Anthony DiLernia is the Captain of Rocket Charters in New York Skyports Marina. He is Professor of Marine Technology with The City University of New York at Kingsborough Community College and a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council representing New York.


What can you say about technology in fishing these days?

Twenty, twenty-five years ago, as a young deckhand, I would stand up on the roof of a boat I worked on, use a pair of binoculars and try to just line up a couple of buildings up on the beach, and we’d maneuver the boat and get close to an obstruction on the sea floor and we had the most primitive of echo-sounders. If there was a flash of light on this echo-sounder we knew we were near the obstruction on the sea floor. And those obstructions served as fish havens. So we were using binoculars to try to line up things up on the beach, and if you could find that, get close to it, anchor the boat and catch fish.

Today, I’ve got a loran-sea — and that’s an old one by today’s standards; today global positioning systems have replaced the loran-sea for positioning — I’ve got a color-video echo-sound that probes the sea floor, that looks right down to the bottom, it’s no longer a flash of light that I have to depend on and interpret. Now I can look at it and study the picture and I can say, well, I think those are blue fish or those are scup, and if you spend enough time looking at one you can learn to read it and you can find a spot on the sea floor that’s no more than 20 or 30 feet wide, probe it with an echo-sounder, see how many fish are there, then go catch them.

There used to be skill associated in steaming off shore at times and using a stopwatch and steering a course to get close to fish havens. Now with today’s electronics-based technology, you push a button and go there, the auto-pilot will steer the boat there.

The more technology we apply to our fishing the greater is our fishing power. subtle technological increases — aboard those vessels, each year increases the fishing power of that fleet. You don’t have to necessarily measure fishing power in number of boats or even size of boats because a 45-foot boat today has as much fishing power, in certain respects, as a boat of 70 or 80 feet of years ago. A 45-footer still cannot withstand the weather of a 70- or 80-footer, but it still has fishing power that never existed before.

So when you continuously apply an increasing technology, increasing fishing power, and we’re killing fish, killing power — we’re not gonna call it killing power, but that’s what it is — increasing killing power on a static type of a resource, eventually you drive it down.

And there’s nothing wrong with that technology; that technology makes our boats safer, more comfortable, more livable; that technology is wonderful — but you cannot use that ever-increasing technology, and say ‘oh, I want to fish by the old rules’ because if you want to fish by the old rules, you have to fish the old way. If you’re gonna use the new technology and the new benefits that science has given us, then you have to use that same science to help determine how much you can and cannot take out. But you can’t have it both ways.

You spoke about the fact that you had the ability to get to places you didn’t have before?

We need t speak about a couple of things. One of the changes that has occurred over the past 30 years, particularly for the East Coast stocks, is during the winter, many of those critters that we would target would swim far off shore to the edge the continental shelf, 80 to 100 miles off shore, and it was winter over there and they would stay there. And they were safe because our ability to go that far was limited.

But today, with our new technology we can create better boats, more efficient boats, safer boats, and where fish used to go at one time go to get a respite during the winter, now when they go there they’re more vulnerable to exploitation. I can use that echo-sounder to look down and find them. Whereas in the past they would remain unmolested offshore all winter, now we actively pursue them during the winter. We now have the ability to get there, to fish deeper than we’ve ever fished before.

Well, you can’t do that and then expect to have your near-shore fishermen that have fished traditionally near shore to do their thing because those near-shore fishermen are dependent upon those critters swimming back to the beach each spring so that they could go after them. Can’t kill a fish twice.

Man has spent more time on the surface of the moon than man has spent really on the bottom of our deep oceans. Now we’re developing the technology to go there and critters that have never EVER interacted with people are going to experience that. We have to realize that that’s going to occur and we have to control that.

Critters living at 10,000 feet, we always say, we always say it’s a featureless plain, there’s nothing living down there. Until we go down to a deep ocean thermal vent, turn on the lights and realize that there’s an entire biological community that existed at the depths of the ocean which scientists originally told us life could never exist there.

