Weakfish, also known as squeteague, were once common in this region, so popular a sport fish that up until 1987, they were part of the annual fall Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. Then they disappeared from these waters. They were removed from the derby after not one was caught in 1987.
Now their numbers have fallen all along the eastern seaboard to the point of collapse; fisheries managers with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission are looking at a ban on the catching of this fish. Public hearings on the management of the fish will be held next week in New York, Virginia and Georgia, a week later in Maryland and North Carolina. The states are collecting input on a future strategy, called Draft Addendum IV, to protect the fish.
No hearings are being held north of New York. Coastal states Rhode Island and Massachusetts are in the northernmost part of the range. And there are historical records that show the fish has at times been huge in Cape Cod Bay up to the Gulf of Maine.
Squeteague was once landed by the barrel on the Vineyard. There is a report that in the early 1900s the fish was so abundant and cheap it was used as fertilizer here. Everett H. Poole, 79, of Chilmark remembers in the 1940s when 200 pounds a day were landed at a fish weir near Menemsha.
Lee Welch, an Edgartown electrician, caught a 16.90-pound weakfish in the fall of 1986. His fish, caught in Edgartown harbor, won the derby and still stands as the largest caught weakfish in the annual contest.
On the Vineyard, squeteague has become the forgotten species. Sightings of the fish are so rare that when an angler sees one, he doesn’t know it.
Reports out of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission this year describe a fish in crisis. They call the fish “depleted.” Their records up and down the coast are indicative of the problem: In 1980 the catch of weakfish was 36 million pounds; the annual catch by both recreational and commercial fishermen beginning in 2006 was less than two million pounds. And the fish is only being seen and mostly commercially harvested near where it spawns, the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding coastal waters.
Estimates on the amount of this fish in the sea also are dire. From 1982 to 1990 it was estimated that there were 113 million pounds of fish swimming in the ocean. The estimate in the past two years is down around 11 million pounds. It is believed that should fishing continue, weakfish will disappear.
Robert Beal, director of the interstate fisheries management program with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, said weakfish is one of the regional stocks in the worst shape. Tautaug and winter flounder are not too far behind.
“Weakfish is a poster child for multispecies management,” he said. “The current level of fishing is not sustainable. It is a big decision, any time you think about a moratorium.”
Mr. Beal said there are already restrictive measures in the states that still fish for weakfish. A greater challenge ahead will be how to restrict the fishermen from catching the fish as a bycatch. Bycatch is the accidental catching of a closed fishery when targeting another species. There is also significant science indicating the environment is a big factor in the poor survival of juvenile fish.
Greg Skomal, of Oak Bluffs, is a fisheries biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries. He sits on a technical committee that oversees weakfish for the division. He is also the chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.
“Weakfish may be the first curveball that management has to try and hit,” Mr. Skomal said. In addition to overfishing, Mr. Skomal said, “the fish are suffering from natural mortality. How do we account for that? How do we manage the fish to bring it back? If the greatest level of mortality now is due to the environment, we have to take a plunge into ecosystem management.
“We can control one [overfishing] but we may not be able to control the other without looking at ecosystem-based management, trying to manage all pieces of the puzzle,” Mr. Skomal said. That means also considering such things as juvenile fish, where they are born, what they are feeding on, habitat, water quality and other predators, rather than just regulating fishermen.
Mr. Skomal said there are scientists in the Maryland area who have evidence striped bass are feeding on the smallest of weakfish and predation will prevent any kind of restoration.
He said the derby committee used to discuss the state of weakfish, but not anymore. “We feel fortunate there are bonito and false albacore around,” he said.
There are Vineyard recreational fishermen who see a parallel between these times and the dramatic effort to save the striped bass in the mid-1980s.
Everett (Spider) Andresen of Chilmark said fisheries managers should institute a commercial and recreational moratorium on weakfish just as they did with striped bass. Mr. Andresen is a retired publisher of Saltwater Sportsman Magazine, a magazine that was a leader in recreational striped bass conservation back in the 1980s. “I support a moratorium, it is the only hope we have. Those fishcrats always have a long list of excuses. When striped bass was in a state of decline and collapse, they said the bluefish were eating the striped bass. They said the trouble was cyclical. There is a lack of forage fish. Perhaps predation is a part of the problem, but 90 per cent of the real problem here is overfishing.” He said: “Recreational fishermen are just as guilty as commercial fishermen.”
The first and last time he caught squeteague on the Vineyard was one evening in July of 1967. It was off the North Shore at an area well known as The Brickyard. “We caught 200 pounds. We caught a fish with every cast.” He said those were the days when anglers would keep the fish. “In the mid-1970s, we went and caught them off Block Island,” he said. But now they are gone and it is a rare occasion when he hears of a fish being caught.
Mr. Welch, who caught the derby’s largest weakfish in 1987, remembers catching the fish, which he hooked with a live bunker while it resided under a large school of bunker. Schools of bunker of that size are no longer seen in these waters.
Dan McKiernan, deputy director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, caught a large weakfish in the fall of 1979 near the cliffs of Gay Head.
“I don’t know what the recipe should be. We don’t catch the fish,” Mr. Mc-Kiernan said. But Mr. McKiernan said the prescription for saving the weakfish will be complicated. He said one option will protecting the nursery areas where the fish are known to reside.
Mr. Poole said he can recall when he ran a fish market and he had to purchase weakfish from one fisherman so that he could also get mackerel for his shop. “I used to have to buy two boxes of squeteague from a guy, which was 250 pounds, each day in order that I could have 30 pounds of mackerel. “I used to go out to the trap [fish weir] in a catboat, pick out my fish as they brailed it into the boat.”
“Nowadays, if you see a squeteague, it is a pretty big deal,” Mr. Poole said. “I see one or two around Menemsha each summer.”
Dick Russell wrote a book called Striper Wars, the story of the striped bass restoration in the 1980s. He is an avid Vineyard recreational fisherman and longtime conservationist. “We heard plenty when they were trying to restore the striped bass. It was pollution in the Cheseapeake, predation. Stopping overfishing was not so big a deal,” he said.
“But what happened? When Maryland declared a moratorium and other states pretty much shut down the fishing for five years, striped bass made the biggest comeback of any fish in the ocean.” Mr. Russell said. “If you give the fish a chance, it has the fortitude to overcome all the other factors.”
Public comment on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Draft Addendum IV for weakfish will be accepted until late October. Comment should be sent to: Nichola Meserve, FMP Coordinator, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, 1444 ‘Eye’ street, NW, Sixth Floor, Washington, DC 20005.