THE STRIPERS ARE RUNNING!
THE MIGRATORY FISH OF NEW ENGLAND
By Irene Costello and Joan MacIsaac
We wait patiently for this moment. On land and at sea, summer has arrived with all of its bounty. From pick-your-own berries to native corn and heirloom tomatoes our gardens and fields explode with color, taste and texture. On the water fishermen and women of all ages take to boats, line up on piers, and stand on shore with rods and reels, bait and lures to welcome our summer visitors. Year-round fisheries deliver a steady flow of our local specialties from cod to farmed salmon, shellfish to lobster. However, the annual visitation of migrating fish to New England waters excites recreational and commercial anglers alike.
They start to arrive in late spring - the magnificent swordfish and tunas, bluefish, summer flounder and even the squid that moves inshore. Perhaps the most anticipated and avidly pursued of all the species that enter our waters is the morone saxatilis, affectionately called the "Striper." Striped bass has been prized in Massachusetts since colonial times. Early settlers in Massachusetts obtained charters to establish fisheries in the New World. Along with cod they caught and dried the striped bass in abundance. Continuous harvesting occurred into the 20th century with periods of decline followed by conservation measures to protect the supply. Then in the 1970's pollution and over-fishing took their toll and caused a severe decline that endangered the whole species.
An act of Congress in 1984 resulted in a highly regulated fishery management plan (FMP) from New England down to the spawning grounds of the Chesapeake. Thanks to a strict conservation plan striped bass remains a popular species fished both commercially and recreationally, but preservation and protection remain high priorities in the management of this fishery. We start to see it on menus and at the markets around July. However, tight quotas from the FMP make for a very short commercial season that disappears as soon as it reaches quota. Recreationally striped bass may be caught throughout the year with a limit of 2 possessions per person per day.
The striper brings the art of fishing to life with all of its camaraderie, lore and mystique. Anglers recall their prize catch, their secret spots, and their special technique. Stripers fight hard and are a great battler. An adult weighs on average 8 to 15 lbs, but some exceeding 50 lbs are caught every year. The length varies from 18 to 55 inches with 28 inches the current minimum allowable keeper. The seven to eight continuous horizontal stripes on each side of the body from gills to tail give striped bass its distinguishing characteristics. Its coloring can be light green, olive, steel blue, black or brown, with a white or silver iridescent underside. Striped bass are fun to catch and great to eat with their rich, sweet flavor and firm texture. They are delicious pan seared, baked, broiled or grilled with fresh ingredients from the garden or farm stands - onions, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and even apples.
Bluefish follow the stripers. The bluefish is also a trophy species hotly pursued by anglers due to its reputation as a champion battler and voracious predator. The adult bluefish generally weighs 10-15 lbs. Its stout body has a sea-green color fading into a silvery shade on its lower sides and belly. It has a large mouth and a set of jaws fully armed with large, sharp teeth. When catching a bluefish, never put your hands near the mouth, or you surely risk losing some fingers. Bluefish generally feed in schools, actively pursuing prey in tidal rips or inshore shallows where food is easier to catch. A local expression, "the blues are boiling" refers to their churning up whitewater rapids as they dash about wildly in pursuit of prey and is usually a telltale of a good fishing spot.
Bluefish has dark fleshy meat and a high oil content that can create a strong flavor disliked by many people. The trick is to eat the fish as soon as possible after it is caught, filleted and put on ice. Marinating bluefish in acidic foods will lighten the flavor. Try soaking filets in white wine or lemon juice, baking it with fresh vegetables such as tomatoes and onions.
Another visitor, the Summer Flounder or Fluke start to move inshore in July and stay active until September when the water begins cooling. These are left-eyed flat fish; the side with the eyes is brown in color, with darker spots that adapts to the color of the ocean bottom for camouflage. The reverse side is white or translucent. Historically, fluke has been important both commercially and recreationally on the East Coast. However intense offshore otter trawling resulted in a consistent decline and prompted the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to create a management plan specifically for fluke. Coastal fisheries from Maine to South Carolina now protect the fish.
Summer Flounder has lean, firm flesh that is pearly or pinkish-white with a sweet, mild flavor. It is often marketed as sole, a practice that the FDA allows. Filets are very thin and delicate requiring extra care when handling. This versatile fish provides multiple options for preparation - steamed, poached, baked, broiled, sautéed, or fried. Try a quick and simple meuniere recipe: Season the filets with salt and pepper and dredge with flour; sauté in melted butter until golden on each side (about 10 minutes) and garnish with lemon and parsley.
