Bruce Freeman, a Federal fisheries biologist who is preparing the first major study on tilefish, says: "This is a virgin fishery, and there aren't supposed to be any of those left. It's unique in this day and age, and it's close to civilization. If we start keeping data now we can see what fishing pressure does to a population. It will be a unique exercise in science."
It was 1969 when the first party-boat catches of tilefish were brought ashore at Atlantic City, N.J. Captain Andy Applegate had been fishing for cod, and he discovered very rough bottom 80 miles east of port in 450 feet of water. "We dropped our lines," he says, "and there they were—tilefish, 20 pounders." On that first trip 86 fish were caught, and now Applegate makes six to 10 tilefish trips a year. His boat is 65 feet long and can travel at 17 knots, a speed that is necessary to cover the distances involved.
All tilefish are caught along the edges of an underwater cleft called the Hudson Canyon, where the river once cut its way through what was then the shoreline to the sea. The Atlantic was as much as 600 feet lower then, and what is now the continental shelf was dry land. But that was 20,000 years ago or more, and there were probably no tilefish.
Fifty pounds, or just above, appears to be the maximum size for tilefish, and a fish of about 48 pounds was the big winner on the Tampa IV that day. More than 200 tilefish were taken aboard, and everyone was ashore by 9 p.m.
"Too bad they're so deep," said Victor Becker, the Tampa IV's captain. "If they ever came in shallow water they'd fight, and you'd never land them."
Yes, too bad. Not catching them would be a lot more sensible than catching them is now.
A one-pound lobster is going for $8.95 at King of the Sea this week, a tilefish filet for $5.50. Tilefish does not taste like lobster. It does not taste like much of anything. "It's a novelty," says the restaurant's buyer.