Blowfish, once the bane of inshore anglers intent on catching flounder and fluke appear to be well on their way to a comeback. So thick were they during my childhood that you could actually catch them on bare hooks, and it was not uncommon to have them nibbling at your toes at bathing beaches inside the Island’s bays and harbors. Whether it was cyclic in nature, or their increasing popularity as a food fish that made them a popular target of commercial pot fishermen, they eventually faded from the scene. As eight and nine year olds, my brother and I once caught 360 of them from my grandparent’s bulkhead in Bayport. I remember the number well because my dad, after a quick lesson, had Steve and I clean every last one of them.
How long their return lasts this time around could very well depend on whether a management plan is put in place to conserve the stocks. For the past few years, the puffers have appeared in increasing numbers but up until last season, the fishery faded just as quickly as it appeared. Last season saw an extended run of blowfish in places like Shinnecock, Peconic, Moriches and Great South Bays. The fish ranged anywhere from very large 10 to 11-inch specimens down to as little as three inches. It was not uncommon last summer to see buckets of baby blowfish being kept on local docks. They were easy targets for baited hooks, but they also crammed themselves into crab traps. More disturbing was that the baby puffers began showing up on restaurant menus as bite size appetizers.
Commercial fishermen also took advantage of the increased numbers of puffers. Members of the Moriches Anglers Club have campaigned for size and bag limits for both recreational and commercial fishermen. Several were especially disturbed by the unregulated and excessive potting of blowfish that they witnessed in Moriches Bay this past season.
No longer are blowfish considered a pest. They are valued not only as a valuable food fish, but they can also help fill the large early season void left by an almost non-existant flounder fishery, the lack of a spring/summer blackfish season and the late starts of fluke and sea bass seasons. They are also the perfect fish to get youngsters hooked on fishing. They are easy to catch and the action can be fast and furious – perfect for the generally short attention spans of young anglers.
The good news is that the northern puffer is now on the radar and discussions have begun within the New York Department of Conservation and the Marine Resources Advisory Council about how to mange the species. There is not a lot of data available on these fish to help guide potential regulations, but as with most fisheries, isn’t it prudent to err on the side of conservation rather than risk damaging the fishery?
If you would like to add your input on this issue, you can direct your comments to MRAC chairman Michael Frisk at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 631-632-8656. You can also call marine resources director and council member Jim Gilmore, at 631-444-0430.