SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
April 08, 1974
Because sea creatures love debris, some of today's hot fishing spots resemble a neighborhood car dump
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April 08, 1974

Our Finny Friends Are Junkies

Because sea creatures love debris, some of today's hot fishing spots resemble a neighborhood car dump

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In 1953 James Cahill, an ex-Navy frogman, applied for a Massachusetts lobstering license. To the consternation of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, instead of using pots as New Englanders and their grandfathers and their grandfathers" grandfathers traditionally had, Cahill dived for his lobsters. Since he had spent much of his last Navy hitch detonating underwater mines off Korea and blowing up icebergs off Greenland, Cahill was accustomed to the misery of cold water. On his lobster forays he sometimes used a crude diving suit that was supposed to keep him dry but seldom did. Most often he simply wore long underwear, which was enough to prevent him from turning totally blue on a one-hour dive in 45� water.

He took lobsters from the nooks in natural rock but got a far better haul out of several dozen auto tires that he found scattered on the sea floor outside Salem Harbor. During spring and early summer, when lobsters were migrating shoreward to molt, he usually got one from every tire. Whenever he cleaned out the tires, within three days other lobsters would move in. Since the tires were obviously being used by transient lobsters, Cahill started his own chain of lobster motels, putting a few tires here and there near rock outcroppings on the bottom leading from the open ocean to Salem Harbor. After he had 100 tires planted at depths from 15 to 100 feet, he never harvested fewer than 20 lobsters a day and often brought back more than 60.

It was a profitable enterprise, but short-lived—for which Cahill can largely blame himself. The year before he began lobstering he founded New England Divers Company, which is now the largest outlet for underwater gear in the U.S. Within four years after he first hunted lobsters in his long Johns, he was supplying scuba enthusiasts with newfangled foam suits that made New England waters almost tolerable. Some of the divers in the growing legion that he outfitted put down their own tires to attract lobsters. Too many divers, alas, simply raided Cahill's original motel chain.

In 1959 a 40-year-old Florida angler named Sid Clements yearned for a good fishing hole in Biscayne Bay, the body of water that for 40 years has been dredged and filled and much abused by the sister cities of Miami and Miami Beach. At the time, Clements owned a 16-foot outboard that he could have trailered easily to better grounds in the Florida Keys, but he also had a 5-year-old son prone to seasickness. He decided to build his own fishing reef in snug waters that his son could enjoy.

Clements had occasionally fished on the seaward edge of the bay in Norris Cut where an early entrepreneur had gouged a 20-foot bottom to convert a spoil bank into a stable island. By day he had usually caught nothing there. After dark and in the first light he often caught pan-sized grunts and snappers. Clements chose the spot for his reef, reasoning that any bottom that would attract nocturnal feeders would probably support more fish if habitat were provided. Each time, before launching their boat to fish in Norris Cut, Clements and his son Dean would scrounge the shoreline for rocks, taking along any they could lift from coconut size on up. After dumping the rocks on their site, they would fish. After fishing they usually made three trips to Lummus Island, another spoil bank. On Lummus they would collect more rock and any jetsam that seemed durable enough for a reef-concrete rubble, pipes, parts of a stove, a car door, a fender, a soggy steamer trunk. In three years they dumped more than 50 tons of rock and rubble on their secret reef.

In the first year after starting the reef they caught little worth keeping. In another year they were getting pan-sized snappers and were putting back four-and five-inch groupers. In the third year they were taking snappers over a pound, and by the fourth year groupers over two pounds. When they retrieved their lines they often had bits of sponge and soft coral fouled on their hooks—proof that the reef was alive. By the end of the fifth year they were taking groupers up to eight pounds and putting back any weighing less than two. Along with grunts and snappers they took two-pound blue runners, occasional bonefish and barracuda, and Spanish mackerel in season. By the eighth year Dean Clements had outgrown his seasickness, so they forgot their homemade reef. As Sid Clements now sums up the father-and-son venture, "We spent three years at hard labor. Then we rested on our oars and collected as much profit as we needed."

In the late '50s Bob and Bill Meistrell, co-owners of Dive n' Surf Inc., an aquatics shop in Redondo Beach, Calif., found a spiny lobster in the toilet bowl of a sunken barge. Shortly thereafter a customer stopped by their place with several reject toilet bowls that his father planned to use as flowerpots. The Meistrell brothers straightway went to the same manufacturer, who let them have 25 reject bowls and 25 water closets on the promise that they would be used for a reef and not sold ashore on the secondhand market. Within a year the little toilet-bowl and water-closet reef they put down on the edge of the submarine canyon off Redondo Beach had four dozen lobsters in residence. Inspired by this, the Meistrell brothers got more water closets (they chose water closets exclusively the second time around because they were roomy enough for two lobsters each). Farther along the edge of the Redondo Canyon, in 100 feet of water, they laid down 200 water closets, arranging them in a circle of one-and two-story condominiums reminiscent of the Bauhaus architecture of the late Walter Gropius. Within a year they had about 300 lobsters living in the water closets. About once a month they harvested 10 lobsters apiece, apparently without affecting the standing population. The Meistrells recognized that their lobster condominiums—like Jim Cahill's motel chain of tires—could not stand unlimited fishing pressure. To keep other divers from finding the site, they always anchored at a distance and made their final approach underwater.

Since the water closets were ceramic—as durable as any pottery of ancient man—they should still be producing lobsters. Possibly they still are but, alackaday, not for the Meistrell brothers. Despite their efforts to keep it secret, rival divers—real crumb bums—found their site and stole the water closets—for use, no doubt, somewhere else on the bottom. Short of a cataclysmic earthquake there is no natural violence that could scatter such heavy objects any distance at a depth of 100 feet. The Meistrells made sweeping searches of the area but could not find a single water closet.

Jim Cahill, the Massachusetts lobster-man, and Sid Clements, the Miami reef builder, and the Meistrell brothers of Redondo Beach all deserve an A-plus for effort and a round of applause for their ingenuity, but none of them can honestly be rated as a pioneer. They were all merely capitalizing in a novel way on a long-accepted and neglected truth: the creatures of the sea love our junk.

There are devout people who may be rankled by the idea; nonetheless, it is a fact that God in His infinite wisdom did not provide as well as He might have for the creatures of the ocean shallows. Along continental shores inside the 20-fathom line there are miles and miles of sandy desolation and terrigenous muck. In such barrens certain arthropods and sluggish fish manage a living, and certain species of infauna can suck enough out of the water column to get by. But no barnacle in its right mind would try to make a go of it in such a place; nor would the average mussel. In the complicated food chains of the sea there are species of amphipods and isopods and polychaete worms and a host of other living trinkets that, like barnacles, need something to cling to. In the backwaters of Long Island Sound, for example, there are more small tasty crabs in the vertical links of a mooring chain than in 100 square yards of oozy bottom surrounding it. On continental shelves the world around "The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean" touted by Poet Thomas Gray are few and far between. For anxious bait-fish the average natural cave off the U.S. East Coast offers less shelter than the chain locker in the gloomy bowels of a freighter that was zapped by a U-boat in World War II. Today fish find happiness in the ovens of discarded stoves and the rotting coachwork of abandoned cars. Some fish seek out such objects for shelter and as a place to graze. Some congregate because they need solid matter on which to lay eggs. Others use man-made items as they do the discontinuities of natural rock, simply for orientation. Quite beyond these logical reasons, scientists now realize that some fish are "thigmotropic"—a fancy way of saying that they often hang around alien objects just for the hell of it.

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