Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Want to Eat Blackfish from Long Island Sound? Just Ask for Way-bah

I’ve eaten blackfish once. Twenty years ago I drove down to City Island to interview recreational fishermen as they were coming in from a day on one of the party boats. Generally the party boats look for bluefish but one of the guys I talked had caught some blackfish. The boat’s mate had filleted them and put them in a plastic bag for his customer to take home, but the guy didn’t want them, so when he offered, I took them. We ate the blackfish that night, and it was delicious.

Nobody’s giving them away now. A couple of weeks ago, the Stamford Advocate had a story about how traps set for blackfish in Norwalk Harbor were killing other fish. The reason traps were being set for blackfish is that a market for them had developed in Manhattan.

And then a story just came across from the Village Voice about a black market for blackfish in Chinatown. Here’s some of what reporter Elizabeth Dwoskin wrote:

The Chinese call the fish way-bah, and customers need to ask for it by name or point it out when it's displayed in a tank. The menu at this restaurant only listed "fried fish," with no mention of the species.

Two decades ago, the tautog, or black fish, was hardly a popular fish, but it has become one of the most expensive and frequently harvested fish in the region. At the same time, there has been a drastic decline in many fish populations across the Atlantic Coast. The shortage has left fisherman—including lobstermen on the Long Island Sound—scrambling to regain their livelihoods.

The state's size limit protects tautog reproduction, and since a management plan was put in place in 1996, the decline, biologists say, is leveling off. But more needs to be done to return the population to healthier numbers.

Although the DEC limits the annual blackfish catch to 68,000 pounds, that doesn't take the black market into account. Regulators say that's because poaching is too difficult to measure, and, with only a handful of officers to watch over 30 managed species, even tougher to police.

"We need to take some action to identify the scale of this," says Alice Weber, a marine biologist at the DEC who thinks that the illegal activity is "significantly affecting the agency's ability to manage the resource."

Scientists say the price of blackfish should be leveling off along with the population levels, but instead, it just keeps going up. That baffling statistic causes them to suspect that poaching is on the rise.

Today, live tautog can fetch more than $10 per pound in Chinatown, making it one of the five most expensive fish, says LaCroix. In the early 1980s, the fish went for "next to nothing," says Christopher Vonderwiedt, a project coordinator for the commission. But the price began to rise along with the expansion of live markets serving Asian immigrant communities, which nationwide more than doubled between 1980 and 2000, according to the U.S. Census. At the same time, the fish population began an abrupt decline, plummeting from 90 million pounds to 30 million during the following decade.

Though it's impossible to tell without poaching figures, scientists say the live markets can't be fully blamed for that drop. The real culprit is the severe strain that overfishing has placed upon the entire Atlantic ecosystem. Fisheries that were once far more popular than tautog, such as cod and winter flounder, experienced debilitating population declines starting in the mid-'80s. Those losses led fishermen to turn to blackfish, says Sandra Dumais, a Long Island–based marine biologist at the DOC.

The turn to blackfish may be particularly acute in the Long Island Sound, where lobstermen have never recovered after a major die-off in the winter of 1999-2000. Officers like LaCroix and Powers frequently write tickets for violations involving lobster pots, which, besides bait and tackle, are the primary means—both legal and illegal—to catch tautog.

"Years ago, it was kind of a bycatch in the lobster pots; people threw it away because it wasn't worth a lot of money—maybe a nickel a pound. Then the price goes up, and it becomes a targeted species," says Jim King, a lobsterman and trustee in the town of Southhold, Long Island.

I guess poaching is a big deal although my guess is that the DEC is so understaffed their enforcement efforts are probably not much more than a nuisance to the restaurants selling under-sized fish. On the other hand, I think it’s fantastic whenever fishermen can catch and sell something from Long Island Sound. That’s what our estuaries and coastal waters are for.

The voice story is fascinating. Read it here.



Blogger Sam said...

Sure, we used to catch black sea bass in our lobster traps occasionally, usually thinking of them as a strange critter and usually not eating them. The flesh tends to be coarse and nothing like flounder or cod as you say.

Anyway, the "blackies" or tautog are scavengers, liking dead rotten lobster bait and crabs rather than fast moving fish. I never thought about keeping them alive for the oriental market back then, although I had been to China Town several times. Wah!

9:05 PM  

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