Posted by: carlsafina | Sunday, August 12 07

Fishing Without Limits

This is a fishing report with no limits.

One evening recently I went out in my boat with two friends to hunt the biggest brand of Striped Bass. We intended to stay out under the moon until the tide slacked, ‘round midnight. For heavy-shouldered stripers, you go where the tide runs like wild horses over sunken hills studded with boulders. You can see the surface roiling. You drop your bait to the bottom and drift through the roiled current. At the end of the hill, where the water calms, pick up your bait. Repeat. Continue for hours.

We’d gotten out while it was still quite early. I assumed we’d have a long wait before the nocturnally feeding bass got active. But, with an hour and a half until sundown, we decided to just get started and see what might happen. On our first drift we caught a small bass. Though it was below the legal limit of 28 inches, I took it as a good sign that there were some fish here, with at least the smaller ones willing to bite even before sundown. On the very next pass over the boulders I hooked an out-of-control fish that nearly emptied my small reel before I turned it. Just before we could get a glimpse of it, the hook pulled out. A couple of drifts later, I hooked another large, very rambunctious fish. But this time I landed a beauty whose poundage would land somewhere in the mid-30s. A drift or two later, one of my friends caught its twin, then another pressing 30 pounds, moments before my other friend had a fish in the mid-20s alongside.

In the midst of this fantastic fishing, an uncomfortable question arose: shall we continue?

We had two fish over 40 inches on board, and we were each entitled— if that’s the right word—to take one over 40 inches and one between 28 and 40 inches; six fish total. The fish now alongside was legal to take. My friends had driven hours to get here and they love eating fish. These fish freeze well; there would be no waste. And one of my friends had been talking of finding his trophy of a lifetime tonight. (A spearfisherman recently shot a fish here weighing over 59 pounds.)

Striped bass had been deeply depleted by the mid-1980s. Their phenomenal recovery was engineered by protecting young females into adulthood with gradually increasing minimum sizes. It worked exceptionally well and this beautiful, active, delicious fish is now abundant.

All large striped bass are female; they’re good for laying a lot of eggs. I was uncomfortable with the idea of taking more than one each, or the idea of keeping a very large “trophy” fish if we caught one. I was also uncomfortable with continuing to catch and release fish; I didn’t want to risk injuring one by gut-hooking, or having one die from exhaustion, as very large fish in warm water occasionally do.

I asked that we keep the three we had and release the one alongside. My friends immediately said they were “perfectly OK” with calling it an evening. (That’s why they’re my friends.)

We intended to fish well into the night but now we were heading in before it was fully dark. The moon hadn’t yet appeared. Bottom line: abundance pays. We did not take our limit because the fish were so big.

A couple of days later I took a family fishing for Summer Flounder, called Fluke in these parts. We had non-stop action. It was some of the best Fluke fishing I’ve experienced—except for one problem. We only caught one fish big enough to keep. When I was a kid the minimum size was 14 inches, and many we were now catching measured 17 to 19 inches. These would all have been “nice fish.”

But this fishery has long suffered from chronic depletion. Recent increases in Fluke minimum sizes, and reductions in daily limits, have gone in baby steps that have only prolonged the depletion. Fishers and managers can’t agree to back off and just let Fluke recover (as was accomplished with Striped Bass, for which fishing had been totally banned for a short time, followed by very strict regulations that lasted for years). This year the minimum size is 19.5 inches. That’s why all those “nice fish” we were catching and releasing were still in the water. Partly, the fish are still growing up toward the minimum size. And partly, most fish over 19.5 inches are quickly caught by the dozens of boats in the area.*

I’ve long said the Fluke minimum size should be 20 inches. That would allow plenty of spawning and would really boost the population. Hopefully we’re getting close to that, and in the next few years we’ll see more responsible restrictions—and more fish.

