SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
March 09, 1964
On a meager budget, biologists at Sandy Hook, N.J. have made some fascinating discoveries off a familiar shore
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March 09, 1964

A New Look Into The Sea

On a meager budget, biologists at Sandy Hook, N.J. have made some fascinating discoveries off a familiar shore

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The sea—compelling, wild and mysterious—is our last frontier. Man is of the sea. The salt-washed blood in his veins and the lime in his bones bespeak his oceanic heritage. And the sea is ever beckoning him, promising rebirth, a freedom from the cares of terrestial life.

No one seeks this freedom more than the angler. Casting into white-tipped surf or dropping a line from a rolling party boat, the angler is at peace with himself. Each year the sea becomes more attractive to American fishermen. The statistics are overwhelmingly impressive. In 1946 an estimated three million Americans fished in the sea for sport. Today, there are more than seven million saltwater anglers. They catch upward of 1.5 billion pounds of food fish annually, as much as commercial fishermen take, and they spend $700 million a year on bait, equipment, accommodations and charter boats, to the enrichment of countless communities on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts. In Florida alone, saltwater angling has an economic value equal to that of the citrus and cattle industries combined.

Superficially, all would seem serene. Millions of Americans are catching millions of fish and spending millions of dollars in the process. But beneath this surface serenity there are problems, critical problems, which endanger the sport. For one, no one knows very much about the sea. Biologists, for instance, do not know the complete life history of a single marine game fish. No one really has any idea at all as to what effect heavy angling will have on species of fish that have not been hitherto sought. Contrary to myth, the sea does not possess inexhaustible resources of fish. The Pacific sardine, which once constituted the largest of all American fisheries, producing more than half a million tons annually, has virtually vanished from the California coast as a result of overfishing. In Oregon, Washington and Alaska the Chinook salmon is being threatened by industrial construction in its spawning rivers. On the Atlantic coast the weakfish, which was the most popular game fish off Long Island until the '50s, is all but gone from that area, and the same is true of the yellowtail flounder, which used to abound off southern New England.

For the most part, marine biological research has gone largely unsupported. A stock joke among marine biologists has it that they have had to specialize in bays and inlets because they only have enough money to go in water up to the knees. Sporadically there is a whoop and a holler when a species begins to vanish and a crash program is suddenly started to study the disappearance. But inasmuch as the scientists sent out on the chase have no previous data or studies to go on, their efforts are often fruitless. Even so, they are then expected to make recommendations to guard against future calamity. Generally, marine fishery laws and regulations are a cruel hoax. The states have jurisdiction over fish in their waters, even though the fish may be only the briefest of visitors—and the protective laws vary considerably from state to state.

In addition to all this confusion, there are the problems brought about by burgeoning humanity. For along with the great increase in angling there has been a great increase in population along the coasts, particularly on the Atlantic seaboard, where a megalopolis, or super-city, is forming between Boston and Washington. Atlantic coastal waters, especially those skirting the larger cities, are menaced by swelling pollution.

In an attempt to establish some kind of control and to improve fishing, several conservation groups began agitating in the early '50s for Congress to start a national marine game-fish research program. Eventually, backing came from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, a part of the Department of the Interior, and in 1960 Congress finally agreed. Dr. Lionel A. Walford, formerly chief of the Branch of Fishery Biology in the Fish & Wildlife Service, was appointed director and took over an old three-story brick Army hospital at Fort Hancock on Sandy Hook, N.J. as a laboratory.

By any standard, Walford, who is in his mid-50s, is a remarkable man. A renowned biologist, he has all the precision of a scientist and all the passion of a poet. A brooding six-footer with deep brown eyes, he toyed as a youngster in San Francisco with the idea of becoming an actor, and the most raging arguments of his youth were with his father on how Hamlet should be played. One of his books, Living Resources of the Sea, published in 1958 under the sponsorship of the Conservation Foundation, is a classic of modern biology. It is perhaps the best exposition in print of the problems of the oceanic wilderness, and it is striking not so much for what the author discloses about life in the sea as for his revelation of how much is unknown.

When Congress authorized the laboratory, it stipulated that the annual budget was not to exceed $2.7 million a year, but the most that Sandy Hook has ever received has been a relatively meager $167,-000. Even so, Walford has managed to assemble a first-rate staff of eight young biologists and technicians (the average age is only 28), and by dint of skimping here and saving there the laboratory has been able to turn out some excellent work. The staff lacked a research boat the first year, but Walford subsequently was able to get his hands on an Air Force boat, which he christened Challenger, after the pioneering British research vessel of the 1870s, and converted into a rough-and-ready seagoing laboratory.

One of the first projects that Walford assigned was a survey of saltwater angling, to be conducted by John Clark, the assistant director. Clark started the survey early enough so that 1960 census takers could take a representative sample of the population, and by the time he had finished adding up the results and checking them with other federal and state agencies and private citizens interested in fishing he had amassed a number of pertinent and revealing statistics. Briefly, the survey disclosed that there were then 6.2 million saltwater anglers in the country and their ranks were increasing at the rate of 400,000 a year. (Walford figures that there will be 15 million anglers by 1980, and 30 million by the year 2000.) More than half the angling was done along the Atlantic coast, from Maine to the Florida Keys. The majority of anglers fished close to shore rather than at sea, and they took anything that bit. All told, they took 200 to 300 species of fish. The biggest bag, on the Atlantic coast anyway, was flounders, of which anglers had a total catch of 53 million pounds. Bluefish were second with 50.6 million pounds, jacks third with 41.2, red drum fourth with 38.6, striped bass fifth with 37.5, porgies (scup) sixth with 36.6, sharks seventh with 36.2, groupers eighth with 34.3, cod ninth with 30.9 and black drum 10th with 30. Significantly, anglers caught far more of some species than did commercial fishermen. They caught, for example, all the jacks, 99.5% of the red drum, 94.9% of the bluefish and 81.3% of the striped bass.

Last year Walford began studying the distribution of 14 species offish on the continental shelf ranging from Maine to Texas. He expects to complete his study by June of 1965, and when it is finished he will have surveyed the 5,000-mile-long coast county by county. The Pacific coast is also being studied at the marine game-fish laboratory in Tiburon, Calif. The Tiburon lab, which has a smaller staff than that at Sandy Hook, was set up in 1962 by Walford and is now under the direction of Gerald Talbot.

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