Fishing Around With Kerry Heffernan

There are few better ways to spend a sunny afternoon than with a rod in one hand and a beer in the other. But as cool a pastime and sport as hobby fishing is, it hardly jibes with current environmental sensibilities. After all, pulling a fish out of its natural element is hardly the way to maintain the biodiversity of our rivers and oceans. So how to reconcile a love of fishing with your ecological conscience? We ask Kerry Heffernan, executive chef of South Gate Restaurant in New York City and an avid fisherman, to share his thoughts on fishing and sustainable seafood.

What first got you into fishing?

Growing up in Connecticut, fishing was always nearby. After moving to New York City, Tom Colicchio made me a devotee of fly fishing.

Where and what do you like to fish?

Wherever and whenever I can. My favorite form is "sight fishing" in clear shallow water for Bonefish, Permit, and Tarpon in southern climates, or striped bass around the east end of Long Island.

What's a typical fishing trip for you?

I love those May and June days when we leave the dock at 8 a.m. and sight fish around Sag Harbor and East Hampton. We motor to a spot and push a pole around in 18"-24" of clear water to see the fish moving slowly towards us. We cast a fly in front of it, move it in an enticing way, watch the fish eat the fly, set the hook, watch the fish run 100 yards or so, and bring it back in for a picture and healthy release. We have a nice lunch around noon, do more of the same until around 4 p.m., and go back to the dock behind my house.

What's the coolest fish you've ever caught?

Permit! [An impressive game fish of the Western Atlantic Ocean]

Do you cook the fish that you catch?

Sometimes, depending on season and species, but I release 90% of what I catch.

Does being an environmentally responsible fisherman affect the choice of seafood you serve in your restaurant?

Yes, I have not served swordfish, Chilean sea bass, or Red Fish for many years. I am lobbying for protection of the striped bass as a "game fish" like marlin.

But isn't the Department of Environmental Conservation tightly managing Striped Bass already?

The Department of Environmental Conservation, bless their heart, is woefully understaffed and subject to the political will of the well-funded commercial fisheries lobby. The recreational fisherman and charter boat captain target the biggest (hence female and "breeder") and routinely kill two of them per customer on a six-person boat every day between June and November. Adding to that, the catch deemed appropriate for commercial sales is about twice what any reasonable science would recommend. Now, add to that the additional poaching... And that is just New York State.

In the early 2000s, a campaign among conservation groups urged chefs to stop serving swordfish. Do you think a similar campaign would work for, say, bluefin tuna or striped bass?

Well, the bluefin is certainly a volatile political issue that has had much attention. Simply put, there is way too much money involved—most of it from Japan—so a US ban would need to be a coordinated effort. The striped bass issue is equally compelling, as it is a coastal and non-pelagic fish; we have much more ability to impact its survival at a reasonable biomass.

Have you caught any fish you wish you hadn't?

Unfortunately, earlier in my career, I used treble hooks or methods where there is a possibility of injuring the fish beyond its ability to survive.

What are some of the things amateur fisherman can do to keep seafood sustainable?

Catch and release with single hooks, learn what you can from local fishermen and conservation groups. There is plenty of good information out there, on line, as far as sustainable seafood choices, but look at more than one source as they are not all in 100% agreement.

Can hobby fishing and conservation go together? Yea or nay, let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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