Last spring, when a local angler wanted to catch Atlantic mackerel in Vineyard waters he had to get in a boat and motor more than a mile off Gay Head. This week there is no need for the boat. For the first time in many years anglers are jigging for mackerel off Memorial Wharf in Edgartown and they are getting quite a few; some have caught enough for a holiday dinner. Plus, they are catching plenty of Atlantic herring.
Atlantic mackerel, one of the ocean’s mystery pelagic fish, were once prolific in Vineyard waters and barrels were shipped to the mainland to market a half a century ago; so their appearance isn’t so out of the ordinary. But many thought those days were gone forever. Not so; the fish are swimming in abundance inside the Chappaquiddick ferry channel.
Those who are catching them are using a light tackle fishing rod. They are also wearing a heavy winter coat, wool hat and scarf.
John Potter of Oak Bluffs began fishing for mackerel about two weeks ago. The other day he brought his two sons, Max (9) and Zak (4), down to the dock. The fishing was intense and both boys had a ball. Mr. Potter is the captain of the party fishing boat Skipper, which fishes out of Oak Bluffs.
The best fishing is quite specific to one hour in the day, around sunset, Mr. Potter said. “It usually starts at 4 p.m. and runs until we are too cold.”
For those who like pickled herring, there is plenty of Atlantic herring too.
This is not river herring or alewives, which are now protected. This is deep water herring that looks similar to mackerel in that they are thin and narrow fish. Alewives are pudgy and short by comparison. While there is an ongoing moratorium on the catching of alewives in most southeastern states because of a severe decline in local waters, there are no recreational fishing limits for Atlantic herring and mackerel. The state doesn’t list size limits, season or catch limits because they aren’t usually pursued by recreational anglers to the degree that other popular fish are sought.
Atlantic herring also go by the name of sea herring and sardines. Distinguishably different, mackerel have a squiggly black mark on their backs. The difference in taste is quite different. Mackerel are often eaten baked, grilled and broiled. Herring, a more oily fish, are often pickled. They are first soaked in brine, then seasoned in a vinegar or wine pickling mix.
To the anglers earlier this week both mackerel and Atlantic herring appeared just below the surface as shiny glittering silver coins.
In a phone conversation Hollis Smith, 62, of Aquinnah said it has been a long time since he had heard of anyone on the Vineyard catching a mackerel so close to shore. He recalled early in the 1970s reeling in mackerel at Menemsha. “I’d run down to the West Jetty, get a half bushel of mackerel, bring them home. I’d put them in brine, prep them for smoking. I’d smoke them and give them away with a bottle of wine as Christmas gifts.
“My grandfather, Robert Flanders, had traps up and down the north shore,” he continued. “He had a boat called Bathtub. He would wade around in fish, knee deep and put the fish in the boat. There was mackerel, pollock and bluefish. You name it. If he caught ’em, we ate ’em.”
In the fall of 1993, the Vineyard Gazette reported an isolated incident where fishermen caught mackerel from the Menemsha jetty.
Last summer, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a climate-change report citing that Atlantic mackerel had shifted their residence east and north of Vineyard waters due to warming trends. The report was based on looking at survey data going back decades and drawing correlations between water temperature where fish were found.
The report, considered to be the first in a wave of research on changing seawater temperatures due to global warming, was published online in the American Fisheries Society journal, Marine and Coastal Fisheries: Dynamics, Management and Ecosystem Science.
Jon Deroba, a research biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Woods Hole, said this week he is intrigued by the news out of Edgartown and could offer no clear explanation. Atlantic herring are considered to be a restored fish in these waters, though they and mackerel were severely overfished in the 1970s. Mackerel were thought to be restored, but within the last few years, their abundance is more questionable than earlier thought, he said.
Last winter large midwater trawlers and factory fishing boats that fished south of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Block Island reported they had a hard time finding Atlantic mackerel. Mr. Deroba said fisheries scientists have stepped up their efforts to try and get a better understanding on the mackerel population and where it resides based on changes in catch reports and the new climate studies.
When it comes to trying to assess the health of the mackerel stocks, Mr. Deroba said, “Maybe we are not looking in the right places.” He said record numbers of Atlantic mackerel were recently observed up in the waters off Greenland.
“Think of it as a Christmas present, they could disappear tomorrow,” said Mike Armstrong, a state division of marine fisheries biologist.