every day, and can thus kill fourteen bass every week.

Of course, he never mentioned the very big difference between “can” and “do”; the number of anglers who kill that number of fish can readily be counted on the fingers of a double amputee’s hands. Nor did he acknowledge that there is a very big segment of the striped bass fishing community that doesn’t kill as many bass in a year as one of his customers may legally take in a one trip.

But to be fair, it’s very possible that the Forsbergs and McBrides of this world really can’t wrap their minds around the concept that a person might go striper fishing just for fun, and not to kill bass or make money.

It’s just too far outside their personal frames of reference.

Back in ’95, when the striped bass stock was first declared recovered, most of the bass fishermen on Long Island wanted to keep the size limit at one fish and the bag limit at 36 inches.  The general philosophy was that if such rules were good enough to nurse the stock back to health, they were good enough to keep it healthy, too.  Anglers weren’t particularly interested in killing more fish.

But the Montauk crowd, along with boats from Captree and Huntington and Sheepshead Bay, insisted that they “needed” to kill more and smaller stripers, saying that their customers wanted to take dead fish home, and wouldn’t go fishing if they couldn’t kill bass.

And the State of New York, not wanting to hurt anyone’s business, rewarded for-hires with two 28-inch fish.

That made them happy—for a while.

And then, about a dozen years later, at a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, a representative if the Montauk boats came up with a little different story.

The boys from Montauk wanted relief from the regulation that prohibited them from selling any striped bass caught by their customers.

Apparently, a lot of their customers were tourists who stayed at Montauk hotels, had no way to keep or cook their catch, and really didn’t “need” to kill any fish at all.  The old salts apparently wanted to do their fares a favor, and help them avoid the trauma of releasing their catch, by taking the unwanted fish off their hands and putting them up for sale.  The Montauk captains would also be willing to sell any bass their fares caught that measured between 24 and 28 inches in length, fish big enough to be legally sold commercially, but smaller than an angler might keep.

The idea of just letting fish go, and conserving the stock, never seems to enter their mind.

That’s something I’ve noticed for quite a long time.

But lately, I’m noticing something else.

These guys are all old.

The young ones are my age.

The old ones are…older.  They come up to the microphone slowly these days, and their voices can catch on their words.  They say the same things that they’ve been saying for years, but these days, at least for some of them, the old vehemence is gone.

As I sat in my chair at the Stony Brook meeting, I started getting the feeling that they knew they were wrong, but just said the old words out of habit.  There was a lack of…call it confidence..in too many voices to think anything else.

Because the winds of eternity never stop blowing, and we all turn to dust in the end.

Could it be that they’re feeling the breezes, and want to leave more than nothing behind?

For when you look behind them, you realize that nobody follows.

There are plenty of younger captains, but they have mostly rejected Huxley’s beliefs.  Some came of age in the hard times, and know how bad things can be.  The others have heard all of their fathers’ old talkes, and don’t want to see hard times themselves.

The great hope for the future of our fish and our fishermen is that the next generation seems, by and large, determined not to make their elders’ mistakes.

They probably never even heard of Thomas Huxley.

Even so, they know he was wrong.


Charles Witek grew up in coastal Connecticut, fishing for Long Island Sound’s then-abundant bottom fish before graduating to weakfish, bluefish and striped bass. He was already in his early twenties, and an avid striped bass angler, when the stock began to collapse. It was then that he had a chance meeting with Bob Pond, creator of the Atom plug, who was an early advocate for striped bass conservation. Pond’s efforts touched a chord and Witek, too, took up the striper’s cause. Over the years, he became more involved in conservation issues, serving as a bluefin tuna technical advisor to the US ICCAT delegation and holding a seat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. He is currently a member of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council and a sits on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Winter Flounder Advisory Panel. He is also a Vice President of the New York State Outdoor Writers’ Association. Witek currently resides, with his wife Theresa, on New York’s Long Island, where he fishes for everything from back-bay weakfish to canyon tunas from his 31’ Ocean Master, Arion.

