Executive chef of Oceana restaurant in New York City, Ben Pollinger, fishing off the coast of Norway.
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School of Fish: Catching Bluefish

Ben Pollinger - July 22nd, 2014

Bluefish, one of the most popular recreational fish along the East Coast for its ease of catch due to its vast numbers and voracious appetite, is also often identified with summer seafood along New York’s Long Island Atlantic coast.

The highly migratory bluefish begins its run along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Florida up to the Carolinas in March and April, then it swims through the Mid-Atlantic before spending a significant time along the New Jersey and New York coastlines, while some of the population continue on as far north as Nova Scotia. It’s abundant in the New Jersey and New York area from May through October and sometimes even November.

Roger Tollefsen, president of the New York Seafood Council, reports that a small hook-and-line fishery exists, where a single line can be rigged with five to six lures and hooks to make the work more efficient. There’s also a catch—generally by fishermen in the bays and along the bay shore—using pound nets or traps, a series of nets rigged onto posts driven into the bay floor. They begin with a net set up in a funnel-like manner, which leads the fish into a collection “pound,” allowing the fish to live until collected by the fisherman. This provides the cleanest fishing operation—the bayman can collect and dispatch the fish immediately and chill them on ice, which is paramount to maintaining the quality of fish in general, let alone such an oily fish. Pound netting also allows the least amount of fatal unintended bycatch; fishermen may select the choicest fish and return the less desirable ones unharmed.

Bluefish can also be harvested by trawling—the dragging of a net at slow speed behind a boat, collecting what fish come into its path. However, bluefish are fast movers, so this is not the most effective method. Bluefish is also a delicately fleshed fish; the flesh can bruise and tear easily with rough handling, making trawl-caught bluefish less desirable.

The most significant catch is made by gill netting, whereby a net (visualize a volleyball net) is suspended vertically in the water using a series of cords along the bottom and sides to stabilize it, weights or anchors to set the base of the net, and buoyant floats tied with cords to the top of the net to keep it vertical. The mesh size of the net is determined by the type and size of species targeted.

Captain Kenny Wolfe of the Elizabeth Mary fishing vessel, based in Long Island, employs a 900 foot by 15 foot net. He fishes from the bottom up—he sets the bottom of his net close to the sea floor in 25 to 35 feet of water, as that’s where the fish generally are. He uses a mesh size of 3 7/8 inches to catch a combination of sizes of bluefish from two to three pound “cocktail blues” to eight to 12 pound fish. He generally avoids smaller, 12 inch-long or shorter “snapper blues,” as they’re not worth as much at the dock.

The mesh is designed to be small enough for the head of the fish to pass through but not large enough for the rest of the body. Henceforth, as the fish attempts to swim backwards out of the net, its gill plates are caught in the mesh, trapping the fish. This method is indiscriminate in what species is caught, as long as the fish is of the appropriate size. Bycatch is generally minimized, as Wolfe lays out his net in an area expected to contain a significant school of bluefish. This is determined with fish—finding sonar and watching for bird-feeding action over the water, an indication that a school of bluefish is attacking a school of bait fish, which are driven close to the surface.

Wolfe stresses the importance of proper icing and makes a sizeable investment in both the ice used and the shipping boxes to maximize the quality of the product. Some fishermen take the shortcut of holding their catch in seawater, saving a large expense given the low market price of bluefish. Wolfe feels frustration that this fish, held in seawater, can command the same price in the market as the fish that he has cared for properly, and wishes there was more discernment for a quality product in the market.

Myself? I like to either cast for them close to shore with a salt-water fishing pole, or go out on a party boat. The boat makes it easy to find a large school to park over, then we attract them with a chum slick. It’s not very challenging, but you catch a lot fast. In fact, I got in trouble during my first party boat experience, as I immediately started gutting the bluefish on deck. I was surrounded by fishermen and had all my knives out. I just didn’t think about it.

Chefs needn’t worry about unsustainably caught bluefish. The overall annual quota of bluefish in New York is determined by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, in conjunction with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service. As with all species, the total biomass, the target biomass, and the biomass thresholds are calculated, and the information determines the recreational and commercial fishing quotas and thus determines a sustainable yield of harvested fish. The total annual quota is distributed over several periods throughout the year, and trip catch limits are established to spread allocation throughout the period and avoid fishery closures.

As for preparing the mighty bluefish? That’s another story for another day.