Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront

It’s no secret that fish are moving north | Dave Monti

March 18, 2022 Ocean Conservancy Season 1 Episode 2
It’s no secret that fish are moving north | Dave Monti
Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront
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Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront
It’s no secret that fish are moving north | Dave Monti
Mar 18, 2022 Season 1 Episode 2
Ocean Conservancy

It’s also no secret that fishing can provide connection—to the ocean, to one another, and to where the fish are biting. Tune in to one of my first interviews here with Dave Monti of No Fluke Fishing, a charter captain and fishing writer in Rhode Island. Dave shares his deep knowledge of the geography and history of his local waters, his observations of changing species of fish in his area and what’s needed to address the problem, and the importance of getting everyone on board to move forward on climate change. 

Show Notes Transcript

It’s also no secret that fishing can provide connection—to the ocean, to one another, and to where the fish are biting. Tune in to one of my first interviews here with Dave Monti of No Fluke Fishing, a charter captain and fishing writer in Rhode Island. Dave shares his deep knowledge of the geography and history of his local waters, his observations of changing species of fish in his area and what’s needed to address the problem, and the importance of getting everyone on board to move forward on climate change. 

Alliyah Lusuegro

Welcome to Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront. This is a podcast series of recorded interviews and stories about the impacts of climate change on marine fisheries, as told by the people who spend their days catching, managing and researching fish from the ocean. In today's episode, we talk to Dave Monti, a fisherman, charter captain and fishing writer from Rhode Island. I'm Alliyah Lusuegro, and this is a production of Ocean Conservancy.

Hello hello. Welcome to this episode. So before we dive into this interview, I wanted to share a few thoughts. One, this is one of the first interviews that I did for this podcast, so I wanted to share my excitement to have this out into the world, to, you know, uplift storytelling and talk to folks in fisheries and to also have my voice here. Two, which is what I really wanted to get into: with any new endeavor, namely creating this podcast, there is bound to be some trial and error. And that's what happened here. Dave and I, we had an amazing start to our conversation, but the beginning couldn't really make the cut because there was this really distracting computer fan noise in the background. So we'll save you that distraction, and instead I'll recap what Dave and I talked about.

Before Dave became a charter captain full time, his background was in advertising and public relations, and that's when he really got into writing. I got super excited about this as a writer myself. We connected and agreed that writing is one of those lifelong passions. And he continued to speak about marrying his passions of writing and fishing, which are both topics you'll still hear about. But I just wanted to highlight that marriage of passions, since I really loved how he phrased that. Lastly, I brought up his fishing column called “Where's the Bite?” where he writes all things fish. 

With that, let's get started with this interview. We're now in the moment of the conversation where we move from talking about writing and his background there and then go into fishing.


Alliyah

Just having some technical difficulties but we’re back on track. I want to know more about your time on water before that and sort of your genesis of how you got into fishing. Did anyone teach you? Were you self-taught? How did that happen?

Dave Monti

I think there was a role model, a couple of role models in my life early on when I was a kid. My father being one who had a passion for the water, did fishing, as I said, primarily shell fishing. But he did finfish as well and taught me how to do the basics there. But I think he was the greatest influencer.

And then his brother—my uncle—was a fisherman as well, a recreational fisherman who targeted tuna fish in particular. And I can remember being on my Uncle Mike's boat and being so excited knowing that this is the boat where he would fish for, you know, giant bluefin tuna and sharks and be very excited about that. And then I think a lot of it was self-taught after that.

And what helped tremendously is the fishing community in general. When I started to write maybe 20 years ago about fishing, picking up fishing tips on how to catch certain species from people that I was interviewing. So I would write about it, but I'd be learning about it, and I would apply it on my own vessel when I went fishing.

Alliyah

You just mentioned that now you have your own vessel. Can you tell us more about that?

Dave

So the boat that I had for over the last eight years was a restored 47-year-old vessel called the Bonito. And since then I have gotten a new boat this year, which is a two-year-old boat that is just this big open center console boat with a lot of fishing room. And so that's the kind of vessel that I have now.

Alliyah

And you have a charter business, right, called No Fluke Fishing. How is that going, Dave? What kind of services do you offer?

Dave

I think first, it's important to know that the last two years—this season and last season—in Rhode Island certainly have been the best charter fishing years ever that I have experienced and pretty much the same is true with the industry overall. And that's due to COVID, where people feel that fishing is a fairly healthy activity. You’re outdoors.

But in years past, I opened up my menu of services to certainly include things like harbor tours. My harbor, where I keep my vessel in Wickford, Rhode Island, and the town of North Kingstown has been around since colonial days. In fact, the wharf that my vessel is on has been a fishing wharf since colonial days. And it is about 20 minutes by water to Newport, Rhode Island, which is a great tourist place. So I've done, you know, tours of Newport Harbor, tours of my harbor. So I'm a fishing vessel, but I'm also a tour boat. And then one thing that I started to do three years ago is, this sounds odd, but ash burials at sea.