Posted in Conservation
8 comments on “On the Way to the Elephant’s Graveyard
  1. avatar joe ganun ( JoeG@Breezy) says:

    Nice write up. It gives me hope. Hope that there are bass in the future, Hope that we are not to late and hope that ASMFC actually gets it and cares. Worried about the latter.

  2. avatar cbrian moran says:

    a well studied and in depth analysis written brief on the hearings, words that truly ring true for our times ,,imagine that just for a moment ,,,fishing for fun ,,,what a concept ….thank you for the report,,, respectfully cbrianm

  3. avatar Jack says:

    What a bunch of crap this piece is. The author is obviously an elitist who has no clue what’s it like to make a living in the for hire sector. The fact is we take anglers to the fishing grounds, and they decide what they want to take home. I’v had plenty of fares that keep under their limit, but they are not the majority. I couldn’t survive on catch and release. Had the rest of the coast followed New York’s lead, and voluntarily stay under the quota we probably wouldn’t be in this position. But they didn’t, and pointing the finger at the for hire sector is wrong. Every person we take fishng is a recreational angler.

  4. avatar Charles Witek says:

    I’ve been getting into fights over fish for a long time, and when somebody calls me an “elitist,” it’s inevitably a sign that they can’t win an argument on the facts and have to resort to personal attacks. Although it’s a pretty weak attack, given that the term “elitist,” when used by a for-hire operator or tackle shop owner, usually refers to a person who can 1) read and understand printed material, including but not limited to fishery management plans and stock assessments, 2) enjoys angling, and doesn’t need to kill every fish that comes into the boat and/or 3) cares enough about the public interest that he wants to leave some fish in the water for folks’ kids and grandkids to enjoy a few decades from now. So thank you for calling me an “elitist.” I’m complimented.

    As far as not knowing what it takes to make a living on a for-hire boat, I know what it doesn’t take–a cooler filled with dead fish. I’ve fished on for hires on every coast of the United States except Hawaii, as well as in a couple of foreign countries, and the only place where the capatains and crews of the boats constantly emphasize dead fish is in the northeast, with New Jersey and New York the worst of them all (although New England can be bad as well). I never ran into the kind of attitudes the party boats have here in New York, where many (I don’t want to say all, because I haven’t fished on all of them) refuse to allow anglers to release a legal striped bass until a “boat limit” has been killed–even though the striped bass limit is personal, not cumulative, and they are effectively forcing anglers to either stop fishing or violate the law.

    As people who have the privilege of earning a living from a public resource, and who are often anglers first contact with the sport, for-hire operators play a big role in shaping those anglers’ attitudes. If they teach new anglers that dead fish are the only thing that matter, that’s what their customers are going to want. If they teach anglers to limit their catch and still have a good time, that will have a lot of influence on those customers’ attitudes. And no, that’s not speculation, because I know my share of anglers in a lot of ports–including big for-hire ports such as Montauk, NY and Galillee, Rhode Island who teach conservation and still manage to have businesses that do well for a long time–in the case of one guy who taught me when I was young, for something like 40 years.

    Dinosaurs died when environmental conditions changed. Today’s for-hire captains have a choice–remain dinosaurs who want to kill everything that moves, as they did in the old days, and go out of business, or learn to change with the times and the rules, and keep their business alive. The good news is that the guys who make the change are the ones who deserve to stay in business.

  5. avatar Jack says:

    Now I’m privileged to be allowed to take recreational anglers fishing? And I’m supposed to be a teacher now? Shouldn’t the angler be the educated one? After all the captain and mates in ny aren’t allowed any fish, so we’re not taking a single fish while running a charter. Do you expect me to tell my fairs, that fish just once or twice a year on average, that they should voluntarily release everything?

    The sad thing here is we have a rec angler, involved in CCA who will not hesitate to ask the rec industry for free charters and raffle donations, and then go out and use the money to attack us.

    Hook and line and recreational anglers on charter or open boats are not the enemy of the striped bass. Nor are they reason for any decline in the fishery. The fact is that rec anglers kill more bass with catch and release then the entire New England charter fleet. That is if you believe the official numbers.

