Chasing the October bite

As tuna season shrinks, the race is on to catch the most valuable fish in New England

MISS FERN landing a good bluefin tuna last week at Saquatucket Harbor, Harwich Port

HARWICH - (10/12/04) The October bite is on. Maybe.

"It's looking positive," Andy Baler, the owner of Nantucket Fish Co. in Dennis and Chatham, said about this fall's tuna catch. Baler's company packs and ships giant Atlantic bluefin tuna - fish over 73 inches long weighing in at 500 pounds - to Japanese markets. It is prized for the raw fish dishes sold in sushi restaurants. Local fishermen just started catching bluefin last week after a summer when a mere fraction of the annual quota was caught. They can get thousands of dollars for each bluefin tuna they catch, the most valuable fish per pound in New England. And restrictions on other fish species have made the money from tuna all the more critical just as the season seems to be shrinking. There used to be a summer season when bluefin stopped by local waters on their way up to Canada. Then, in recent years, Massachusetts ceased being a summer stop on the bluefin migratory route. The so-called "October bite," when hungry bluefin gather off the Cape and Nantucket on their way south, has become the only chance left for New England fishermen to catch these prized fish. It usually lasts just a few weeks before cool water temperatures drive tuna further south.

There are three ways fishermen are allowed to catch bluefin: harpoon, rod and reel, and a purse seine, a net that is used to capture an entire school at once. All three categories have their own quotas - finite amounts that are strictly monitored and enforced. Japanese buyers prize meat that is high in fat content, and pay accordingly. Fitzpatrick said some good fish were being caught, but that prices paid to fishermen last week were "pretty weak" ranging from $6 to $10 per pound. While that means that a 500-pound fish could fetch $5,000, the profit margin is reduced by the cost of handling, shipping and selling the fish. Also, most fishermen are limited to just two bluefin a day. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries department recently announced that quota would be cut to one fish on Oct. 20. The problem this year, as in recent years, is the European fish farms that fatten tens of thousands of bluefin tuna in big floating cages then sell them on the Japanese market in the fall, driving down the price. All three tuna categories have a lot of quota left before they are closed. With only 65 tons caught this year out of the 630 tons allocated to the largest tuna permit category (mostly rod and reel), it would take some fantastic fishing for the local fleet to catch enough to make it a good season.

Baler said that even at the feverish pace of 100 fish a day, that would still leave 200 tons uncaught by Oct. 20. And, the local season could also vanish overnight, said Robert Fitzpatrick of Maguro America, a tuna shipping company in Harwich. Tagging studies have shown that it only takes a stretch of three cold days with water temperatures around 51 degrees to make tuna head south for warmer waters. For now, this year's bite looks pretty good. "At least there's some thrill in the air," said Baler.

The thrill of fishing may be wearing thin for many small boat fishermen, however. Cod fishing this summer was practically nonexistent and regulations are so tough that many have much fewer than 50 days in which to catch bread-and-butter species like cod. A scientific program that paid boat owners for tagging cod helped many survive last winter. That program ends this winter and already has the boats it needs to finish up. That has caused many boats to depend on tuna even more than other years. "Many, many commercial fishermen are really counting on it," said Baler. "Even at average prices, it's a necessary component to make ends meet."

(Published: October 12, 2004 CCT)

Old Harwich Chestnut may be revived

Saving 'king of all trees'


HARWICH - (10/14/04) For a dying species once called the "king of all trees," the 45-foot-tall American chestnut that watches over Midge and Bud Dey's home still has the virility to reproduce in mass. The tree's offspring - 138 chestnuts found inside 70 prickly burs - sit peacefully in a moist layer of peat moss at the Harwich Port home of Rufin Van Bossuyt, a member of the board of directors for the state chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. Three or four of the nuts will be symbols of hope for naturalists who are working hard to revive the rare American chestnut, which flourished for centuries in the lush woodlands that stretch from Maine to Georgia. Today, only a handful of the mighty trees can be found on the Cape, since most of the species has been wiped out by blight, a fungal disease that kills the tree with rot. In July, Van Bossuyt found a thriving American chestnut on the Dey property and immediately knew it would be a good candidate for the foundation's unique pollination and breeding program. American Chestnut leaves

Researchers have been trying to develop a blight-resistant hybrid, which involves many generations of crosses between American chestnuts and the blight-resistant Asian chestnut species. The female flower of the Deys' tree, serendipitously located on Lovers Lane, was fertilized by arborists with pollen from those blight-resistant hybrids. Van Bossuyt recently visited the chestnut tree for harvesting. "We're quite encouraged by the amount of healthy nuts we got," he said. "It's just a matter of time before we have more flourishing blight-resistant American chestnut trees."

The baby chestnuts will be stored in containers in temperatures just above freezing, to prevent them from growing until planting time in the spring. Van Bossuyt will choose the four that best demonstrate characteristics of blight resistance and qualities of a typical American chestnut, such as tall and straight growth, and will use them in the cyclical breeding program. The best blight-resistant nuts will be planted in an orchard. "If we can re-establish them back into the forests," Van Bossuyt said, "it will be a pretty huge help." The foundation, with assistance from NStar, has helped pollinate five trees in New England since 2001, but this is the first such tree on Cape Cod to be pollinated and harvested for this purpose. Researchers say that one out of every 100 seeds, or nuts, shows blight-resistant characteristics.

To prove how valuable American chestnuts are, Van Bossuyt pointed to two in-use utility poles on Forest Street that were built from chestnut wood in 1928. Most utility pole wood is rotted within 40 years. "This is an example of their rot resistance and durability," he said. "They can still serve a purpose and we want that to continue."

