Sometimes we Northeast anglers hit it right. Twenty to 30-pound stripers crushing topwater plugs in Cape Cod Canal, big black seabass stacked off a wreck near Block Island, or acres of 100-plus-pound bluefin tearing though the surface.
Rods bent, drags screaming, and you think to yourself: “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
But does it, or did it?
If you speak to any of the old-timers, you’ve probably seen them shake their heads when you brag about the above, followed with the predictable tales of days gone by.
It’s hard to say if things were really that much better back then, as clearly most of us weren’t there. And of course there’s some bias as memories always tend to be more colorful than actual events. One thing is clear though. A few species, perhaps more than a few, are depleted compared to historical numbers. That is a scientific fact.
I think we can say with some certainty, that not only were most of the fish we catch now more abundant, but there were many species caught back in those good old days that are rarely if ever seen today.
1. Rainbow Smelt
Many years ago, along the Connecticut shore, smelt would begin streaming into the estuaries sometime around mid-October, and stay there all winter before running up streams to spawn in the spring.
They were rarely more than 10 inches long, and often much smaller than that, but anglers still lined docks and sea walls to catch them. Often armed with nothing more than cane poles, a float, and some bloodworms, they picked smelt all day, but fishing was better at night when the glow of dozens of Coleman lanterns lit the waters, drawing smelt toward the surface.
Although the fish were small, the fishing was addictive, and many otherwise-sensible anglers gathered in large groups and shivered through the night to catch smelt. It was a festival while it lasted, but around 1970, the smelt suddenly disappeared from southern New England, and never returned.
Loss of access to upstream spawning grounds probably played the biggest role in their disappearance. Whatever the reason, when the smelt went away, a unique and colorful fishery was lost forever as well.
2. Atlantic Tomcod
Atlantic tomcod were once common in southern New England and the upper mid-Atlantic, where they were often caught by fishermen seeking smelt in the winter and flounder during the spring and fall. As their scientific name, Microgadus tomcod, suggests, tomcod are very small members of the cod family, that rarely weighed more than a pound.
Like cod, the tomcod is a good-eating fish, but unlike the cod it is an estuarine-dependent species that spawn in brackish and even fresh waters. Thus, like smelt, tomcod were undoubtedly harmed by dams and other barriers that cut them off from their spawning grounds.
As abundance declined, recreational landings dropped. Anglers caught an estimated 1.3 million fish in 1982, but National Marine Fisheries Service surveyors have recorded no recreational harvest since 2010.
There are remnant tomcod populations in some estuaries—one exists in the Hudson River, although the fish are so contaminated by industrial pollutants that anglers are advised not to eat them. But from a practical angling perspective, tomcod, like smelt, belong to the past.
3. Winter Flounder
In the mid-1980s, winter flounder were the most popular saltwater panfish in the northeast. Flounder were caught from docks, beaches, and seawalls, and from wooden rowboats, and from fleets of party, charter and rental boats.
Quincy, Massachusetts was particularly popular with flounder anglers, who came in their cars and chartered buses to fish from rental skiffs and return home with coolers and bushel baskets filled with fish.
In 1981, anglers took more than 35.6 million winter flounder home, but even then, overfishing had begun to take its toll. The New England Fishery Management Council refused to cap landings until the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act compelled it to do so.
As a result, the flounder population, and recreational landings, went into a 40-year decline. In 2018, recreational landings were estimated at just 158,426 fish, less than one-half of one percent of what they were in 1981.
Overfishing was a leading cause of the flounder’s demise, but other factors also played a role. The flounder’s complex stock structure, composed of many localized, genetically distinguishable populations, made flounder vulnerable to localized overfishing. Warming waters, both inshore and offshore, have probably also negatively impacted the population.
4. Atlantic Mackerel
At one time, huge schools of Atlantic mackerel invaded Long Island Sound in the springtime then moved east to Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Anglers, using diamond jigs clipped to multi-hooked Christmas Tree rigs, often caught them four or five at a time, and filled every container on board their boats with fish that were eaten, used as bait or, far too often, buried to fertilize household gardens.
Mackerel remain abundant off northern New England, but off the mid-Atlantic states, the fish have all but disappeared. Mid-Atlantic anglers caught more than 6 million mackerel in 1987; by 2018, the region’s landings had dropped to a mere 43,000 fish.
Mackerel are currently considered overfished. Since they thrive in cool water, a warming ocean may have contributed to their disappearance from the southern part of their range.
