More than 60 years of "fishin' in the bay"
"I still go fishing in the bay every day," said former Jamestown Fire Chief Joe Tiexiera. "That's why I call my boat Chief I, from my days as the fire chief. Fishing in the bay isn't what it used to be, not by a long shot. I think the wildlife and fisheries people at the DEM (state Department of Environmental Management) have done a few good things to bring back the striper population because fishing has improved in the last several years. But it's going to be awhile before it gets back to normal, if it ever does," he added. The first thing they have to do is bring back the baitfish. There are no menhaden in the bay any more. Whenever I catch a striper, I check its stomach to see what its been eating. Lately, I've found baby lobsters. They only eat those if there aren't any pogy, the common name for menhaden," he said.
Tiexiera has been fishing for striped bass and bluefish in Narragansett Bay for over 60 years. He's lived in Jamestown all his life. His friend Pede Manchester has lived on the island since he was a boy, and has fished the bay since 1947.
"I agree with Joe," Manchester said. The striper population has depleted over the years. But like he said, it's not all from over fishing. We're plug fishermen. We don't use live bait. But when the forage or baitfish as they are commonly called are gone, it drives the stripers and bigger fish to deeper water, where they can feed. And they're doing just that. They're going to deeper water, " he added.
"I've seen boats come in from Maine, and a few boats from the bay area use spotter planes to find the menhaden," Tiexiera continued. "They cleaned them out. assume they were sold in other areas where baitfish are scarce. The professional fishermen use them for their traps. They're also sold to make fertilizer. The same thing happened to the eels. Some of the guys that liked to use live bait used to buy eels for five to ten cents apiece because they were so plentiful. Of course, that was 20 years ago. Now, they're $1.75 apiece if you can find anyone who has them. The price shouldn't have increased that much," he said.
"They (striped bass) don't come up to the top in schools like they used to. Sometimes the top water plugs we use don't work any more because the fish are feeding on those baby lobsters on the bottom. That's got to hurt the lobster industry too," Tiexiera noted.
"I like the 20-inch rule for the stripers. It keeps people from taking the small fish. But I think the rule should allow stripers between 20 and 30 inches to be caught. They're the best eating. Put the big ones over 30 inches back so they can breed. The big fish will breed better and we'll have more and bigger fish in the future," he said.
Both Tiexiera and Manchester talked about catching giant bluefin tuna off Whale Rock and Castle Hill when they were younger. This year, they didn't even see a bonito, the men said. They also talked about the gill-netters who reduced the population of blackfish, locally known as tautog. "I suppose the gill netters and trappers might have overfished the area some," Tiexiera said, but it certainly wasn't the sport fishermen. For the most part, we try to fish responsibly. We catch two or three fish in one area and call it a day, or move on to a different area so we don't clean out a good spot.
Greg Zeek, proprietor of Zeek's Creek Bait & Tackle, also a popular seafood store, at the Great Creek on North Main Road, has been fishing the bay for over 40 years, and has been an island resident most of his life.
"My dad taught me how to catch fish when I was a little kid. When we moved to Jamestown, I met Joe Tiexiera and Pede Manchester. I guess I've known them since I was a teenager," Zeek said. "They taught me how to fish in the bay and showed me all the hot spots. Joe used to take me out on his boat. They got me so hooked on fishing that I didn't want to do anything else. My parents made me go to college, so I went to the University of Rhode Island and studied at the School of Commercial Fisheries. I graduated in 1977 and immediately got a commercial license. In those days we got multi-class licenses that allowed us to fish for whatever we wanted. We practiced diversity. I was primarily a lobster fisherman, but lobsters are cyclic. So when lobsters were down, I'd fish for something else and let them replenish naturally," Zeek said.
"I remember the days Joe is talking about," Zeek continued. Back then, the bay was an open fishery with no restrictions. Now scientists who sit behind desks in Washington control fishing and regulate limits that they figure out by studying fish counts. They've never even been to Narragansett Bay. The DEM is supposed to manage all of the environment,
not just take fish counts. If they did that, they'd know that the lack of forage fish - alewives, menhaden, and silversides - is heavily influenced by the influx and prolific breeding of cormorants, a non-native bird species that feeds on the baitfish. The cormorants also feed heavily on winter flounder and fluke. That's why we have a shortage now. (The scientists) would also know that the baby eels have been cleaned out and ended up on dinner plates in foreign countries, and they'd regulate that. If the bay is ever going to come back to a good balance of fish, fowl, and shellfish, the DEM has to come to the area, talk to the local fishermen, and allow them to show them what is really going on in the bay. Then take steps to do something about it," Zeek said. "Once nature gets out of balance, it isn't easy to get it back to where it can regulate itself. I don't have the answers. I wish I did, but it sure isn't going to be accomplished if the people regulating the bay don't co-operate with the people who live here," he added.