    You should be be targeting gill nets with a 50 percent mortality rate or dragger by catch and leave your fellow rec anglers alone.

  6. avatar Charles Witek says:

    Yes, you are privileged, in that you are permitted to derive income from the harvest of a public resource. And you are certainly supposed to be a teacher. That’s why people hire you–because you are more skilled at finding and catching fish than they are, and they hope to catch fish and maybe learn something from their time on the boat with you. You contradict yourself in that regard; you say that your passenger fishes “just once or twice a year on average” and then ask “Shouldn’t the angler be the educated one?” How in any rational world would someone who fishes once or twice a year be more educated, with respect to fishing and the fish sought, than someone who makes a living on the water? Seem like a foolish thing to even ask.

    And you’re also putting words in my mouth that don’t belong there. NOWHERE have I stated that I believe that your anglers should be compelled to return home “not taking a single fish.” My argument is that two fish at 28 inches is too much; ONE fish at NO LESS THAN 32 inches seems to be a reasonable harvest level, providing plenty of fresh meat (with less opportunity for freezer burn and waste) while not unduly stressing the stock. So no, I don’t think that you need to tell your “fairs [sic]…that they should voluntarily release everything,” although I do think that they should be held to one fish apiece. That’s more than reasonable.

    I’m not sure who you’re referring to as “a rec angler, involved in CCA.” If you’re aiming the comment at me, it’s more than a little out of date. I severed that connection a long time ago.

    As far as who is and is not “the enemy of the striped bass”, the answer is pretty simple. Anyone who opposes managing striped bass by using the best available science–which means a fishing mortality rate of not more than 0.180–and anyone who doesn’t want to see ASMFC impose harvest reductions to get us down to F=0.180 in the 2015 season, is an “enemy of the striped bass.” Folks who support timely harvest reductions are not. At both the New York hearing at Stony Brook and along the coast generally, most charter and open boats fell in the former category, and thus have labelled themselves pretty well.

    Which leads to your last point. I am not targeting my “fellow rec anglers,” because anyone who is truly my “fellow” supports conservation and a healthy striped bass resource. They are reflected in the 81% of the hearing comments that supported taking the full harvest reduction in 2015, and in the majority who supported a 1-fish bag and 32-inch minimum size. Saltwater attitudes remain behind the times. Both hunters and freshwater anglers long ago decided to police their own community, disowning and disparaging the fish and game hogs that killed as much as they could simply because the law allowed it, and the “slobs” of dubious responsibility who did not show the requisite respect for the resources that they harvest. In that vein, when I look at members of the broad recreational fishing community who are more interested in protecting their own short-term economic interests, at the expense of the health of the striped bass stock and the greater, long-term public interest in maintaining strong and sustainable fish populations, I consider such folks not only the “enemy of the striped bass,” but my enemy and the enemy of every responsible angler in the fishery, including those yet to be born.

    The sooner they exit the scene, either voluntarily or for any other reason, the better for everyone else.

  7. avatar Jack says:

    You see Charlie, our great nation is built on laws and our fares abide by those laws. If the biology shows that things need to be changed then we will fish by whatever we are given.

    And while you sure are a spin master, attacking charter boats for keeping what amounts to two more fish on a six pack charter, when you eliminate the captain and mate, and never even acknowledging that catch and release kills more fish then any directed factor of the fishery, seems very short sighted.

    I also noticed no mention of any efforts by anyone to eliminate the highest mortality fisheries in the commercial sector.

    It’s obvious to everyone in the industry in ny that you have an axe to grind with us and always have. You attack the people that do nothing more then take people to the fish, or those that work 18 hour days to provide them with bait and tackle. Another issue you continue to dodge.

    Im sure you’ll spin this I just hope whatever readers there are here realize the fact that a United rec angler and industry is much stronger then one attacking the other. Recreational anglers on for hire boats have little if any effect on the fishery. Unless of course you could prove otherwise. And I’m not asking for opinion.. Show me numbers that support it.

