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A (Chinatown) Fish Story - Blackfish

42004 Views 314 Replies 74 Participants Last post by  jojo999
EC - With all the blackfish discussions that have gone on here I thought this article from the village voice should wind up on your board. hope you don't mind.

Runnin' Scared
A (Chinatown) Fish Story
Hide the blackfish! State agents raid Chinese restaurants for puny, but tasty, swimmers
by Elizabeth Dwoskin
January 8th, 2008 7:03 PM

Display cases crammed with aquatic oddities line the walls of an East Broadway Chinatown restaurant's slippery basement from ceiling to floor. Tiny shrimp buzz about, slimy toadfish move their stubby fins, and then there is the geoduck (pronounced "gooey duck"), or elephant clam, whose body bulges out of its shell like an overfed worm.

Officer Matthew LaCroix, a state trooper in a dark green uniform, is standing on a bucket with a net in one hand and a measuring tape in the other, trying not to slip on the wet floor. He couldn't care less about the shrimp, the toadfish, or the geoduck. LaCroix was on a quest for tautog, a sweet-tasting, dark-skinned fish native to Atlantic coastal saltwaters.

Young tautog, small enough to be steamed and served whole on a plate, are considered a delicacy in the seafood restaurants and live fish markets in Chinatowns in New York and throughout the Eastern Seaboard. But it's illegal to catch one less than 14 inches long.

So the state sends people like LaCroix and his partner Jamie Powers, who refer to themselves as the strong arm of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, to police the local waterways, markets, and restaurants where the fish might be found. Their tickets for "illegal possession of undersized species" can come with a fine of $5,000, a mandatory court date for violators, and up to three years in prison.

"Yup, that's 10 inches!" LaCroix announces, pressing a squirming fish against his knee with the measuring tape.

He tosses the creature?the 35th undersized specimen he's found in the one tank?into a cardboard box that once stored uncooked noodles. The fish flops against the others while the kitchen workers look on in amusement.

A dishwasher, a small man with wrinkled cheeks, comes up and pronounces, apparently as some kind of cultural defense, that "China, big fish, no eat." He holds out his two index fingers about five inches apart. "This good," he says, chuckling.

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 DEC.

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.

At the Chinatown restaurant, as soon as LaCroix begins to write a ticket, the manager bolts. "They speak English until the minute you try to ask them about blackfish," LaCroix mutters. When the manager returned, he was told he had to appear in court on February 28.

The officers shoo away a crowd of onlookers that have gathered around the unmarked truck filled with snow-covered fish. Then they speed off to the Bowery Mission, a Chinatown homeless shelter where they planned to deliver the day's catch, Robin Hood style. But to the officers' chagrin, the shelter, apparently stocked with blackfish from a raid the previous week, turns down the offer.

"Blackfish are a casualty of this war," says Powers, who, like LaCroix, fishes for sport upstate. "We just hate to see a good fish go to waste."
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Interesting. Thread after thread b!tching and moaning about the blackfish problem and no enforcement, who's fault it is, just go down to Chinatown and you'll see it first hand, yadda, yadda, yadda. Then a story about the DEC actually out there doing what everyone has been whining for them to do and not a peep. 60+ views and not even a
for these two ECOs doing exactly what everyone has been whining for them to do. Priceless!:mad:
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I am glad to see they are trying, unfortunatly, N.Y.S. limits the DEC with money restrictions they will never have enough officers to make a dent, in the poaching problem.
If the DEC was able to put all collected fine money back into the DEC then they would be able to hire more officers and give them a raise in pay.
I would have taken that job years ago but back then the pay was like 19 K a year, could not survive on that, nor what they pay today
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Good job, we need more of these guys out on the streets, if demand goes down supply will go down as well.

But what gets me is they are letting the blackfish die, why not drop them into a cooler with some water in it and an aerator maybe, and immediately drop them off into NY harbor. Blackfish are hardy fish and should survive.
My sentiments exactly Grady.

Kind of defeats the purpose a bit.
thye always donate

Dec always gives it back to the community not the ocean
Doin there Job

That's what they are suppose to be doing. Now they are heros?:rolleyes:

I don't blame the indivdual DEC officer, the blame falls on the person who hands out the assigments.

If they really wanted to do the job the right way there would be a task force assigned to this at least twice a week on random days.

Sounds like a P/R move more then anything.

