Salt Marsh Die-Offs

Walk the beach long enough and you’ll see big balls of peat, festooned with a hair cut of cordgrass, washed up above the high water line, apparently uprooted to drift away from their starting point.  This is a symptom of marsh die back, a phenomenon that scientists say is due to a break in the delicate equilibrium in marsh ecology.

The culprit is a small crab, the sesarma, or as we called them, Fiddler Crabs. These crabs live in burrows around the high water line and can be found in Cotuit in great numbers inside of Cupid’s Cove on Sampson’s Island and around the mouth of Little River. As kids we’d dig them up and set them on each other in gladiator battles in “coliseums” dug out of the sand.

Now scientists at Brown University are reporting that swathes of saltwater marsh are being killed off because of the negative effects of recreational fishing. They observed that marshes with dying cordgrass were not being affected by the foot traffic of anglers, but by the effects the fishing had on the sesarma’s natural predators, primarily striped bass. Saltwater flyfishermen have long known that flies patterned after small crabs can be used on stripers with deadly effect. Well, now it appears that if the striper population is reduced, the crab population thrives, and over time the crabs overfeed on the grass, and … well, the consequences are shown in the National Park Services photo below.

“With far fewer predators in areas where  is prevalent, native Sesarma crabs have had relatively free rein to eat salt marsh grasses, causing the ecosystem to collapse, said Mark Bertness, chair of Brown’s Department of Ecology and  and the paper’s senior author. He led a series of experiments and measurements published online in the journal Ecology that he said unavoidably implicate recreational fishing in marsh die-off.

“We had to be so careful about dotting all the ‘i’s and crossing all the ‘t’s and making sure that we had ruled out all alternative hypotheses, because even within the scientific community, there are plenty of fishermen who don’t want this to be true,” Bertness said. “Certainly out in the general public there are plenty of people who are into recreational fishing who don’t want it to be the problem.”

I plead guilty to marsh fishing — I’ve done it on occasion in the past — the streams and muddy creeks up high in the marsh system can hold some great fish, and the surroundings can be beautiful and very peaceful. As well as buggy, muddy, and treacherous in the dark.

The condition of the marshes in and around Cotuit seems pretty healthy — there’s a large one at the head of the Mills River near Prince’s Cove, another around the Cow Yard in the Narrows, a third surrounding the “delta” of Little River, one by the town way to water at the confluence of Oceanview and Main. None see a lot of fishing traffic. Parking is tight and access limited.

Keeping the marshes and peat banks healthy is crucial to the health of an estuary. I’ve heard them described as the “lungs” of the system, filtering and absorbing a great deal of pollution and storm surge from the main shoreline.

Here are some links:

Eels face poaching threat

Eels face poaching threat |

There haven’t been many eels around in a long time. The Asian market for baby eels — or elvers — is probably to blame, what with prices up around $2,000 a pound and plenty of poachers willing to risk the law to cash in on the action.

Eels face poaching threat |

Cotuit was infested with eels in the 60sthrough the 70s. A kid couldn’t fish off the Town Dock without hooking into one. My grandmother was a big fan but I never developed a taste until I experienced broiled eel in sushi form — unagi/unago — and have even tried to duplicate the recipe after my cousin landed a whopper a few years back in his crab pot.

My grandmother had an interesting way of skinning the things. A nail pounded through the head into the side of the boat shed, a quick slit around the neck with a sharp paring knife, and then a quick “un-socking” with two pairs of pliers gripping the slimy edges of the neck cut. This all while the eel went beserk and tied itself into figure-eight knots and spun around the nail like a pinwheel.

The joys of a Cape Cod childhood. The woman meant business when it came to food, even if she was allergic to hardshell bivalves.