  8. avatar Charles Witek says:

    Yes, this is a nation of laws, and when a law is bad, what you do is try to change it, which is what is happening right now with striped bass. And the biology–a peer-reviewed stock assessment, which is the closest thing to a gold standard that you’ll find in fisheries biology–does say that the current rules need to be changed. Yet the New York for-hires, by and large–not all of them, because there were a number of responsible light-tackle guides at Stony Brook arguing for responsible management–didn’t seem to support either the science or the regulation change that the science indicated were appropriate. Instead, they opposed the harvest cuts. It’s more than a little disingenuous to say that “we will fish by whatever we are given” when you’re fighting to keep what you’ve got…

    And let’s not throw the red herring out about captains and mates not keeping fish, so 2 fish vs. 1 is only a two-fish increase. That’s not a logically consistent statement, and contradicts what you already said about the nation being built on laws. For the law in New York say that the captain and mate can’t keep fish, and that’s true whether the limit is one fish or two. Not even sure where you get your figure “amounts to two more fish on on a six pack charter.” If a six-pack can only take twelve fish today, “when you eliminate the captain and mate,” then it will be able to take 6 fish with a 1-fish bag limit–that’s a difference of 6 fish, not two. If you want to figure in the captain and make only if the bag limit drops to 1 fish, it becomes a 4-fish difference (8 fish–two for captain and mate plus six for the passengers, rather than today’s 12 just for the fares). No two-fish difference becomes apparent. But there is no reason to believe that the captain and mate will get to take fish if the bag limit drops (as much as some of the greedier types out at Montauk would like it), so talking about fish that the crew might or might not take is little more than an exercise in misdirection.

    The same is true about your comments re commercial kill. Gear types weren’t discussed in Addendum IV, which is what the blog post was about. So no, it wasn’t mentioned. That’s a discussion for another time, at the state level, when it might have some meaning.

    And no, I don’t dodge the fact that I have a serious problem with those in the industry that feel entitled to special privileges, such as bag and size limits special to the for-hires, that do not apply to other anglers. And I have never dodged the fact that I have little use for industry members who–as I mentioned in my prior post–believe that they should have a greater say in the management of the resource than other members of the public, or who believe that their short-term economic interests should trump the need to restore and maintain healthy fish stocks, for the greater public good. If an industry member wants to do the right thing, as the light-tackle guides seem to do, I have no problem with them at all.

    And yes, a united angling community would be best for all of us. So when are you going to join the rest of us. If you were at the Stony Brook hearing, you heard angler after angler supporting full harvest cuts in 2015, and 1 fish at 32 inches. The only members of the recreational community who broke with that unified position was the six-packs, largely from Montauk, and some party boats. If you really believed in “unity,” you and your fellow for-hires would have been out there demanding 1 @ 32″, instead of the least effective and most difficult to enforce 7% phase-in over three years, as supported by the Montauk boats. We saw the same pattern all along the coast, with anglers calling for full harvest cuts in 2015–81% of all comments made coastwide–while the for-hires called for either status quo or a three-year phase-in.

    A lot of industry folks like to talk about “unity,” but when they do, it’s always “so do it our way.” The price of unity is giving in to the for-hires and the others who keep on singing the same old song, “We need, we need, you have to feed our greed” that the for-hires have been singing since Amendment 5 was adopted back in 1995.

    And so yes, I believe in unity. I believe that every angler should have the same bag and size limit, preferably 1 @ 32″, regardless of the platform he or she fishes from. And so once more you are trying to misdirect the readers. Because I’m not arguing that there should be particularly punitive rules for for hires. I’m saying that everyone, for-hires included, should have to reduce harvest by at least 25%, and preferably more. And that’s just what 1 @ 32″–or even 1 @ 28″, although the likelihood of success is less–would do. Want the numbers? Take a look at Addendum IV.

    You may try to obfuscate the facts, but the bottom line is clear. The great majority of anglers who have commented on the issue want to see the 25% reduction take place next year. And the majority of for-hires are doing their best to see that it doesn’t happen.

    That pretty much says it all.

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