5. Whiting (Silver Hake)
Anglers fishing out of ports in northern New Jersey and New York during the winter once enjoyed an abundance of silver hake, which everyone referred to as whiting, in the waters just outside New York Harbor.
Party boats loaded with anglers sailed day and night; every fisherman on board hoped to return home with a burlap sack stuffed with whiting. Anglers without boats fished from places such as Brooklyn’s Coney Island Pier, where whiting could be caught beneath the pier’s lights after sundown. Those without rod or reel stalked the beaches on cold winter nights, when whiting —chasing bait in the wash—would often beach themselves, and could be gathered by hand. Such “frostfish” helped more than one family make it through the Great Depression.
The small-mesh trawl fishery that operated in the New York Bight, and killed many immature whiting, probably drove down inshore numbers, although the fish remained abundant offshore. The fishery was already well on its way to collapse by 1981, the first year for which recreational landings estimates are available. In that year, mid-Atlantic anglers landed over 740,000 whiting; by 2018, they supposedly landed about 40.
6. Atlantic Cod
Cod remained relatively abundant through the late 1970s, and supported flourishing recreational fisheries in the upper mid-Atlantic and southern New England. The winter fishery extended as far south as Delaware, and there was a thriving summer fishery in every state between New York and Maine. Even after inshore abundance declined, long-range party boats offered multi-day trips to distant ledges and banks well into the current century.
Cod suffered from steadily increasing fishing pressure since colonial times, and were never properly managed. Congress passed the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, which pushed large foreign trawlers off U.S. fishing grounds, but also gave the domestic fleet financial incentives to build bigger, more efficient boats that, unrestrained by the New England Fishery Management Council, continued to remove too many cod from the sea.
Cod all but disappeared from the southern end of their range, and then grew scarce off New England as well. Although some are still caught, the stocks still teeter on the verge of collapse. Recreational landings have been limited by too few fish and intermittent closings of the recreational fishery. In 1981, Atlantic Coast anglers landed nearly 3.8 million cod. By 2018, partly due to season closures, that number had dropped to less than 31,000.
7. Atlantic Pollock
Atlantic pollock are closely related to cod, but never gained the same acceptance as either a food or a sport fish. Perhaps for that reason, the last stock assessment found that the population is healthy. Even so, recreational landings have declined by about 90 percent, from nearly 3.9 million fish in 1981 to about 390,000 in 2018.
That decline is probably due, in part, to the collapse of the fishery in the upper mid-Atlantic and southern New England. Big pollock were once commonly caught off New York and New Jersey; a 46 pound, 7 ounce pollock landed by a New Jersey angler was once the all-tackle world record. Until the early 1980s, Block Island, R. I. hosted a spectacular late-spring pollock run of fish that typically weighed between 15 and 35 pounds. Many were caught on diamond jigs, although some anglers trolled multi-hooked umbrella rigs and brought pollock aboard two or three at a time. Commercial overfishing probably drove down pollock numbers and destroyed the Block Island fishery, which has never recovered.
Weakfish used to be a popular and abundant sport fish in southern New England and the mid-Atlantic. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anglers caught large numbers of them by chumming with live grass shrimp. Weakfish abundance then declined sharply after the World War II, supposedly due to an eel grass blight that deprived the fish of critical habitat. The fish remained scarce until the early 1970s, when the population bounced back and a new generation, armed with lead-headed jigs tipped with plastic shrimp or artificial worms, enjoyed their newfound abundance.
Such abundance didn’t last. The population declined again in the ‘80s, then enjoyed a new resurgence that saw the current world record of 19 pounds, 12 ounces caught off Staten Island, New York. But by 2005, the population again collapsed, and remains at a very low level.
Overfishing probably wasn’t the cause of the weakfish’s latest decline. The species suffers from what biologists refer to as the “Year 1 Bottleneck,” that sees few fish reach two years of age. The cause of the bottleneck hasn’t been established, although it seems to be related to natural mortality. Increased predation by bottlenose dolphin is one of the possibilities being considered.
9. Shortfin Mako
Even in the “Golden Age” of big-game fishing, when wealthy sportsmen in expensive yachts ventured out after billfish and tuna and looked at most sharks with contempt, makos were valued. Their speed, their high, spinning leaps, and their willingness to attack a trolled bait earned fishermen’s respect. After the well-publicized exploits of Capt. Frank Mundus, of Montauk, New York, began to change northeastern anglers opinions of shark fishing around 1960, mako tournaments became a summer staple throughout the region.