Anyway, those mature eels — anguilla anguillaor the European Eel, aren’t what the poachers are chasing. They are looking for the small fry heading  up the coastal streams from the ocean. Eels are “catadromous” fish: they spend their lives in fresh water (there is (or was) a mysterious albino eel in Thoreau’s Walden Pond that evidently crawled over land to get there) and return to the sea — specifically the Sargasso Sea south of Bermuda — to spawn. The elvers, or glass eels, make their way back from the floating rafts of seaweed in the Sargasso and take residence in the ponds of New England.

They make excellent striped bass bait when they are about a foot in length. Bluefish destroy them. They are an utter mess to try to hook and can literally tie themselves in a knot when provoked.

Now the eel is critically endangered, and with scarcity comes the cruel law of economics which means they are even more valuable to those who eat them, hence the extraordinary poaching price of $2,000 a pound. Hydroelectric dams and their turbines do a terrible number on them as well.

The Cape Cod Times today reported on the arrests of two poachers:

The price spike stems from a surge in demand from aquaculturists in Asian countries who purchase the wild juvenile elvers, raise them until they reach a half-pound then sell them in the sushi market, explained Mitchell Feigenbaum, principal of Delaware Valley Fish Co. of Portland, Maine. A significant drop in recent years in the number of wild Asian glass eels, combined with a European ban on exporting their own wild stock, meant the U.S. elvers suddenly commanded high prices. Feigenbaum said the price increase really isn’t that large when you consider the profit farmers make selling the adult eels on the high-end sushi market. A good farmer, he said, could turn $2,000 worth of glass eels into $20,000 in sales.


A dozen years ago, the price for glass eels was $25 a pound. In recent years, it climbed to $325 and last year reached $900. Now at more than $2,000, the tiny translucent eels, less than 6 inches long, newly arrived in the Cape’s rivers and streams from the Sargasso Sea this spring, were particularly inviting to poachers.

Harwich police Sgt. Brackett had no way of knowing, but the 2 pounds of elvers swimming in those unpretentious buckets could have fetched $4,000 to $5,000 when sold in Maine, one of only two states where it is legal to harvest and sell them. With prices that high, competition for prime spots on Maine’s waterways has been fierce and the yields are nowhere near what fishermen get in Massachusetts, where the elver fishery is banned and the competition virtually nonexistent.

“I hear stories of someone coming in (to dealers) with 50 pounds of eels and I think, they must have been to Massachusetts,” said Gail Wippelhauser, a Maine Department of Marine Resources scientist specializing in eels. “There’s noplace in Maine where you can get that many eels in one night.”

If you see anyone creeping around a run at night, drop a dime to the police please.


Dead Stuff on the Beach: Mola Mola

I took a hike around Great Island hike in Wellfleet yesterday with a college friend and his wife. A mere 14 mile, four hour slog to the tip of Jeremy Point under scudding purple December clouds with the Pilgrim monument in Provincetown a prominent finger to the north. Our only company was a half-dozen orange coated hunters with shotguns — one of whom told us to stay out of the woods unless we too were wearing orange, which we were not. So out of the woods we stayed and to the beach we went.

We walked down the bay side beach, made it south to the point, and then returned along the inner beach facing Wellfleet Harbor, stepping over countless clumps of wild oysters sitting on the sand, begging to be picked up. Near the end of the walk, inside the cove and marsh, we came upon a large, white, grey blob the size of a table laying in the wrack and flotsam.

It stank. It was gelatinous, and in an advanced state of decay. I looked for a minute and deduced it was a dead ocean sunfish, or Mola mola, one of the weirder fish in the sea.

from the Wikipedia

First — they are all head. Seriously. No body to speak of. Just a massive head with fins.

Second — they are the heaviest fish in the sea, weighing up to 2,200 pounds.

Third — they swim very very slowly, preferring to drift on their side, right on the surface, sunning themselves as befits their name.

Fourth — their fin flaps lazily overhead in the air as they bask and some people mistake that fin for a shark.

