Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report

J-Mann: Tuesday, May 08, 2007 Touchy Tog Issue

Tuesday, May 08, 2007: Busy day in the SandPaper neighborhood, as the season of plenty moves in. I have gotten a couple reports of fair bassing but there is still a slowdown, as much from the winds (fading today) as the bluefish bombardment.

Another weekly column section.

TOG BLOG: Over the weekend, fishing buddy Walt P. went out in search of his favorite quarry, tog. He worked the rocks of Barnegat Inlet by anchoring up and chumming. Nada. I had previously mentioned in here that those inlets rocks, fully famed for their blackfish, are actually very late in showing a tog population. As proof, there are currently blackies on most beachfront LBI jetties and on near-in wrecks and reefs but absent from the inlet jetties.
The reason the tog aren’t overly anxious to take-up seasonal residency near the inlet could very well be the huge water temp shifts, as incoming tides bring in stirred up 50-degree ocean water followed quickly by outgoing tides ushering in solar-heated 65-dgree-plus bay water.
Still, the inlet rocks are such an ideal tog habitat, they blackies will settle in very soon – just as the regs restrict the take to one blackfish a day. Smart fish.
SASHIMI ON THE HOOF CONTROVERSY: I want to touch on the ongoing blackfish controversy, having to do with the marketing of sashimi on the hoof, i.e. the taking of live blackfish to be kept alive then sold, table-side, for raw fish diners.
Mimicking the methods – and success -- of Asian sashimi restaurants, United States eateries are going the extra mile – in some cases, the extra 1,00 miles – to bring live, essentially aquarium-based, food fish to customers, at a cost sometimes equivalent to $100 a pound or higher.
The problem for the angling realm comes from the dollar attraction placed on the likes of raw tog, which is being sold in the Caribbean as “New York Grouper.”
At first, Asian anglers were cashing in on the money to be made by capturing, often clandestinely, blackfish. Through careful handling -- and a load of aeration -- hook-and-line fishermen transported the fish to black market buyers, smiling all the way to the bank.
It was a blackfish bust aboard a charter boat in southern NJ that exposed this illegal poaching market. However, that very same bust may have also opened the floodgates to further abuses, attracting other opportunistic less-than-scrupulous anglers.
I may be getting myself in a spot of trouble here with fellow fishermen but I believe this poaching problem is very hook-and-line oriented. Since commercial fishermen only take 10 percent of the allowable blackfish harvest, the illegal blackfish trade can easily take on a markedly in-house feel among recreational fishermen
Of course, one can’t overlook the profusely controversial subject of commercial pot fishermen loading the state’s artificial reefs with gear, greatly restricting the ability of recreationalists to fish habitat they sponsored out of pocket. Could the increasingly common use of those fish pots – a prime way to collect blackfish -- be a sign that the professional fishermen are seeing the green of live blackfish and are going to be coming on like gangbusters?
Once again I get myself in hot water but I think that imposing pot usage is actually in response to what was a near collapse of the lobster trade this year, caused as much by public demand as a decline in the fishery. “Bugs,” as lobster are called in the trade, became double golden. The demand has leveled off and the bug value has dropped significantly in recent weeks. However, I have to think those pot fishermen got a quick learn about blackfish trapping. Also, the odds of them abandoning the reefs is slim and none. In fact, I was told off the record that those potters are staying their ground as much in defiance of efforts to stop them as to capture bugs and blackfish.
Retreating from the reef matter for the time being, I want to emphasize that the dangers posed by the lure of the big-bucks sashimi market are surely enough to devastate the blackfish stocks. That comes from scientists and conservations alike.
Unfortunately, the only real way to quash any poaching is via strict law enforcement. Just try telling that to the strapped folks trying to enforce fish and wildlife laws. There are some individual NJ municipalities that have more cops on their local force than man the entire Fish and Wildlife enforcement division. It’s a travesty that so much revenue is brought in by the hunting and fishing segment yet so little is paid back into its care and enforcement. Even the proposed saltwater fishing license – and the millions of dollars it would raise -- would do virtually nothing to fund improved law enforcement.
With the value of poached blackfish hyper-exceeding any existing fines and the demands on enforcement already so overburdening, it might come down to anglers policing themselves, much the way we did with stripers. No, not through interception and interdiction – that’s for the folks with the guns. Simple observation, documentation and calls to law enforcement will work.
By the by, if you come across a flagrant case of illegal fishing going on, turn to your local cops. There are loads of officers who fish and will be cognizant of the seriousness of the situation. What’s more, the local cops can gather the pertinent info needed by the Division of Fish and Wildlife. I won’t bad mouth the state’s DEP emergency hotlines except to say they fully suck. Well, I guess I did bad-mouth them.
So, when and where can blackfish abuses be seen?
I have to think that living blackfish have to be carefully transferred from boat to tank. That will likely take place on land, i.e. at the docks. Also, you’d be surprised how much word-of-mouth exposes abusers. Twice I’ve gotten reports of suspicious fishing goings on and both times they wound up being full-blown law breakings.
Some of you will point out that during certain times of the year, it is legal to take 8 blackfish per person. That can amount to a lot of fully legal fish on a boat with, say, three or four anglers on-board. I agree. Super. They had a good day. However, as far as I’m concerned, if those same tog are being kept alive – once ashore – those fishermen are in the illegal blackfish loop.
How can they be illegal if you can legally keep them? Because you CAN’T legally sell them, that’s why. Fat chance that 32 living tog are headed home, to be kept in a large tank near the kitchen table and individually served, sashimi-style, to the kids -- with plates already covered with oven-heated chicken nuggets and Jolly Green Giant peas.
You ask: “What about folks wanting fresh tog sashimi?”
If you want fresh blackfish for sushi or sashimi, throw the fish from the boat livewell onto ice for the trip home. As I’ve noted in here, I took courses in sushi making and sashimi serving. To work with fish meat only a few hours old is like nirvana for sushi chefs.

EAT SMALLER FISH-WISE: I have been trying to market a notion that doesn’t sit well in the bellies of corrosively corpulent Americans. How about nixing the slab approach when dining on fish?
Our meat and potatoes mentality has foolishly fostered the notion that a plate is only full when it is all but covered by a filet – be it filet of filet minion or fluke.
I don’t want to get into a fleshy debate over this but, face it, fish is infinitely more valuable than meat. I’m not even looking at the price per pound comparison. I’m talking about the rarity factor. Meat sources and supplies are not only sustainable but we’ve become quite good at sustaining them. There’s enough meat floating around out there to weigh down virtually every dinner plate in the country. Not so with fish.
Fish are rare and getting rarer. Sure, we can buy fish any given day but that one-stop convenience belies the speed at which the fish stocks of the world are vanishing.
Fish is as fine and healthy a product as can pass through your lips. And it should pass your lips. But, we don’t need a frickin’ pound’s worth per plate to fill the bill.
As you know, Asians have long ago adjusted to the rarity of fish, offering a plate’s center stage to small perfectly-cooked pieces of fish, while adroitly adorning the majority of the plate with stylish vegetables and starches. Paying $15 per half-pound of fish can do that.
Once we get the message that smaller portions are better, the try worth of fish will reign and a fraction of the current harvesting will suffice, at the same time offering commercial fishermen far greater profits per pound. Win-win.

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