Even when not fishing in tournaments, anglers targeted makos, and brought many to the scales. Farther offshore, longlines set for swordfish and tuna were catching a lot of makos as bycatch. The fishing pressure became unsustainable, and by the mid-1990s, anglers began to notice that the mako season was beginning later and ending sooner, and that both the numbers and size of the fish caught were declining. While some very big fish, including a few over 1,000 pounds, were still being encountered, the 300- to 400-pound makos that used to win tournaments were being replaced by fish half that size. Participation in shark tournaments began to taper off as fewer and fewer eligible makos showed up in chum slicks.
Finally, in 2018, a stock assessment released by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas revealed that the shortfin mako was both overfished and subject to overfishing; fishing mortality would have to be reduced by 75 percent to stabilize the stock. Follow-up research, released in 2019, recommended a complete end to all mako landings.
That created a problem, as European longline fishermen, who are responsible for much of the fishing mortality, as well as some recreational fishing interests in the United States, opposed a complete ban on mako harvest. Measures to promote live release have been adopted, but the mako’s future remains in doubt.
10. Atlantic Bigeye Tuna
Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, when northeastern anglers made long runs to the canyons, they were usually targeting bigeye tuna. Yellowfin tuna and albacore made up most of their catch, and there was always the chance that they’d run into a swordfish or big blue marlin, but when canyon anglers set out their lures and began to troll, they were thinking of the bigeye that hunted squid along the deep canyon walls.
Bigeye didn’t come to the surface too often, but when they did, it was often in packs that hit four, five or six trolled lures at a time, and turned boat cockpits into chaos. Most bigeye weighed less than 200 pounds, but they grew quite a bit larger. The New Jersey state record of 364 pounds, caught in 1984, and the New York state record of 355 pounds, caught in 1981, were examples of that.
Bigeye range across the entire North Atlantic basin, and are targeted by both longliners from North America, Europe and Asia, that seek large bigeye for sushi and high-end markets, and European purse seiners, who catch large numbers of immature bigeye that are processed and canned. As a result, bigeye have become overfished. The nations belonging to ICCAT, which manages the species, have not been able to agree on meaningful management measures. Late in 2019, they made very modest cuts to the overall quota, and placed some restrictions on the purse seine fleet, but much more is needed to rebuild the stock.
As a result, the canyon fishery has suffered badly. Sometimes, when water conditions are perfect, a canyon can still light up for a few days or a couple of weeks, and remind anglers of what fishing was like 25 years ago. But canyon anglers no longer encounter bigeye on a regular basis, and the fish that they catch rarely exceed 150 pounds.
With the bad should also come the good, and it’s important to point out the success stories. The truth is that there have been more than a few stocks have come back in spades, due to good management.
Western Atlantic bluefin tuna used to be the poster child for overfishing. With a booming sushi market both domestic and overseas, demand created a quick overcapitalization. While it didn’t happen quickly, fishery managers did react, constraining landings to the point where the species started to come back. According to the science, since 2009 the stock has shown extraordinary growth. Anglers appear to be encountering more fish each year, and a robust sport fishery from North Carolina to Maine has developed.
Striped bass are another success story. Overfishing nearly collapsed the stock in the early to mid-1980s. While there was extreme political pressure to allow folks to keep fishing, strong legislation was passed— Atlantic Striped Bass Act —which compelled states to work together to constrain landings and bring the striped bass back. By 1995, the stock had recovered to levels people hadn’t seen in decades. The stock, as well as the recreational fishery grew even further before managers ratcheted up harvest, in the face of scientific advice that they shouldn’t. We are no longer in a great place with striped bass. It remains to be seen how managers react. While history should have taught us a lesson, the usual stakeholders are applying the usual political pressure so that they can keep harvest high. But we are nowhere near where we were when the stock almost collapsed.
There are numerous other examples of how good decision making and good management have brought critically important recreational stocks back, often from the brink. Black seabass, scup, summer flounder to name a few.
Was the fishing better back then? It depends on who you ask and of course, what species they were targeting.
The point is that the fishing doesn’t have to be worse. History has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that strong fishery conservation laws and good management decisions bring species back, often from the brink. Indeed, fisheries management decisions are always politically contentious and divisive. But when the right decisions are made, everyone benefits in the long term.