A New York Fish Tale

Earlier this year, 79-year-old Bernie Perlman baited his hook, dropped his line into the choppy waters of Jamaica Bay and waited. I met Mr. Perlman fishing on a boat called the Captain Dave II off Sheepshead Bay, as the wind came in from the north. Mr. Perlman, a former small-time actor who played a doomed character named “Wizzy the Bum” in the cult classic Street Trash, is a good guide to these waters; he has been fishing here for the past 65 years.

The big difference since he started is far fewer recreational fishermen. Far fewer fish, too.

It is hard to avoid news of the crisis that has hit fisheries worldwide. In June, The New York Times Magazine ran a front-page story called “The End of Tuna.” Fish are a celebrity cause, and in July actor Ted Danson testified before Congress that “many of the world’s fish populations are being rapidly depleted by overfishing.” One estimate has it that the world’s oceans will be barren by 2048.

One place in the world to find some good fish news is in New York City. Here, the outlook for some species is positively rosy, although whether you want to eat them can be a matter of discretion.

Last week photographer A.J. Wilhelm and I went fishing for striped bass on the Sea Queen VII. This is messy, New York fishing. The customers included an out-of-work union carpenter, a few Jamaicans out to fill their cooler and a handful of Brooklyn natives.

The Sea Queen steered in the foggy night into an expanse of water called the New York Bight, and Captain Mike Mazza positioned the boat over a shipwreck, the craggy type of sea bottom where fish like to gather. Alberto Rosario, a Manhattanite who started fishing off Coney Island at the age of 9, hooked something big–a gleaming 36-inch-long striped bass, soon flopping on the deck. 

One can consider the striped bass an animal saved from doom. “It was guys like me killing as many as we could,” Tony Dilernia told me the other day. Mr. Dilernia is a professor at Kingsborough College, a marine biologist and a fishing charter captain who keeps his 26-foot-long fiberglass boat in Manhattan at 23rd Street near the F.D.R. Drive, in the East River. Mr. Dilernia caters to executives who want high-end fishing.

The striped bass, he explained over a beer as we sat on coolers on his boat, has its own mystique. “It’s the perfect fish.” Mr. Dilernia explained. “If a little kid was to draw a picture of a fish, he would draw a picture of a striped bass. It can live in fresh water; it can live in salt water; it can live in brackish water. It’s a great fish. And up till 1986, in New York State, you could catch as many as you wanted, 16 inches or more.”

In the mid-1980s, the fish seemed to disappear, as if they had never really been there at all. Authorities saw the same thing all along the Atlantic coast. States declared them a threatened species, and in 1986 there was a complete ban.

The breathing room worked and the species got another chance. It was one of those astonishing success stories of ecology. Indeed, James Gilmore, head of New York State’s Bureau of Marine Resources, says there are more striped bass now then ever recorded.

Figuring out fish populations is a complicated political headache. Scientists do try to estimate the numbers of fish swimming in the sea. Mr. Gilmore says the striped bass are now “overpopulated.” The current “spawning stock biomass”–female fish able to spawn–is 120 million pounds of fish in the ocean, or 61 million fish. That’s 50 percent more than scientists had hoped for to keep the population stable.

While striped bass are a “sustainability success”–there is a paradox. They are also dangerous to eat. Up and down the coast, they showed high levels of PCBs, a known carcinogen. (Notoriously, GE’s Hudson Falls plant was a culprit, but there were other sources for it, too.)

Last year, seven coastal states from Maine to Maryland warned that children and women of childbearing age shouldn’t eat wild striped bass at all, because PCBs can cause  neurological harm to children and fetuses. On top of that, because of the theoretical cancer risk, everyone else should eat striped bass no more than 4 to 12 times a year.

Brian Toll, an epidemiologist from Connecticut’s Department of Health, says that in Connecticut stores, signs even warn that mothers and children should not eat striped bass.

New York has far less restrictive rules on eating stripers. Union Market in baby-rich Park Slope, Brooklyn, offers striped bass filets at $19.99, with no warning signs at all.

It is a regulatory spaghetti: In its defense, a New York Health Department emailed The Observer that the state’s guidelines on stripers are at least tougher than Massachusetts’. The Health Department spokesman sniped back at Connecticut in any case, citing their weaker rules on fish other than stripers: “Connecticut has issued no specific advisories for American eel and weakfish, while New York State has issued restrictive advisories for these fish.”

This year I caught a 28-inch-long striped bass one windy night. The next day, a friend came over for lunch with a bottle of Sancerre. My fish had been caught just 13 hours before. We filleted it and broiled it, delicious as ever.

editorial@observer.com A New York Fish Tale