Editor’s Log: Three Tilefishermen - The Fisherman

Editor’s Log: Three Tilefishermen

Outside of Wicked Tuna perhaps, we in the recreational fishing community don’t show much love for commercial folks.  From my experience growing up in southern Ocean County – with old friends who still work the decks and docks – I can tell you they don’t think much of us either!  With ongoing and continuous battles over allocation and gear, you’d have better luck finding harmony between a Trump voter and a Biden backer!

Whether or not either side can appreciate it, our two fishing communities are as connected through mutualism as we are in conflict.  Consider the bait boats with the large “B” tagged on the wheelhouse that provide bunker for local tackle shops, or the dredging of clams used while sea bassing.  Our bonds may be best evidenced on the offshore grounds where risk and reward walk a fine line between life and limb; 50 miles from port and the symbiosis between scalloper and bluefin charter is as well-established as a May Day call along an empty horizon.

Tilefish and those who fish them have made big headlines in these parts in 2020.  A newly established recreational tilefish permit (hmspermits.noaa.gov) coupled with mandatory electronic reporting of all recreational tilefish catch was a part of it; the passing of three of the biggest names in tilefishing along the Atlantic Coast even bigger.  Tackle innovator Dave Arbeitman of The Reel Seat passed away earlier this year, followed soon after by his longtime friend Capt. Jeff Gutman, captain of the Voyager.  These two were hardcore deep-drop fishermen who left an indelible mark on the tactics and techniques used by anglers pushing today’s boundaries at the edge.

Thinking back to the 1970s when Barnegat Light was known as the “Tilefish Capital of the World,” it’s impossible for me not to think of Capt. Lou Puskas who passed away on September 2.  While Capt. Puskas did a bit of chartering in earlier days aboard the Grace C, he’s best known for his pioneering efforts at the Hudson Canyon in the early 1970s, the first captain to bring tilefish back to Barnegat Light after a century’s disappearance and the progenitor of modern day tilefishing.

Capt. Puskas fished those tiles hard in the 70s, until the bite slowed, opting to target other species by the 80s to give localized tilefish stocks a chance to rebound.  By then the New York fleet had followed the Puskas trail offshore where they began hauling tiles back to Montauk.  Keep in mind, the conservation principles of alternating between locally depleted species predated our nation’s primary fisheries law, the Magnuson Stevens Act.  Ironically, NOAA Fisheries would ultimately develop a grand conservation plan of awarding shares of tilefish harvest using the 80’s as a baseline for establishing catch history, rather than the 70s, virtually gifting the fishery to New York while boxing out Capt. Puskas and the New Jersey fleet.

Somewhere in my files (I’m still looking) I have a handwritten letter from Capt. Lou to NOAA Fisheries – a return to sender type of deal he once gave me – in which the skipper sought answers from NOAA as to their actions in pulling his fishing permits.  Seems one of the Puskas boats was laid up for repair one swordfish season and thus had no catches to report; NOAA responded by kicking Puskas out of the fishery for failing to report.  Some anglers might smirk at the thought, but to me it’s a cautionary tale about the fragility of our regulated way of life as fishermen, and the government’s long history of bureaucratically choosing winners and losers.

A longliner, a headboat captain and a tackle shop owner, three very distinct and innovative fishermen in their own right – arguably New Jersey’s three greatest tilefishermen – all gone in a single season.  It’s another strange twist on a freakishly bizarre year.

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