This one is one of the dozen or so that have stranded on the Cape this fall. When the temperatures plunge the fish are stunned and can’t survive. According to the Cape Cod Times:

“The Mola mola is a frequent visitor to Cape waters and the season is under way for finding them stranded on the shores of Cape Cod Bay, Carson said. Although there are three types of ocean sunfish, the Mola mola is the one most likely to be sighted off the Cape’s shores.”

Here is link to a gallery of photos at the Time’s website of a marine biologist examining a dead Mola mola on a Cape Cod Bay beach in Brewster in October.



Dropback Herring

A few weeks ago, while taking my afternoon constitutional with the dog along Ropes Beach, I witnessed the weirdest example of a massive biomass I’ve ever seen on the Cape. The fall is a particularly fecund time of year on the water, with the baitfish balling up into a tight concentrations that are assaulted over and over by blitzes of bluefish and striped bass fattening up before their southern migration for the winter. Usually the baitfish are immature menhaden, also known as “peanut bunker” but what I saw that afternoon on the shores of the cove was, in my opinion, a school of immature river herring, or alewives, also known as dropback herring because they drop back into the sea following their anadromous cycle of birth in the inland freshwater ponds and maturation in the deep sea.

The spring herring run is a classic event on the Cape, occurring in mid-April around the time the forsythias bloom.  During that run the adult alewives swim in from the deep ocean up to the very heads of the saltwater estuaries, lured in by some mystical genetic marker that leads them to seek out the same sweet waters they were born in. The fish then jump and wriggle their way up the coastal streams, over concrete fish ladders and other obstacles, dodging gulls and people with nets to finally made their way to some inland pond to drop their eggs and milt. These runs used to produce prodigious amounts of fish in colonial times, not so much any longer, and the state has imposed a ban on the taking of spawning herring for a number of years now.

What I saw, beginning at the footbridge and extending a half mile along the entire curving shoreline to Handys Point was a band of tiny black fish — minnow sized — that extended from two feet from the water’s edge out about 12 feet — a big long, moving black band of a gazillion tiny fishies all finning and pointing in the same direction, occasionally erupting when something disturbed their peace. Why do I think they were herring?

1. The week before I saw a steady stream of little black smolts swimming out of Little River.

2. Peanut bunker are distinctively shaped and these were not peanut bunker.

3. I’ve heard that herring like to circle the shorelines of the ponds in a big schools following their hatch. These fish were tucked right up on the beach, in the shallows where the sun could warm them.

Cue the video for a vague sense of what I saw. It’s not an exaggeration to say I walked past 20 solid minutes of fish during that sunny stroll.



Goodbye Old Paint

In 1999, flush with a bonus (those were the days, when IPOs were in everyone’s future and even had a shot at millions) I bought a brand new 40 horsepower, four-stroke Honda outboard engine. This was a good purchase, one of the best I’ve made, living up to all the pre-purchase expectations of owning a precision piece of machinery that was dependable, clean, and ran with the elan of a sewing machine.

It replaced a POS Johnson outboard, purchased when the skiff was new in the thinking that if Johnson was good enough for my grandfather, it was good enough for me. Alas, American manufacturing had already shit the bed as far as two-stroke outboards were concerned and the Japanese in the form of Honda and Yamaha were kicking their ass. I went on a poisonous-letter writing campaign, demanding satisfaction from OMC, the parent of Johnson, but alas, they weren’t going to replace it, so I showed them and spent $5,000 of ill-gotten riches on the Honda.

I babied it. I learned how to change its oil, the filters, the spark plugs. It never let me down, carrying me south of Martha’s Vineyard and all over Nantucket Sound in search of squid, stripers, bluefish and fluke.

Last year, Andy at The Boat Guy, my trusty mechanic, told me I had better start thinking of a new one. “This one doesn’t owe you anything, ” he said, but I squeezed one more season out of it, becoming, by October, the only person on the planet who knew the exact combination of throttle, choke, and cranking to get it start. The time had come.

