The scene is surreal. There’s the dark silhouette of the fish against the teal-colored glowing light of the water around the weigh station floating dock. The light doesn’t illuminate much of the water beyond the dock, which makes the glow seem like a protected space, safe from whatever the darker harbor waters hold. The crowd in the derby weigh station has moved outside to the wharf. Emma Toomey never stops looking at the fish as Eli Bonnell swishes it back and forth in the water. “Eli, you’re a hero,” someone says. “Don’t give up, man.”
It’s the second to last night of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby and we’ve just finished up a birthday dinner for a friend. Nobody else has ever been to headquarters before, and they are curious to see what goes on at the derby.
There is only one fish on the weigh table. I notice through the window that its feathery gills are pale, not swollen with blood like most weigh station fish.
The striped bass weighs 12.14 pounds, small by derby standards. It will earn Emma Toomey, junior fisherman, a hat trick. At the moment, though, it’s clear that Emma is interested in one thing: saving the fish, which has indicated through a flop on the table that it’s still alive. Perhaps more accurately, it’s only mostly dead. Emma brings the fish to fillet station volunteer Eli Bonnell. He’s saved seven fish so far this year, survivors that have already made the long journey from sea to cooler to weigh scale.
“He’s trying,” Eli says. He hasn’t lost a fish yet, he adds.
The crowd keeps up the encouragement: “That’s a valiant effort, man, like none I’ve ever seen.”
But this fish is different, Eli keeps saying. Something’s wrong with its back, and even though he got the fish breathing again by turning a gushing hose of water onto its gills to get oxygen flow started up again, it’s still not swimming, or even trying to swim. Finally it shows some signs of movement and Eli lets it go.
The striper drifts hopelessly onto its side. It’s not quite belly-up, but its back is too stiff to move. Rigor mortis, somebody jokes from the wharf. Another fillet crew member retrieves it from a Zodiac. Eli tries again, again spraying the bass with water. One time it took three hours to bring a fish back, he tells the crowd (it was the year a seal was hanging around the weigh station. The fish, after all its trauma, still ended up as dinner).
“If it takes three hours, can we wait?” Emma asks. She stands on another floating dock, still watching. But the crowd thins, and eventually she and her mom leave the weigh station. My friends and I do too. There’s no way that fish is going to make it, one friend says. Did you see it in the water?
Eli says later he’s saved about 30 fish since he started working the fillet station four years ago and another volunteer taught him how to revive stripers.
“Why not?” he says. “If the fish is still alive, why kill it?” The fillet program gets thousands of pounds of fish during each derby, all donated to the councils on aging. It’s the paragon of the derby’s community spirit and generosity. But you find moments of that same spirit and generosity throughout the contest. Once the final numbers are tallied, 2,000 fish will be weighed in at headquarters. Hundreds will earn prizes.
And eight of them, including Emma’s striper — fully revived some 20 minutes after the crowd dispersed — are back out there swimming in the sound.