If there's one thing my mother never liked, it was shenanigans. And apparently, there's a whole lot of shenanigans going on when it comes to the tautog (or 'tog,' or 'blackfish') fishery.
Everybody seems to enjoy the tasty, white meat of blackfish, and in some eastern cultures, tradition requires the fish to be kept alive until the moment it's turned into dinner. That's fine, except for the fact that the proliferation of illegal live fish markets has been increasing to the point where law enforcement is concerned about poaching activities affecting the health of the species.
Few reporters can handle sitting through a meeting of the state Marine Fisheries Council, but I've always enjoyed watching the state's angling bureaucracy at work. So whatever publication I've worked for over the years has usually sent me to cover the meetings. Last year, during the portion of one such meeting where law enforcement activities were discussed, Conservation Officer Sgt. Mark Chicketano told the council about a man who had been nabbed running illegal tog from a jetty to a parked vehicle that contained a live fish tank. While the resulting headline, “Tog in My Pants,” was quite memorable, the problem has proven to be quite serious.
Personally, I've seen folks catching blackfish that I knew appeared grossly undersized or out of season. I've seen the “runners” patrolling the jetty, hoping to score a few bucks by transporting fish from the rocks to a waiting vehicle. And I've also witnessed men being hauled away in cuffs from the parking lot of Barnegat Lighthouse State Park by undercover officers who were at the right place to catch some tog poachers in the act.
As citizens, we can't take up arms, torches and pitchforks and start hunting for tog poachers, but we can do our part to express our views on the problem. Luckily, Uncle Sam will give us a forum to accomplish that next week, right here in Ocean County.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will host a public hearing on measures to address the issue of live fish markets and their effect on the tautog population. According to a news release from the ASMFC, those measures being developed include requiring states to implement additional restrictions on fishing, a reduction of the fishing mortality target for tautog, a requirement that state regulations prohibit possession in excess of existing bag and possession limits, and recommendations for tautog management in federal waters, as well as a requirement that live tautog be properly marked.
It's a lot to digest. But for those who'd like to learn more about the problem, and be involved in a discussion of potential solutions, the aforementioned meeting is set to be held this Tuesday, Feb. 15, at 7 p.m. at the Ocean County Administration Building, Room 119, Toms River.
Let's figure out to put a stop to those shenanigans.