But, hope springs eternal in the spring, and this March I was in the driveway changing plugs and filters and to my surprise, the old trusty silver engine turned over and bubbled away happily with a garden hose connected to the water inlets. I re-registered the old trailer, painted the bottom a spiffy new coat of copper antifouling paint with a jaunty red boottop — and launched on a bright spring day.

As I motored out to the mooring, happy to be afloat in April, I decided to run up the RPMs and give it a little shakedown cruise. Everything was copacetic until the warning horn went off.


Limping back to the launch ramp I popped off the lid and was met with a cloud of steam and a blast of heat. Something was very wrong.

So back on the trailer she went, and off to The Boat Guy with feelings of profound pessimism.

Andy called late last week. “She’s toast Cap’n,” he said. “But don’t despair, another customer is selling his old 40 hp for $2,500 if he can clear the financing for a new one.”

So it goes, tearing up dollar bills while standing in the shower. But the squid are out there, the bluefish and stripers have arrived, and I am itchy to get waterborne as soon as possible.


Oceanic Libertarianism: The Massachusetts Saltwater Fishing License

Back at the dawn of InterWeb time I started an experiment in what I guess would now be called “long-tail community publishing.” Lotus founder Mitch Kapor suggested I think about creating an Internet news service, and I came up with the name “RealTime” as a play on the potential for constant deadline cycles and instant publishing (this was 1994 remember and everything was new). Then Chris Locke — one of the Cluetrain authors — threw me a contributing editor/columnist gig at InternetMCI (one of the first ballyhooed “portals”) and asked me to write about online journalism. As a stalking horse to prove my points about the potential to focus on micro audiences, I invented a fictitious news service for fishermen, then saltwater fishermen, then saltwater flyfishermen, and finally saltwater flyfishermen on Cape Cod; largely because it was a subject I knew something about first hand, could create content around, and seemed to make the point better than a service about knitting with one’s pet hair.

As it turns out there are people who knit sweaters with golden retriever hair ((but that thought disgusts me so I do not), and saltwater flyfishing was, for me in the early 1990s an obsession of late night surfcasting, prowling the back creeks of the local salt marshes, and learning how to fling a hook covered in fur and feathers 100 feet into the teeth of a howling wind. Thankfully I don’t have that time or endurance anymore, and now take out my frustrations on a rowing machine.

The fictitious fishing site I invented for InternetMCI because a real enterprise called “Reel-Time: The Internet Journal of Saltwater Flyfishing.”  With a partner, we launched the site in 1995 and were pleasantly surprised to see it quickly become the go-to source for local fishing information on Cape Cod and the Islands. Before I knew it I was a quasi-fishing journalist, delivering weekly reports on where the fish were in my local waters.

The bulletin boards for community discussion were very lively affairs — definitely a great example of community building and where I learned my lessons in moderation the hard way.

But I digress, that was a long way of backing into the comment that Massachusetts now requires me and my fishing brethren to pay a small fee ($10) for the privilege of fishing in the state’s territorial waters. This was a perennial pissing match starter at Reel Time

The perennial volatile topic that was guaranteed to start a pissing war was the subject of a saltwater fishing license in the Bay State. Freshwater fishermen have had to cough up $25 or more every year for the right to fish in a freshwater pond or lake, but saltwater anglers were able to roam the bounding seas and Big Briny for free, taking what they wanted from the water without having to pay the Man his due.  You would be astonished at the libertarian vitriol of the fishing fanatics over the subject of licenses.

So listen up friends and family who like to wet a line for the occasional bluefish, striper, fluke or scup: you need to pay your respects to the Commonwealth and go to this website to pay your dues. The governor argues that the state had to require a license, otherwise the Feds would have imposed a more expensive one. Oh well. I’m used to paying for the little piece of paper every time I go fishing in Florida, it was eventually going to happen here.

