By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL
Black sea bass is one of the Vineyard’s best-kept secrets when it comes to good eating. The fish can’t be bought in the store, but if you know a sport boat fisherman, there is a chance you can get it if you politely ask.
Black sea bass are swimming around the Vineyard in fair abundance.
This weekend, the Oak Bluffs Veterans of Foreign War Post 9261 is hosting its ninth annual fluke tournament. The post is adding a small form of recognition to the black sea bass and to the anglers who catch big ones.
Black sea bass are not striped bass. Put a black sea bass side by side with a striped bass, and it would be hard to tell what aspect of “bass” applies to either fish. They look so different, yet the only similarity between the two is that people call them local and they are tasty.
Peter Herrmann, organizer of the fluke fishing tournament, has stretched the rules a bit this year to honor the fisherman who catches the biggest black sea bass. And why not?
The post’s fishing contest runs from 12:01 tomorrow morning to Sunday when the weigh-in station closes at 6 p.m. Registration is $20 for adults, and $10 for children 13 to 16 years of age and seniors. The contest is free for younger anglers.
Mr. Hermann said anglers competing in tomorrow’s fishing tournament will likely catch a black sea bass. They are caught the same way as fluke. A fisherman will drop a weighted hook with some bait. Fluke and black sea bass both are bottom dwellers.
Including black sea bass in the contest is a big deal for anyone who likes to eat the fish.
Warren Doty of Chilmark used to run a wholesale fish operation out of Vineyard Haven. He shipped nearly all of the black sea bass to the mainland. A lot of ethnic communities prize black sea bass, and it is a wonder more Vineyarders don’t call it the “catch of the day.”
“I like to eat black sea bass,” Mr. Doty said. “I like it prepared the way the Chinese do it. They steam it whole and serve it whole.”
The Chinese include all kinds of garnish around the fish, like steamed scallions, stir-fried ginger and Chinese sauces.
“It is my favorite local fish,” said Danny Larsen of Edgartown Seafood. “It is nice-tasting, mild and sweet. I eat a lot of it when it is available.”
But because the commercial season for the fish is closed, you can’t buy it now.
Anglers talk up the striped bass, the bluefish, and a host of other sport fish. But they never will talk about the time they struggled to bring in a killer, big black sea bass. They are neither as feisty as a bluefish nor as heavy as a striped bass. They are only a couple pounds in weight, rarely bigger than six pounds. The largest black sea bass ever caught in the state was eight pounds.
That means the value of a black sea bass is on the dinner table and in how it was prepared in the kitchen, not in the tales anglers tell of how it was caught.
Commercial black sea bass fishermen catch the fish early in the fishing season and late. The fishery is closely watched by the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council because black sea bass had been overfished and is now in recovery.
When they can harvest black sea bass, Massachusetts commercial fishermen are limited to a minimum size of 12 inches and a daily bag limit that can be as high as 500 pounds.
If you asked a local fisherman what he thought about the closed fishery, he’d say he isn’t pleased. A lot of black sea bass are caught in out-of-state waters. Local fishermen feel that the fishery has been taken away from them.
The recreational season for black sea bass is open throughout the year. Recreational anglers are limited to a minimum size of 12 inches and a bag limit of 20 fish per day.
Black sea bass are a highly migratory fish. They travel the waters as far north as Cape Cod and as far south as Cape Hatteras. They spend their winters deep in water over 200 to 600 feet in depth. They spend their summers inshore. They feed on bottom-dwelling invertebrates such as crabs, hermit crabs and razor clams, and also will chase squid.
There is plenty of humor surrounding the life cycle of a black sea bass. Unlike all the other fish in local waters, which are either male or female, black sea bass are different. Black sea bass go through sex changes throughout their lives. They are also slow-growing for their size.
They are readily found near rocky bottom, old wrecks and wherever there is structure.
The 63rd annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby isn’t that far away. The month-long contest dates have been set for a while. The contest starts on Saturday, Sept. 14, and ends on Saturday, Oct. 18. The Kids Day fishing tournament on the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority wharf will take place on Saturday, Sept. 20.
There are few changes in this annual contest from last year.
The big shift is in the grand prize for shore fishermen. The boat, the outboard and the trailer are a bit different this year. The 21-foot skiff is made by Eastern Boats Inc. of Milton, N.H. The company is a new sponsor and replaces Boston Whaler, which used to offer a 19-foot boat. Organizers report they have put together a nice package for the top winner that also includes boat electronics. The new center console boat along with the derby announcement and other boats are featured at the company’s Web site, easternboats.com.
As in past years, the winner of the boat is a shore fisherman who wins in a drawing of the biggest shore striped bass, bluefish, bonito and false albacore.
The 2008 Chevy Silverado will go to the top boat fisherman in a drawing among those who caught the largest fish in each of the four species.
This year’s derby plans to give out more than $300,000 in cash and prize awards.