This post edited by baywatch 10:03 AM 01/23/2008
The 5 gallon bucket the dec officer was standing on filled with some water from the tank and a short ride to the east river and these fish would be alive.Cmon dec guys good work but try a little harder its the fish that this is all about isnt it?
Naywatch, the task force is a great idea. After a few months they would get the message, then the task force can be temporarily disbanded for a month or two, then start up again. With all the fines they hand out the officers would not only pay their salaries but make a profit for the State as well. !

Letting the blackfish die was a real shame. Why do that, and why donate them to the very same people who are a contributing factor in this problem. Now they get their prized steamed blackfish for free.

I'm all for conservation, more probably so then most, but the DEC works really, really ass backwards.
In the overall scheme of things keeping the fish alive is a (pardon the pun) a drop in the bucket. The raid OTOH is a big step forward especially if they keep it up!
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One small step for the DEC, one futile gesture for togkind :)

Anyone want to put odds on the manager showing up at the hearing or a fine ever being collected?

Maybe if DEC shows up on a daily basis with ICE, someone will drop a dime on the suppliers and they could work up the foodchain to shut the trade down.
baywatch wrote:
That's what they are suppose to be doing. Now they are heros?:rolleyes:

Nobody said they were heroes, the comments were more on how people will type 200 words to complain about what they're NOT doing, but won't even type a word or two (Like "finally" or "it's about time" ) when they actually DO do something. I guess that's just typical of people in general. Much happier to be bitching than they are to be doing something about what they are bitching about. Further demonstrated by attendance at fisheries meetings by the fishing public.
It's a shame the small fish couldn't have been kept alive and released off the beach or a boat in NY Bight or NY Harbor.
My point being is that if this was one time shot to satisfy the complaints of many it was worthless and waste of time and taxpayers money. I'll bet my bottom buck that once this show was over it was back to bussines as usal within 30 minutes of the DEC departure.

For it to be meaningfull there would have to be a steady diet if this enforcement on different days, in plain clothes with different officers armed with video cameras so not only could they film the seller but also go after the supplier. That's the culprit you really want.

Then they would get all the support and att-a-boys from all, not for just a one time thing.

Little off topic but you all complain about illegal aliens working that are picked up on a street corner. I don't blame them one bit, they don't know any better. The contractor that hires them and pays them cash is the one to go after. Just jot down his plate number, take picture of him and let the IRS do the rest. Few months of survalience then bring the contractor in for a friendly chat. He would stain his wares.

So in both cases stop the supplier/ contractor then you won't have the problem at all.Now if they had out of state plates on the truck that supply's the fish that would really open up another whole can of worms.

New Jersey to China Town is hop, skip and jump.

If your going to do something do it the right way.

This post edited by baywatch 11:10 AM 01/23/2008
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Staying off topic for a bit more. Don't be fooled. They do know better and are smarter than you are giving them credit for.

On the DEC. I agree that only a continued pressure on this type of business will have the desired effect that I think we all want. If it's just a one shot deal, then it will be business as usual. A key component to this being successful is the penalties for getting caught. Make it too expensive to continue. If it's not worth the risk it may be enough of a deterrent for them to stop.
fish4me wrote:
Staying off topic for a bit more. Don't be fooled. They do know better and are smarter than you are giving them credit for.

Believe me I know what your talking about. It was just a simple anology of who to go after.
These places consider these tickets and appearances "part of doing business". Stricter laws are needed where it is not just an appearance and a fine. Not only should it be expensive, it should cost them their license and/or right to do business! Shut it down, and move on to the next establishment. If law enforcement shows up with a "lock for the door", they might even want to discuss who their supplier is!
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It is real good to hear of things like this happening. Gotta wonder why the Asian food market by my house in Jersey hasn't been raided yet considering they don't even bother to hide their short blackfish in the basement.

The economics of this blackfish thing are a total mess...

If you nail some of the big-time illegal suppliers, the price is just going to go up. That, in turn, will lead to an influx of new illegal suppliers. The only real way to stop this thing is to lower demand for live blackfish. Demand has gotten this high, in part, because there is no fresh local whiting or cod. Probably more important is the tog's resilience, meaning they are **** near impossible to kill. So, what you have in live blackfish is a seafood product that does not spoil and one of the few remaining local inshore fish that is highly regarded as table fare. So, IMO, a viable substitute for live blackfish is the only thing that can help this situation by lowering blackfish demand. Unfortunately, I don't know if a fish like that exists. Bergalls, anybody?
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Bergalls, anybody?

I think they call them sea perch now...seriously.
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