Better known as calamari, two types of mollusks come inshore during the summer - the Long-fin or Boston Squid and the Northern Short-fin Squid. Both have grown into an important commercial fishery due to foreign demand, especially from Japan. Once in danger from over fishing, they are now protected by a fishery management plan.
Squid spawn year-round, grow rapidly, and live for less than one year. The squid is ordinarily a milky, translucent color, but when aroused it turns rapidly to red, pink, brown, blue, and yellow. It has four pairs of arms and one long pair of tentacles with suckers on them to grab their prey. Squid swim backwards by squirting water out of their bodies through a tube near the base of their head. They expel a cloud of black ink when disturbed.
Squid has a bland flavor that takes on the flavor of the ingredients with which it is cooked. However, it has a unique texture -- not chewy, but snappy. The key to preparing squid is to avoid a rubbery texture. Cook it for a short time at high temperatures no longer than three minutes until it turns snowy white. Using this method you can stir-fry, deep-fry, or grill it. Another method is to slow cook it at a low temperature until it turns golden. Simmering in a sauce or stew allows the squid to pass through the "rubber band" stage and become tender.
Probably the most beleaguered of our summer visitors is the Swordfish which has been the subject of numerous controversies. In the 1970's several food agencies including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued warnings of high mercury levels that almost decimated the fishery. The industry rebounded after an adjustment by the FDA to acceptable levels for human consumption. Not long after, dire warnings that over fishing had endangered the species prompted a widespread consumer boycott. A 10 year rebuilding program was imposed on local fisheries but not enforced in international waters due to the travel patterns of this highly migratory species. Today the general consensus is that swordfish remains in danger of being over fished in the North Atlantic, but stronger catch limits have shown signs of recovery. Ongoing concerns center on the high bycatch of marine mammals, sea turtles, and sharks.
Swordfish is one of the largest and fastest predators in the Atlantic Ocean. Distinguished by a large, flat, smooth bill that extends from their upper jaw, they use their "sword" to kill their prey. Swordfish migrate up from the Gulf seeking the colder waters in the North Atlantic and feeding all the way on a variety of fish. Our season begins in June but peaks late August into September as their fat content doubles. Whether in steaks or fillets, the meat should be a nice white or pink, not a dark gray-brown. Swordfish is great grilled, baked or broiled .
Finally, summer would not be complete without tuna fishing. This magnificent species embarks on a feeding migration up the Gulf Stream and enters New England waters around June. Renowned for their size, speed and beauty, tunas offer one of the greatest challenges to anglers. Two types have become especially lucrative in the past 40 years - the bluefin and yellowfin tunas. Highly prized in the Asian markets for its raw meat, the giant bluefin tuna is the largest, averaging 1,000 lbs. You see it used extensively in the Japanese national dish, sashimi. However, the preponderance of high-seas fleets using technologically advanced fishing methods in the 1960's resulted in a severe stock depletion and prompted extensive international management measures.
Also valued for its deep red flesh, the yellowfin or ahi tuna is what we see in the markets and on menus. This smaller cousin to the bluefin tuna grows rapidly to nearly 9 feet and up to 400 lbs. In our waters the 2 to 3 year old tunas weigh from 40 to 80 lbs. Today's fishery managers consider populations of yellowfin tuna to be relatively healthy. However, some harvesting that uses the same methods as bluefin tuna continues to cause concern not only for the supply but also for the bycatch of other species including dolphins and sharks. In the market and in restaurants look for tuna that has been caught by the pole or troll methods as they cause little damage to habitat and wildlife.
Yellowfin tuna is best eaten rare. Its deep red flesh is excellent on the grill or broiled. As it cooks it turns gray and becomes firm. Take care not to let it get overdone as it will dry out the flesh. Try a marinade or brush it with seasoned oil during cooking. As with swordfish health agencies have issued advisories to limit consumption. Enjoy it in moderation.
To learn more about the fish that migrate into our waters we suggest the following websites:
Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries
Northeast Fisheries Science Center
Blue Ocean Institute
Ocean Trust, US Fisheries Highlights