Legendary charismatic mega-forager Euell Gibbons wrote a series of books about gathering wild plants and animals and living off the land. His most famous book is Stalking the Wild Asparagus (1962).
One of my favorites is the follow up, Stalking the Blue-eyed Scallop (1964), which is a field guide to all the potentially edible sea creatures of the coasts of North America. He emphasized a simple approach to fishing using basic gear and zero prejudice against the species of fish or its size (he wasn’t fishing for trophies).
His book is a gift to any of us who have pondered the creatures we encounter along the shore that aren’t on seafood restaurant menus.
It’s easy to find information anywhere about oysters, quahogs and blue crabs, but there isn’t much out there about various other shellfish and crabs.
If you’ve ever wondered “can I eat that?”, Euell Gibbons has an answer even for the most obscure critters.
Dog whelk? The answer is “not really.”
Ribbed mussel? Nope.
Those “baby” clams at the beach (Donax)? A delicacy!
Horseshoe crab? No answer on that one, actually.
What’s really interesting for us south Jerseyans is that Gibbons did a lot of his research along our coastline, especially on the Delaware Bay.
In the opening pages of his book he recounts a trip there:
“We were three couples who had rented a beach cottage on Delaware Bay for the first two weeks of September. Summer lingered that year and while our wives enjoyed swimming in the bay and sunbathing on the beach, we three men concentrated on fishing. Out in the bay and in the many nearby tidal creeks we caught dozens of fish of several species and any number of large eels. At my insistence we also went oyster tonging, gathered mussels and periwinkles from a rock jetty, and caught bushels of large blue crabs in ring nets and folding traps.”
Gibbons had a knack for reeling off enchanting lists of edibles. Here’s his menu from the Delaware Bay trip:
“We had minutes-fresh saltwater perch filleted with the skin on and fried to crispy gold; striped bass larded with bacon and stuffed with sour sorrel and rice, then baked in the cottage oven; weakies cooked like mountain trout, and tasting even better. The freshly tonged oyster became oysters Rockefeller and exotic stews flavored with leaves of bayberry. The crabs we caught by the dozen became deviled crab baked in their own shells, crab cakes, crab Louis. One night our dinner was just a mountain of crab boiled in seawater with crab boil spice and bayberry leaves, cleaned, cracked and served in the shells. We tackled the hot crab with nutpicks, dousing the meat with melted butter and beach plum jam.”
Before becoming an author of wild foraging books he first tried fiction writing. In an essay about Gibbons, John Mcphee noted that it was an editor who, after rejecting a novel he submitted, suggested he instead write a book about wild foraging.
The rejected manuscript contained captivating passages like the one above where his love of hunting and gathering (and cooking!) shined through.
Euell seemed to have no trouble finding and catching a mess of sea creatures back in the 1950’s.
Here he rubs it in some more:
“I have gathered half a canoe load of oysters without getting my feet wet, just by drifting along one of the tributaries of the Maurice River.”
I can’t imagine having that much luck myself in 2016. Although I can’t compare to Gibbons as a fisherman, my incompetence isn’t the only reason I might not do as well as him.
The Delaware Bay just isn’t as full of life as it once was.
Why is this? While a variety of factors might be at work, the predominant one is that we are still commercially exploiting wild fish and shellfish.
We did this on land once as well, but the commercial exploitation of wild mammals and birds became untenable. Their populations could not handle the pressure and they were disappearing. The practice was outlawed and was replaced with carefully regulated recreational hunting.
The ocean is much more vast than the land so it is taking us longer to approach this eventuality.
PART II: When we leave Euell Gibbons on the shores of the Delaware Bay and descend into fish population research wonkery.
In the harvest-over-time graphs above from 1988 for Delaware Bay, we can see for each species jumpy lines the zig zag up high and down low over time with an overall decreasing trend. These ups and downs are not natural population cycles. They instead reflect the cycle of overharvest, population decline, reduced fishing effort that allows for recovery, and then another cycle of overharvest when the population recovers. Boom and bust.
In each successive cycle, the high isn’t as high, and the low gets lower.
There is quite a bit of debate in the scientific literature about population cycles of fish and the influence of commercial fishing. The debate is whether fish populations are naturally stable or naturally variable. If they are naturally variable, then commercial fishing may be less culpable for dramatic population fluctuation.
For example, the current conclusion by fisheries managers regarding the current low populations of weakfish is that an increase in natural mortality from an unknown source is preventing their recovery — not fishing.
In the discussion of this unknown mortality in the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission Stock Assessment, the report notes a correlation between estimated mortality and an ocean climate cycle, the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation.
A new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences cautions against the argument that climate cycles are driving fish population cycles.
The paper points out that many analyses marginalize “nonclimatic factors, including fishing pressure” which “was common in a review of over 250 case studies involving climate change effects on the temporal dynamics of marine populations.”
The authors analyze a vast North Atlantic cod data set and find that commercial fishing pressure can cause “synchronous changes in stock abundance at spatial and temporal scales comparable to those attributed to climate forcing.”
They conclude that their findings mean that fish population cycles can no longer be written off as natural cycles. Commercial fishing is accountable for these cycles.
Where does this information leave me, a novice wild forager plying the shores of the Delaware Bay, powerless to influence industries and agencies responsible for my chances of fishing success?
The only thing in my power is to get better at catching what is there. That’s what Euell Gibbons would do.