There’s nothing wrong with having this technology available. But what happens is you can’t have that technology on so many boats being applied on the resource. One boat that has so much technology on it that it has tremendous killing power. If you choose to do that we must recognize that our traditional fishermen, our inshore fishermen, can no longer coexist with that.

And we still have the pioneer spirit, the outdoor spirit, in many of our commercial fishermen, people would turn to that because perhaps functioning on shore was not within their own personal psyche.

And then now the same fellows that used to be able to do that find that they have to come to shore more often, to interact with the regulators and the managers and the advocates and everyone else, and it becomes difficult at times. I’ve sat in a lot of fishing management council meetings. I’ve said it before I’ll say it again — at times it’s a bit dehumanizing for a commercial fisherman, or a sports fisherman, someone who’s relied on their ability to produce fish, to catch fish, to survive offshore — who’s survived hurricanes, fog, bad weather, bad fishing, mechanical failures — all of that and then to come before a fishing management council almost with a hat in hand and say, please let me continue doing what I’m doing; it’s-it’s tough for a guy to do that and it-it’s a bit dehumanizing.

But what’s happened is we have to find a way, as fishery management councilors, be able to recognize that and to deal with those men as well as we could. I’m not sure we do it as well as we could.

Striped bass is an example of what can be done.

I say men have problems with management at times and they have difficulties reacting to it. Management, though, has its success stories: striped bass. I fish now in New York Harbor, under the Brooklyn Bridge, next to the Statue of Liberty, in the East River, for striped bass. I made a decision. I could’ve stayed in the ocean, I could’ve continued to target stocks that appeared to me to become continuously decreasing, and fight with managers and everything else for a piece of the pie that was getting smaller and smaller because of all the fishing, or I could’ve redefined my business and what I did and focus the business on a stock that was recovering, and that’s what I’ve done with striped bass.

When people ask me where I dock and I tell them East 23rd Street and FDR Drive in Manhattan they shake their head; they say, ‘Huh?’ they don’t understand that in the East River, in New York Harbor, you can catch striped bass that are 20, 30 pounds, maybe even more. My best night last year, three guys had 75 fish in 2-1/2 hours. Striped bass. I have sportsmen who come down after work — they come down, they leave their offices at five o’clock, they hop in a cab, come down to the boat, change out of their suit into jeans and a T-shirt and hop on the boat, and within ten minutes they could be catching fish. Bass is recovered.

Now, that’s not without a price. When I first started to fish for striped bass it was over thirty years ago, and the regulations were a 16-inch minimum size and an unlimited possession of ‘em. So 16 years old I would go out and catch striped bass, 20 or 30 16-inch striped bass a night, and sell ‘em to the restaurants. And I made money doing that. Today, the possession limit is one fish per person, a minimum of 28 inches.

Someone had said, okay, striped bass are the shining example of a restored fishery, but the reason that was able to happen because it was never that big of a commercial fishery, it was mostly a recreational fishery.

With striped bass, there’s definitely a recovery, but we have paid our dues. Recreational fishermen have gone from unlimited number of fish at 16-inches a piece to one fish per person at 28 inches. The commercial fishing industry that was, in a sense unregulated targeting striped bass, has had very severe regulations placed on them. There were some representatives of the commercial fishing industry that will say that the striped bass, although they have been returned to the recreational community, have not been fully returned to the commercial community. And you’ll have to study the numbers to see if whether that’s so or not.

One of the things you have to discipline yourself is as you see a recovery, is not to want to jump in and take every fish that’s recovered. At the same time as you’re experiencing a recovery, I personally think some of the target levels that we’re shooting for to recover I think are a little too high. I’m not sure that we can achieve some of those levels, some of those goals. And so what happens is you end up killing fish and not landing them because you’re not permitted to land them due to quotas that are in place or whatever.