We might be in the midst of a weak recovery.
With some luck, anglers might come across a school of weakfish running, or more likely swimming, at the surface of Island waters. Such a discovery would be an exciting occurrence and really great news.
Weakfish have a history of boom and bust cycles in southern New England waters. They were at one time plentiful here in the late 18th century, vanishing almost completely by 1800. Thus it was news in 1838 when a stray specimen was picked up in Provincetown. Since it had been so long since one was seen in the area, the mystery species was brought to Boston for identification.
This elusive fish reappeared in 1867 and catches grew, reaching a high when more than 200,000 pounds were landed in Truro in 1906. In what could be described as a moment of weakness, they disappeared again, almost as quickly as they arrived, and by 1910, less than a thousand pounds were caught commercially.
Catches continued to decline and eventually weakfish became a rarely seen fish for a variety of reasons. Commercial harvest, natural mortality and the seasonal nature of their presence made them scarce. Southern New England is also on the edge of their range. After a long period of decline and four years without any weakfish weigh-ins, the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby removed the fish from its contest in the late 1980s.
Reports of this fish being seen recently make my knees go weak. I have fond memories of catching, filleting and eating this fish many years ago when I lived in South Jersey, which has been known as the epicenter of the weakfish population. Just a few towns over from my former stomping grounds is Fortesque, N.J., which has claimed the title of weakfish capital of the world. Last year in New Jersey the catch was higher than in the previous five years — a good omen.
The boom and bust cycle of this fish is not surprising when you know its biology. Weakfish can live up to 17 years, but can begin to reproduce early in their lifecycle. They also do it prodigiously. Weakfish spawn over many months and it is possible for a female to release millions of eggs each time. This high reproductive ability can increase the fish’s population rapidly.
If you live on a boat, you might hear weakfish before you see them. The male fish produce a drumming sound by using the muscles in the walls of their abdomen. The noise is audible when one is below deck on a boat and a fish is calling nearby. Thus Japanese artist Masashi Kishimoto’s observation, “The weaker you are the louder you bark,” rings true when speaking of weakfish.
Weakfish are also known as sea trout, squeteague, grey trout, tide runner, squit and bastard trout. Their most common name refers to their weak mouth, which can get torn free from the fish by an eager angler. That is clearly this fish’s weakest link. In their case, unfortunately, it is often all too true that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.