O' Bluefish, Where Art Thou?

Bluefish seem so dependable – returning year after year. But sometimes, they just don’t show up, year after year.

Bluefish are to Martha’s Vineyard what catfish are to Mississippi. They’re what’s for supper. What’s on the T-shirt. What’s on the line. When they’re running in the spring and fall they can be both as awe-inspiring and as common as stars in the night sky. The sort of thing you take for granted, until one day you look up and they’re gone. Imagine. No more bluefish. Not today, not tomorrow, not for the rest of your life. That’s what happened here in the second half of the 1700s, and then again for forty years, from the early 1890s through the late 1920s.

Whole generations of fishermen – even the best of them – grew up never having gone through the Vineyard rite of passage of hooking their first ferocious, feeding bluefish. This is worth remembering, especially now that bluefish have been, as the Vineyard Gazette noted last season, “as omnipresent as suntan lotion and traffic jams.”

You don’t miss the water till the well runs dry.

If it happened once – or even twice – could it happen again?

A history of the blues

During colonial days, a bulletin from the state Fish and Wildlife Service tells us, bluefish were bountiful off the shores of southern New England. So much so, in fact, that Islanders had to hitch up the horses to cart all the surplus blues out to the field as fertilizer. No other fish was as plentiful in Vineyard waters, or held by Islanders in such low esteem. Then, for some reason, in 1764 the endless acres of bluefish disappeared. Gone, every oily one.

They stayed gone so long – over half a century – that one New Bedford paper heralded their return with this report: “A number of fish, strange to these waters, have recently been taken by local fishermen. The older men identify them as bluefish, and say that they were once very plentiful here.”
Over the next couple of decades the blue bounty grew again until they were as common on Vineyard plates as steaks on Texas grills. It wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century – contemporary newspaper accounts suggest the year was 1891 – that they again vanished from Island waters, pretty much altogether. So rare was the blue that in June 1907, a fish weighing less than two pounds was sold to an Edgartown seafood market for $2. That’s the equivalent of more than $20 per pound today. Another generation was growing up on the Vineyard hardly knowing what the fish looked like.
Then, just as the Great Depression was settling in, the prodigal blue returned to “gladden the hearts” (as the Gazette put it) of hungry fishermen, and
hungry families, Island-wide. Our common fish, uncommonly welcome once again.
In the decades since, the bluefish have thrashed through Vineyard waters in numbers sometimes higher, sometimes lower, but always enough to satisfy us come spring. As we look to nearby Atlantic fishing grounds and note what we’ve done to the stocks out there, we also recall those decades of bluefish absence and wonder: will we ourselves know a time without the blue?

Why the vanishing act?

It’s the question that’s been asked and answered many ways. In 1871, when the U.S. Fish Commission held a public hearing on Nantucket, the fishermen there claimed that a notable decline in the bluefish population was due to a health epidemic plaguing the island Indians. That made perfect sense to them. “People see what they see,” says Gary Shepherd, research fishery biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Woods Hole. “They put two and two together and come up with five, or three.

It makes for interesting stories, but they’re not always based on anything.”    

The fact is, a lot of fish species go through cycles of highs and lows, depending on environmental conditions. “That’s the natural way fish populations work,” says Mark Terceiro, another research fishery biologist in Woods Hole. “But compared to, say, cod, which don’t migrate and which have a much less
dramatic growth cycle, the blues are a much more dynamic stock. It’s the nature of the beast: the bluefish is a large sport fish, a voracious predator, seen
on the surface of the water, so its abundance and decline is more evident – it’s the poster child for that phenomenon.”      

So where did they go?

Bluefish are a highly migratory species, moving from Maine to Florida, depending on the season, in schools of many thousands. The East Coast
population is densest between New Jersey and North Carolina. When they’re stressed by environmental changes, fewer are seen in their northern range, including the Vineyard.

It’s possible, therefore, says Terceiro, that during colonial times the blues didn’t actually disappear altogether, but were just distributed where Island anglers couldn’t easily see them. “You usually can find some stock if you actually look,” says Terceiro. “It’s the old tree falling in the forest deal.”

