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Original Issue

Yanking tile off the ocean floor


And now, for the first time in New York City—tilefish. Excerpt from a radio commercial for King of the Sea Restaurant

The tilefish is a strong, brightly colored species that grows to 50 pounds or more. It is reported to taste like lobster, and it is found on the edges of the continental shelf, 80 to 100 miles from land. Very few men have ever even seen one, but recently it has become the object of limited and occasionally agonizing scrutiny.

Special Tilefishing Trip
April 20 & May 25. 10 p.m.

This was how it must have looked in the slave galleys at night. The men were mumbling among themselves. Many sprawled on benches, nodding, rolling, heads and elbows banging with the pitch and yaw. In the bow above, the crew and captain squinted over charts or curled in corners. No one was lulled into deep sleep by the heaving sea or the drone of the engines.

The boat was the 115-foot Tampa IV, out of Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay. On deck, along the windward rail, 62 men stood rib to rib, fishing rods at the ready, and when a whistle blew 200 pounds of lead went overboard. No less than two pounds per line would do, with the boat drifting and with the tilefish 450 feet down on the bottom. Five minutes passed, the baits hit bottom and rods bent double all along the rail.

It is a waiting game, fishing for tilefish, and a weighty one, but that is all. The tilefish has been called "the toughest fighting bottom fish that swims," mostly by fishing boat captains, and that kind of talk may be good business, but on this day the best fights were between tilefishermen, some of the world's most experienced. Each had barely two feet to work in, and the patterns their lines wove around each other were marvels of geometry.

Aside from the arguments, there was little activity but work. Raising a 25-pounder through 450 feet of water meant up to half an hour of muscle stretching, but no reels "screamed," as the Zane Grey types put it. Pounds of lead held the tilefish down, 40-pound-test lines pulled them up and the wire some used was just more weight. The tilefish never had a chance. As they are yanked from the depths their air bladders often balloon from their mouths and the fish bob helplessly on the surface, like giant spotted corks.

The person who named the species remains anonymous, and he deserves to. A tilefish is not orange, like a Spanish roof, or hard and shiny, like a bathroom floor. It is blue and yellow and silver, like a Peter Max hippie. The blue is rich and vivid, and it tinges the tail and anal fin. The body has a silver sheen, and all over its upper surface are tiny yellow spots that grow brighter as the fish dies. Most deep-water fish are somber toned, but this discrepancy fits the little we know of the species. The tilefish story is one oddity after another.

The first recorded sighting of a tilefish occurred only yesterday as science measures time, or in 1879. In May of that year an adventurous Gloucester codfisherman named William H. Kirby dropped his lines south of Nantucket in 900 feet of water, and caught 2,000 pounds—of what he didn't know. So he dumped it all back overboard. But the next day he kept a few, and sent one to the Smithsonian, which did not know, either. In July one William Dempsey caught some tilefish in the same area, and he called them leopard fish. It was a good name, but the ichthyologists came up with Lopholatilus chamaeleonticeps and someone got tilefish out of tilus. Soon after that—maybe it was the shock—the tilefish apparently became extinct. Millions of them died, and the species vanished.

But only for 10 years. In 1892 tilefish appeared again, and from 1915 to 1917 the species enjoyed brief popularity as a food fish. It was plentiful and easily caught and quickly forgotten for 50 years.

Bruce Freeman, a Federal fisheries biologist who is preparing the first major study on tilefish, says: "This is a virgin fishery, and there aren't supposed to be any of those left. It's unique in this day and age, and it's close to civilization. If we start keeping data now we can see what fishing pressure does to a population. It will be a unique exercise in science."

It was 1969 when the first party-boat catches of tilefish were brought ashore at Atlantic City, N.J. Captain Andy Applegate had been fishing for cod, and he discovered very rough bottom 80 miles east of port in 450 feet of water. "We dropped our lines," he says, "and there they were—tilefish, 20 pounders." On that first trip 86 fish were caught, and now Applegate makes six to 10 tilefish trips a year. His boat is 65 feet long and can travel at 17 knots, a speed that is necessary to cover the distances involved.

All tilefish are caught along the edges of an underwater cleft called the Hudson Canyon, where the river once cut its way through what was then the shoreline to the sea. The Atlantic was as much as 600 feet lower then, and what is now the continental shelf was dry land. But that was 20,000 years ago or more, and there were probably no tilefish.

Fifty pounds, or just above, appears to be the maximum size for tilefish, and a fish of about 48 pounds was the big winner on the Tampa IV that day. More than 200 tilefish were taken aboard, and everyone was ashore by 9 p.m.

"Too bad they're so deep," said Victor Becker, the Tampa IV's captain. "If they ever came in shallow water they'd fight, and you'd never land them."

Yes, too bad. Not catching them would be a lot more sensible than catching them is now.

A one-pound lobster is going for $8.95 at King of the Sea this week, a tilefish filet for $5.50. Tilefish does not taste like lobster. It does not taste like much of anything. "It's a novelty," says the restaurant's buyer.