A Fish That Built A Port

photograph and text by John Lee

Editor’s note: Couldn’t help but post this great piece by John Lee. Through the lens of a specific fish and a specific port in Rhode Island he tells a story about the complexities and realities of the fishing industry up and down the East Coast.

A butterfish on deck in a tote with ice, slushed down in sea water—it’s almost heaven.

White flesh full of fat, the good sea fat, not the potato chip kind. They’ve got beautiful silver bodies, flattened like a frisbee, tiny scales. And the fish are nearly spineless, except for a micro-spine at the base of the anal fin that can—if the spine gets your hand just right—send you screaming across the deck, tears in your eyes.

The Japanese spent large sums of money in the 1980s importing these fish from the East Coast. Like many things Japanese, they turned the butterfish into art. Tradition, discipline, repetition. Great pride was taken in cutting the butterfish. Each fish was butterfly cut—which lays the fish open top to bottom, like you would when preparing to stuff a shrimp. The fish were then salted and dried on wooden racks. After drying, the fish were grilled. The Japanese ate them for breakfast, daily, like we eat eggs.

A simple food item, with no embellishments. Yet Japanese fish buyers in the two butterfish hubs—the cities of Numazu and Oarai—were very specific with U.S. suppliers as to what they wanted: fish high in fat with no food in the stomachs. That meant the timing of the harvest was absolutely important. They wanted the fish caught during or at the end of the fall migration—when the fish had stopped eating, when the fish was full of winter fat.

The bulk of the harvest happened between Martha’s Vineyard and New Jersey; from Hydrographer Canyon to Baltimore Canyon, out on the edge of the shelf, in 60, 70, 80 fathoms of water. The biggest butterfish hauls happened at night. 70,000-pound trips were common. Boats were paid from 50 cents to $2 a pound—high prices for the 1980s.

Butterfish are schooling fish, often in great densities. In the spring, many come inshore to spawn—Rhode Island Sound, Vineyard Sound, the south-side of Long Island—but others stay offshore and spawn in deeper water. The young fish grow very quickly, like squid or cobia, often hitting five inches, nose-to-tail, by the end of their first summer, and reaching sexual maturity by their second spring.

The Japanese buyers wanted large butterfish, fish over six inches. To grade them, they would cut open their bellies and look for food—too much food in the stomach would drive down the price.

The Japanese also looked for a certain texture, a certain feeling. The best fish were the softest to touch. Maybe that’s where the butterfish’s name originated from; or maybe the name came from the sweet smell the fish have when freshly caught. Any fisherman who has caught big tows of them will fondly recall the smell they have—not fishy at all—and the brightness of their bodies lit up, a mass of silver under the decklights.

But when a butterfish has no fat it’s rock hard. I find all this very interesting: A perfect Japanese butterfish is one that has been feeding all summer long, putting on stores of fat for the wintertime, then migrates offshore into deeper water, stops feeding, and gets caught.

The amount of thinking that goes into a little fish. The perfection of a market.

The peak butterfish run was from October into January. In Point Judith, RI, fishermen made scores of money. Wealth was generated, both in the port and in the neighboring towns; in the local schools, at the real estate agencies, at the car dealerships.

Point Judith was built on butterfish—nearly all the infrastructure, from fish houses to the boats. Then, poof, up like smoke—the Japanese stock market crashed in 1990. Literally, in an instant, the run was over, the market gone to dust.

Today, if you walk the docks in Point Judith you see the same boats that launched their histories on butterfish. The boats are now 35 years old—many in terrible shape, rust down their sides, corrosion throughout the rigging. Point Judith now looks like a mining town after the gold has left.

Maybe the Japanese crash was a good thing—the butterfish stocks took a pounding. The money came at a cost. And for whatever reason, from the late-90s untill now, the butterfish resource hasn’t grown. Could’ve been a change in oceanography—many fish stocks are shifting north and east; could’ve been a bycatch problem in the rapidly expanding squid fleets; maybe the butterfish prefers water beyond 200 fathoms.

Now, the fish are back in high abundance. Maybe not record abundance, but growing, steadily growing.

Point Judith could use a few more pounds of fish to sell. But getting a directed fishery back isn’t simple. It involves an incredible amount of fishery data, plus policy hoops that go on like a Kansas landscape. You have to convince an awful lot of people that what you think is true—the butterfish are back, schools as large as wheat fields. But you need data, numbers to prove it. No one gives a damn about “I saw a school a mile long. The biggest I’ve ever seen.” Show me the numbers. That’s the rub of it.

Another tricky maneuver is getting a lost market back. Taste buds change, cultures find substitutes. The Japanese haven’t stopped eating breakfast, waiting for a change in U.S. fishery policy. No, they’ve replaced butterfish with a horse mackerel. The fish is caught in the eastern Atlantic. The Japanese call it saba.

I feel a resurgence for butterfish, I really do. Maybe Americans will change their ways and start eating this fish. I’m hearing steady dockside prices of around a dollar a pound. Which is good, except you can’t land enough. Higher quotas are needed and I think they’re coming. It’ll just take time, and we may never see what happened in the 1980s. That fishery was wide open—wealth was made because of no limits. You made money because you fished harder than the next guy, you fished through gales, put freezers on your boats, invested and reinvested capital.

Things for butterfish are changing as of late—the Mid-Atlantic Council is putting forth a recommendation to increase the butterfish quota, saying the stock is in good shape. This has many fishermen in R.I. and N.J. excited. If the recommendation is accepted by the National Marine Fisheries Service, then a butterfish fishery might once again grace our ports. I, for one, look forward to my first butterfish breakfast. I could use a good egg substitute. I’ll let you know when I try it.

This article first appeared on March 26, 2012 on thedentedbucket.com. John Lee has been a Rhode Island commercial fisherman since 1989. Lately—since his mid-30s—he has been writing more than fishing, publishing stories and articles for Edible Rhody, National Fisherman, SavingSeafood and others. He also runs and manages a blog called the Dented Bucket.