A (Chinatown) Fish Story

Hide the blackfish! State agents raid Chinese restaurants for puny, but tasty, swimmers

Display cases crammed with aquatic oddities line the walls of an East Broadway Chinatown restaurant's slippery basement from ceiling to floor. Tiny shrimp buzz about, slimy toadfish move their stubby fins, and then there is the geoduck (pronounced "gooey duck"), or elephant clam, whose body bulges out of its shell like an overfed worm.

Officer Matthew LaCroix, a state trooper in a dark green uniform, is standing on a bucket with a net in one hand and a measuring tape in the other, trying not to slip on the wet floor. He couldn't care less about the shrimp, the toadfish, or the geoduck. LaCroix was on a quest for tautog, a sweet-tasting, dark-skinned fish native to Atlantic coastal saltwaters.

Young tautog, small enough to be steamed and served whole on a plate, are considered a delicacy in the seafood restaurants and live fish markets in Chinatowns in New York and throughout the Eastern Seaboard. But it's illegal to catch one less than 14 inches long.

So the state sends people like LaCroix and his partner Jamie Powers, who refer to themselves as the strong arm of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, to police the local waterways, markets, and restaurants where the fish might be found. Their tickets for "illegal possession of undersized species" can come with a fine of $5,000, a mandatory court date for violators, and up to three years in prison.

"Yup, that's 10 inches!" LaCroix announces, pressing a squirming fish against his knee with the measuring tape.

He tosses the creature—the 35th undersized specimen he's found in the one tank—into a cardboard box that once stored uncooked noodles. The fish flops against the others while the kitchen workers look on in amusement.

A dishwasher, a small man with wrinkled cheeks, comes up and pronounces, apparently as some kind of cultural defense, that "China, big fish, no eat." He holds out his two index fingers about five inches apart. "This good," he says, chuckling.

The Chinese call the fish way-bah, and customers need to ask for it by name or point it out when it's displayed in a tank. The menu at this restaurant only listed "fried fish," with no mention of the species.

Two decades ago, the tautog, or black fish, was hardly a popular fish, but it has become one of the most expensive and frequently harvested fish in the region. At the same time, there has been a drastic decline in many fish populations across the Atlantic Coast. The shortage has left fisherman—including lobstermen on the Long Island Sound—scrambling to regain their livelihoods.

The state's size limit protects tautog reproduction, and since a management plan was put in place in 1996, the decline, biologists say, is leveling off. But more needs to be done to return the population to healthier numbers.

Although the DEC limits the annual blackfish catch to 68,000 pounds, that doesn't take the black market into account. Regulators say that's because poaching is too difficult to measure, and, with only a handful of officers to watch over 30 managed species, even tougher to police.

"We need to take some action to identify the scale of this," says Alice Weber, a marine biologist at the DEC who thinks that the illegal activity is "significantly affecting the agency's ability to manage the resource."

Scientists say the price of blackfish should be leveling off along with the population levels, but instead, it just keeps going up. That baffling statistic causes them to suspect that poaching is on the rise.

Today, live tautog can fetch more than $10 per pound in Chinatown, making it one of the five most expensive fish, says LaCroix. In the early 1980s, the fish went for "next to nothing," says Christopher Vonderwiedt, a project coordinator for the commission. But the price began to rise along with the expansion of live markets serving Asian immigrant communities, which nationwide more than doubled between 1980 and 2000, according to the U.S. Census. At the same time, the fish population began an abrupt decline, plummeting from 90 million pounds to 30 million during the following decade.

Though it's impossible to tell without poaching figures, scientists say the live markets can't be fully blamed for that drop. The real culprit is the severe strain that overfishing has placed upon the entire Atlantic ecosystem. Fisheries that were once far more popular than tautog, such as cod and winter flounder, experienced debilitating population declines starting in the mid-'80s. Those losses led fishermen to turn to blackfish, says Sandra Dumais, a Long Island–based marine biologist at the DEC.

The turn to blackfish may be particularly acute in the Long Island Sound, where lobstermen have never recovered after a major die-off in the winter of 1999-2000. Officers like LaCroix and Powers frequently write tickets for violations involving lobster pots, which, besides bait and tackle, are the primary means—both legal and illegal—to catch tautog.

"Years ago, it was kind of a bycatch in the lobster pots; people threw it away because it wasn't worth a lot of money—maybe a nickel a pound. Then the price goes up, and it becomes a targeted species," says Jim King, a lobsterman and trustee in the town of Southhold, Long Island.

At the Chinatown restaurant, as soon as LaCroix begins to write a ticket, the manager bolts. "They speak English until the minute you try to ask them about blackfish," LaCroix mutters. When the manager returned, he was told he had to appear in court on February 28.

The officers shoo away a crowd of onlookers that have gathered around the unmarked truck filled with snow-covered fish. Then they speed off to the Bowery Mission, a Chinatown homeless shelter where they planned to deliver the day's catch, Robin Hood style. But to the officers' chagrin, the shelter, apparently stocked with blackfish from a raid the previous week, turns down the offer.

"Blackfish are a casualty of this war," says Powers, who, like LaCroix, fishes for sport upstate. "We just hate to see a good fish go to waste."

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