Factors at work

Over the years some Vineyard fishermen have noted that when the blues are up, the striped bass seem to be down, and vice versa; the general theory is that there’s a reciprocal relationship between the two. Shepherd notes that while young blues (snappers) and stripers do show up in the estuaries at the same time and feed on some of the same things, there’s actually no evidence to indicate a direct link between the populations. “All the work done on it suggests there’s really no cause and effect between the two species. Tank studies with bluefish and bass show they keep separate from each other. And under natural conditions, their general distribution is not in sync.”

The factors that actually affect the bluefish population are oceanic conditions, such as El Niño; temperature shifts; current changes; the availability
of food (mackerel, menhaden, herring, anchovies, sand eels); and the impact of the fisheries, both commercial and recreational. At the age of two,
bluefish head offshore to spawn in the mid-Atlantic Gulf Stream, leaving the young to make their way back over the continental shelf to the coastal estuaries where they’ll grow up. “There’s a lot of room for juvenile larval fish to be affected by the environment,” says Terceiro. If they run up against steady winds from the wrong quarter or unsuitable temperatures from thermal fronts, the new generation can be lost, making the numbers dip dramatically the next year.

Can we help keep them around?

“To me, the drifting away of the bluefish is the falling of leaves,” wrote the late John Hersey in his national bestseller Blues, “the shoal becoming
as bare and sapless as a stripped branch – another harvesttime marked off, one more winter of a frigid and hostile sea to come, too soon.”
Having the blues desert us for the winter is hard enough, but to think they could again leave us entirely is even worse. “I remember peaks,” says Cooper Gilkes, a longtime fishing guide and owner of Coop’s Bait and Tackle in Edgartown, “and I remember some valleys, but there haven’t been any years I remember where there weren’t any at all. They’re a great, great fish – tough, resilient, ferocious eaters. They bite off a lot of lures. It would hurt all
of us in the tackle business if they disappeared.”

To prevent them from disappearing you need, in part, to keep what scientists call a “buffer of biomass” (the standing stock of young) around so that you have better “recruitment” (meaning the ones that make it to adulthood and become available for fishermen to catch). If you remove that buffer of biomass, and an environmental crisis strikes, a diminished population of blues gets hit harder and takes longer to replenish. “It’s difficult to manage climactic cycles,” says Terceiro. “What we can control is our own activities.”

To that end, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in the 1990s set up bag limits for recreational fishermen and quotas for commercial fishermen. Though the bluefish didn’t appear to be overfished at the time, they wanted to ensure it wouldn’t happen in the future. They wanted some way of keeping track. (The bag limit now: ten fish per day per recreational fisherman, and 5,000 pounds per day per commercial fisherman.)

But researchers readily admit that keeping a clear count on the blue is tricky business. Besides being a far-ranging species influenced by any number of unknown factors in their travels, they’re also primarily a recreational fish rather than a commercial one, making landing information limited. What’s more, they’re difficult to catch with a trawl, so that research tool is unreliable. Finally, considering all the highs and lows in the data, you can forget about making scientific models fit neatly onto the freewheeling bluefish story.

Where are we in the cycle now?

If you insist, however, on smoothing over the jumpy points on the charts and overlooking the effect of fisheries-management changes in recent years, your long-term trend for the last half-century looks something like this: scarce in the 1960s, rising through the ’70s, abundant in the ’80s, declining in the ’90s, and now on the upswing again. “It appears to be on an upward trend,” says Shepherd, “but it hasn’t rebounded effectively yet.” In June, they’ll reevaluate.

Will the bluefish be back this year?

In Boston, folks watch for the first red robin in the grass. On the Island, anglers watch for the first blue cutting up the flat water on the smooth side of a rip. The odds are the first one will hit a fisherman’s lure sometime in the middle to end of May, when the lilacs and shadbush bloom.
But the question remains: if Vineyarders could have their hearts broken by the blues twice in the
last three centuries, couldn’t they get jilted again in this one? “I suppose anything could happen,” says Shepherd. “But it’s more likely that they would just go elsewhere. Abundance can go down, but bluefish are not likely to disappear altogether.” For all you blues fans out there, we’d have to say that’s, well,
reel good news.