Last Fish in the Sea

Early in February, Dick Bahr, the owner of the Snoopy II, changed a few leaders and hooks and turned his swordfish long-liner into a tilefish boat. He’s made the shift a few times in the past – when the market price of his primary catch dipped too low – but this time, there were other forces at work. After many years of trendiness and prestige, swordfish is now being boycotted by elegant Manhattan restaurants, where chefs are concerned that it’s becoming endangered. Worse still for people like Bahr, Washington is expected to enact regulations protecting fish that have until now been all but ignored. Like other boats that run out of Shinnecock Inlet on Long Island, the Snoopy II is now trying to find a way to survive.

Out on the docks, the swordfish boycott has been greeted with nothing but disdain. “It’s horseshit,” says Artie Surrey, the Snoopy II’s captain. “Yes, swordfish’s been fished pretty hard, but it’s no endangered fish.” But Manhattan chefs and their more eco-conscious patrons believe they’re just doing their part for the planet. “We are giving a one-year break to the sword,” says Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin. “It’s more like helping the fish and putting a little pressure on Washington.”

As the dense, oily swords disappear from menus, fishermen are hoping to replace them with species whose low culinary profile has kept them below the government’s radar. In Montauk, an early contender is the humble, mud-burrowing tilefish. You’ve probably already encountered it as a coffee shop’s specialty from the grill, or masquerading as red snapper in a Korean restaurant. But among higher-end seafood chefs, the tilefish has some serious deficiencies. “It varies in quality,” says Stephen Lyle, chef and co-owner of Independent, who recently offered a special of baked tilefish with aïoli. “I don’t buy it too often for that reason.”

Tilefish also has P.R. problems. Chef Bobby Flay, who presides over the Mesa Grill restaurant empire, says, “It’s a hard sell, because people don’t recognize its name.” Often diners will pass it over in favor of a fish with a flashier name – even a known junk fish like the orange roughie.

Consumers are also finding it hard to give up the one fish that can survive being cooked like a steak. “A chef knows how to cook 40 kinds of fish. People do not,” says Joe Gurrera, owner of Citarella. “They might take the swordfish because of the simplicity of cooking.” Even Vice-President Gore, a crusader for biodiversity, spent Valentine’s Day at a fund-raiser tucking into a swordfish feast for low-fat-cat party donors.

Whether or not the boycott succeeds, however, a bigger problem looms in the waters of the North Atlantic: Just about every familiar species of edible fish, from tuna to tilefish, is now officially classified as “overfished.” By the end of this year, they’ll all be subject to federal conservation strategies. Fishermen up and down the coast are bracing for the disastrous impact. “The only thing that’s growing in this business are the regulations,” says Bahr.

In the meantime, they’re doing what they can to make ends meet, even if it means tilefish long-lining, which is one of the worst jobs around – endless hours and brutal winter weather. Not to mention the eels. Huge conger eels get trapped in the nets, and they’ve been known to wrap themselves around crew members’ arms. And not let go. Still, the fishermen will take what they can get. “After a while,” says one veteran fisherman, “it’s just like any job, and you get into it, start bullshitting with the other guys. It’s not so bad.”

Last Fish in the Sea