Smoked bluefish

Wind east, fish bite least, and that was the case on Saturday morning when we ran east to Wianno to scout some striped bass on the flats by the fish weir. The conditions were too overcast and sloppy to see any cruising fish so we ran back to Cotuit and set up a drift towards Sub Rock, casting orange Roberts and Ballistic Missiles on wire leaders. In twenty minutes we landed eight big bluefish – averaging eight to ten pounds – and stopped at the point of Sampson’s Island to fillet them and toss the racks into the channel for the crabs to pick over.

I brined the fish in a gallon of water, two cups of kosher salt, a cup of maple syrup, garlic powder, Pete’s Texas Hot and a lot of soy sauce, leaving the fillets in the fridge overnight until this morning, when I dried them to a shiny pellicle, ground a ton of black pepper over them, and finished them with a dusting of Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning. Eight hours in the Cabela’s vertical propane smoker with two loads of soaked hickory chunks and I now have a big stack of leathery smoked bluefish. I’ll turn some of it into bluefish pate, using the Legal Seafood’s recipe; the rest will get wrapped and handed out to neighbors and friends. If I do two loads this spring, it will be a lot, and every time I do it I start to wonder, based on the $10 the restaurants charge for about two ounces of the pate, if I could set the kids up with a serious business venture peddling smoked fish to the high end boutique grocery stores here in Cotuit and Osterville. Then I start thinking about the Board of Health and snap back to reality. I hate to waste fish, and if the family can polish off four fillets it’s a miracle. I’ve tried vacuum sealing the stuff, freezing it – nothing really works on smoked fish, and bluefish, sorry to say, is not my favorite fish in the world unless it is blackened Cajun style or smoked dark brown like a herring.

I really want a striper for the table, but just am not clever or devoted enough to set the alarm and bomb off into the dawn for Bishops & Clerks or the shoals off of Succonnesset. Maybe tomorrow. I really am a fan of pan roasted bass with a chive and sour cream sauce.

I figured it out today …

… I slept an hour later than usual, woke to grey skies, ate bacon and eggs instead of beneficial oatmeal, did rapid-fire errands, stopped by the herring run just as the day turned awesome (I saw a big school of herring waiting in the top pool), installed a new mower blade and mowed the lawn, bought a six-pack of Offshore Ale, strung up my rod with a new lure, and hit the prettiest beach on Cape Cod for two hours of casting practice (no fish yet) in the setting sun before rushing home and catching the last five innings of a four-hour classic of a baseball game against Yankees (who also lost a nailbiter to the Sox the night before), cooking the entire time (rillettes, duck leg confit, vegetable stock, hummous) screaming at the TV in the kitchen, and scaring the dogs.

I congratulated my esteemed neighbor for doing the right thing, and she told me about an profile of your humble narrator in the Barnstable Enterprise.  I couldn’t find a copy, but someone dropped it by the house while I was running errands. I feel conspiciously auspicious. I’d point to it, but it’s not online and I am not in the mood for personal promotion.

A good friend dropped by and we got on the topic of seagull attacks and the time I watched a seagull poop into someone’s agape mouth aboard the Hyline ferry M/V Point Gammon when I worked on there as a deckhand in college.

Tomorrow I paint the bottom of the yacht and continue my gardening. My spring peas have sprouted and my arugula is showing itself.  The tulips have opened and the alcove reeks of hyacinths.

On a day like today it does not suck to be me.

On the upcoming reading list ….

via Spielberg Hooks Rights to Derby Book – 3/13/09 – Vineyard Gazette Online.

This ought to be good. A book about the Martha’s  Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby — my annual excuse to take vacation on the island and chase fish. The late Robert Post’s Reading the Water is one of my favorite volumes in the fishing section of my bookshelf, this promises good things as well. It gets released in early April. Dreamworks thought highly enough to buy the option.

“The Vineyard may yet be the scene of another big fish film under the eye of Steven Spielberg: the Jaws director’s studio, DreamWorks, has just bought the film rights for a soon to be released book about the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.

The book, The Big One: An Island, an Obsession and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish, by David Kinney, published by Atlantic Monthly, will be released on April 8.”