So this is a story of no-limits. From the abundant fish, we didn’t need or want our limit. From depleted species, we can’t get enough for a decent lunch. When we are good stewards, where nature is abundant, we get what we want and we can leave broad margins and cash in the bank. When we are stingy, something ironic happens: greed prevents us from getting what we need. If we would let nature recover, if we would leave some for another day, we would have enough.

As I often say, it’s OK to use nature; It’s not OK to use it up. As Robert Frost wrote:
May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan.”

To take what one needs, rather than all one can take, means an end of neediness and the fulfillment of future desires.

*(Technical note for fisher(wo)men: I’m using circle hooks for Striped Bass and Fluke and did not have a single fish hooked in the throat or gut; Of about 30 fish caught last week, all were released quickly. I removed the hook without touching the fish, and mostly without lifting them from the water, with the aid of a J-style de-hooker.

Smiles and Summer Flounder

Carl Safina and Striped Bass



  1. Apply the same thought process to marine sanctuaries and let them, or parts of them, become breeding and nursery grounds and allow many fisheries to recover at the same time.

    Through this whole process we must remember the commerical fisherman. Some how the burden for recovery has to be spread across more shoulders than just on those who make a living by providing fish for our tables.

    REPLY: The burden of depletion is already spread across everyone, fishers, consumers, the marine wildlife, coastal communities, and the whole system. What we have to mainly remember is that if we take care of the ocean (wildlife, or “resources”) through good stewardship and strong, wise management, there will be as much for everyone as there can be. We won’t have to remember anything else. It’s a little like why telling the truth is easier than lying: you don’t have to work to remember what you said. When people defend their fishing, their fishing deteriorates; when people defend the fish, their fishing improves. -Carl Safina

  2. Carl, enjoying your blog. I wrote this a couple years ago for New Scientist about importance of trophy fish to sustaining populations:

    “Let the big fish go to save the species”

    * 26 June 2005
    * Stephen Leahy
    * Magazine issue

    THE trophy fish that anglers dream of landing are crucial for saving fish populations. It means fishery managers should rethink the common policy of chasing the big fish and letting the tiddlers go.

    That’s according to Charles Birkeland at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu and Paul Dayton at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, who have reviewed the effects of fishing on populations. Until recently it was thought that all eggs and larvae have the same odds of survival, regardless of their parents’ size. Now studies show that the biggest fish are the most valuable for maintaining the population.

    For a start, a female’s fecundity often increases dramatically with size. A 60-centimetre red snapper, for example, produces more than 200 times as many eggs as females that are two-thirds her size.

    What’s more, larvae from older and larger black rockfish are bigger, grow more than three times …

    REPLY: Stephen, it seems we’re missing the end of your comment. You’re right, except that where the fishing pressure is very high (like where I fish), there has to be a minimum size and take limits to allow some small fish to survive to larger sizes to begin with. In many cases an intermediate “slot” limit–no smaller than x and no bigger than y–makes the most sense. — Carl Safina

  3. What a great photo of you with the striped bass!

    REPLY: The author of this comment is the photographer. Duly noted!

  4. I was about to say the photos are spectacular, even without prompting. I also heartily support the thought behind the post. Most of us are like weasels in a henhouse when the fishing’s good. If only more would ask the hard questions. Keep writing, CS! I’m about to start Voyage of the Turtle, as soon as I finish reading Jane Goodall’s new bio.

  5. Hi Carl nice blog

    Nice Striped bass

    I write some words about reproduction vs size of spicies in my blog, about de idea of a right/wrong conclusion, but is a realitty infortunatly, for you the size of species does mathers in the reproduction, like the humans in the half life and the capacitty of reproduction of species?

    Most of the species that in 10 years past is in stand bye phase now are in danger, cause climatic changes, polution, industrial fishing, strong mass populations, etc…

    Its imperatif that all countrys join in this battle, but the economic values speak to loud…

    Continue 😉 this nice work Carl

    From Portugal

  6. Wow! Cool photo

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