(Published: October 14, 2004)

Into the rugged interior of Harwich

HARWICH - (10/24/04) Deep in the woods of Harwich on an autumn afternoon, and nary a soul around. Just a few hawks soaring high above a clearing looking for prey, perhaps, and plenty of smaller birds, chipmunks and squirrels making a ruckus in the undergrowth. This is primitive Cape Cod.

While forging a path through pristine woods, the splendor of the season - the crimson, gold and orange leaves that signal winter's advance - is abundantly clear. This is the scene at Hawksnest State Park, 218 acres of undeveloped oak and pine woods, wetlands and kettle ponds linked by a large network of trails and dirt roads just south of Route 6 in East Harwich. This little-known state park is one of only two on the Cape - Shawme Crowell in Sandwich is actually a state forest. The other is nearby Nickerson State Park in Brewster. But Hawksnest is the ideal place for a hike on a sunny weekend in late October.

Once you venture deep into Hawksnest's interior, you may as well be on a desolate mountain trail in the Adirondacks or hiking Vermont's Long Trail, because this untouched woodland is the real deal. Sure, there are no bears to contend with - not that they pose much of a threat to hikers in parts of New England where they're common - and the highest elevation is barely a good-sized hill. But Hawksnest is located in the heart of the Cape's rugged interior, an area largely spared from development. While many think the Outer Cape is home to the peninsula's most unsullied landscapes, others know that some of the best scenery is actually located within a broad swath of land in Harwich and Brewster roughly bounded by Route 6A to the north and Route 39 to the south. This sprawling area with only mild suburban intrusions includes Nickerson State Park, Long Pond and the undisturbed 850 acres that comprise the Punkhorn Parklands of West Brewster. And, of course, Hawksnest.

Contained within this relative wilderness are literally dozens of kettle ponds. In Hawksnest, accessible from Spruce Road, which parallels Route 6 to the south, nature trails carry explorers past Black, Olivers, Walkers and Hawksnest ponds. The last is the largest of the quartet and by far the most beautiful - a placid sheet of crystal-clear glass that perfectly reflects the colors of the tall deciduous trees that form its sentry-like fringe. The trails leading to Hawksnest are marked, but not necessarily clearly. This is not a highly manicured state park, mind you, with obvious signs and trail markers. Rather, it's the sort of place you happen upon, then wonder why you're the only person around - not that you mind the privacy. Each season of wither, the trees of Hawksnest naturally prepare for the colder weather. A thin layer of cells forms over the water tubes that serve as a leaf's vascular system, causing the tubes to close.

With water unable to enter, a leaf's green chlorophyll gradually disappears while its other colors - the yellow produced by xanthophyll and the orange from carotene - begin to put on their annual Autumnal show. Rather than turn colors, leaves actually lose their green, which allows the other hidden colors to shine through. At Hawksnest, the color guard is already on the march, so catch it while you can. Staff writer CONOR BERRY can be reached by calling 508-487-1602 or by e-mail at (Published: October 24, 2004)

Herring fishermen robbing young haddock


BOSTON - (10/28/04) The New England Fishery Management Council is accustomed to enacting emergency regulations when fish stocks take a turn for the worse. Now, members may have to enforce emergency measures for haddock, a stock so plentiful some fishermen can't avoid it. State and federal fishery officials boarded 12 vessels in July and August that had been fishing for herring in areas of Georges Bank closed to other species. Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Law Enforcement fined three of those vessels a total of $85,000 for illegally possessing haddock that had been caught with the herring. The Providian of Portland, Maine, the Challenger of Gloucester, and the Sunlight from Rockland, Maine, received between $10,000 and $50,000 in fines and penalties.

Since May, herring fishermen have been allowed in areas closed to fishing since 1994 with the understanding they catch only herring and not bottom-feeding fish such as flounder, cod and haddock. Those species are being rebuilt under the strictest fishing regulations ever enacted in New England. Herring fishermen say the bycatch problem isn't just with the herring fishery. A baby boom of juvenile haddock on Georges Bank could become a problem for other fishermen. "What will we do with all the bycatch in other fisheries?" said Mary Beth Tooley, spokeswoman for East Coast Pelagic Association, which represents most of the larger herring vessels. "People are not going to be able to avoid them." New England fishery council spokeswoman Pat Fiorelli agreed the bycatch problem affects not only herring, but other groundfish. The council is trying to find a way to protect the small haddock, which represent the future of that fishery, without having to shut down other stocks, she said. "It's going to be a big deal and the council wants to get ahead of it. Maybe even with an emergency action," she said.

The council recommends to the NOAA Fisheries Division when an emergency action is needed. NOAA then implements it. In the past, emergency actions have closed down large areas of ocean to all fishing, or drastically limited the amount of fish fishermen could land in a day. Some of the council's options, Fiorelli said, are to limit the bycatch of haddock, to require the use of a special net that allows haddock to escape, or to close small areas. Fiorelli said her agency has established an ad hoc committee to deal with this issue and scheduled a discussion for their next meeting, Nov. 16. That's a little too late for the herring fishery, which had to forgo the large stocks on Georges Bank this summer, catching just 11,000 metric tons of the 60,000 allowed. That hurt the herring fishery's yearly total catch, which, right now, is running 25,000 metric tons short of last year, Tooley said.

Herring fishermen, who use small-mesh nets, thought they could avoid bottom-feeders like haddock, but juvenile haddock swim in large schools high in the water and get caught with the herring. NOAA attorney Charles Juliand, however, thinks it's possible to avoid the haddock. He noted that nine of the 12 boats boarded this summer had little or no haddock in their catch. "Obviously, some of them could fish clean."
(Published: October 28, 2004)