Alliyah

So No Fluke Fishing also specializes in family fishing. I know you mentioned that in a previous chat about how there are fathers-sons, father-daughters, and really honing in on family bonding.  I just see that connection that you had with how you got into fishing and your influences and role models from your family and you possibly seeing that in front of your own eyes with other families. I'm guessing it means something to you.

Dave

It does. Quality time to communicate. Fishing provides that because, you know, in between bites, you're really forced to talk to the other people on a boat or else it’s going to be a very quiet trip. And I can give you an example.

I had a work acquaintance that I took fishing with his son, who I believe was 17 years old at the time. And we went fishing and it was a miserable day. It was a fall day. It was cold, it was damp, it was raining, and the bite wasn't really on. You know, whatever fish we caught we had to really work for. We really didn't catch a volume of fish. We caught some fish. 

So I was chatting with him the day after and I said, “You know, John, I'm sorry if it was a miserable weather day, you know, we didn't do really well with fishing.” And he said, “Dave, I had the best possible time. I can't tell you, I've never spoken with my son and connected with him in the last three or four years more than I did yesterday. And you provided something much more than a fishing trip for us. You allowed us to bond about what was going on in our respective lives.” So that's the thing that happens with fishing, and it happens with all kinds of family members, significant others, as well as children, as well as friends.

Alliyah

Oh, that's amazing. I know that feeling so well. And I think it comes most to me, for example, when I share experiences of having food that I love with other people. There's that extra, maybe deeper level of connection in those special moments. And I just wanted to thank you for sharing that story because I really felt it.

To expand a bit, can you talk more about the culture of fishing in Rhode Island, maybe the ecosystem and the fisheries there? Give me a picture of what it's like.

Dave

Well first of all, Rhode Island, and I'm looking at right now in front of me the chart of Narragansett Bay, and Narragansett Bay goes right up the middle of Rhode Island. So Rhode Island kind of surrounds this bay, and the bay goes right up to the capital city actually, the city of Providence. And there's a whole island system. There’s not like hundreds of islands, but there might be 20 islands. 

So the bay is a great estuary. You know, I serve on the steering committee of something called the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program. And the objective of that program is to safeguard all of the estuaries that sort of flow into Narragansett Bay or the ocean. So there's the health of Narragansett Bay, which is a great fishery that has a great deal of shellfishing that takes place for hard shell clams, or quahogs as we call them.

But there's a lot of finfishing that goes on, particularly in the spring and fall. The bay does warm like most estuaries warm, in the middle of the summer which deters, just like you or I when it gets too hot, we try to find a cool place. And that's what fish do, too. They leave the bay and they go to a cooler or deeper water and then come back when it's cooler.

And then fishing along the coast, there is Block Island Sound and Rhode Island Sound. The Sounds have a great fishing resource. Rhode Island is a very rocky coastline. So the glaciers really did a job. If you can imagine that our state has a bay going right up the middle of it, you can imagine the glaciers really just came down and carved out that bay and actually carved out along the coastline in the ocean. So there's a lot of rock, a lot of structure, which is great for fishing. 

And then in our Narragansett Bay, the largest striped bass are caught in the bay in the springtime, right in the city of Providence, if you would, because they follow Atlantic menhaden, which go up the rivers to spawn. And the fishery there is great. So we have a great striped bass fishery, great blue fish fishery. We’ve got a great bluefin tuna fishery, which is phenomenal this year in part due to climate change. And then we have a ground fishery of black sea bass, summer flounder. These are all impacted by climate change.

Alliyah

Well, we can get right into it. We can talk about climate change right now. 

So something that's catching my eye here is that you're describing the warming of the waters and how that's connected to all that you're seeing that are new there, such as different types of fish. Can you clarify that connection a bit? Why are you getting more fish in Rhode Island?

Dave

Well, I think that the topography lends itself to structure or mussel growth, small fish eating off the reefs in the rocks and then larger fish you know, being attracted. So there’s like this reef effect that occurs everywhere. However, we're just very lucky at this point in time where what I just described—a fishery with a lot of species to fish—used to be the case in Maryland, used to be the case in Delaware and the Carolinas. To a certain degree, it's not anymore in some of those places because all the warm water fish have come come north. 

There's that disturbance that I mentioned. So I think we're all set now. 

But in any event, climate has had a huge impact on fishing here. The species that I catch today in type of fish and in abundance is vastly different than what I caught ten years ago.

It's no secret that warm water fish have moved north, and that would include black sea bass, summer flounder and certainly scup. And conversely, cold water fish have left our waters. American lobster. The lobster fishery used to be tremendous here, but now it's not, it’s further north. Winter flounder is restricted in our Narragansett Bay now because they're just not around.

And now we're starting to see some very unusual things. Exotic, warm water fish moving into the area, things like cobia and we're getting a lot more mammals than we've ever seen before. 

Last Saturday, I was going to Block Island to fish, and we came across in the mouth of Narragansett Bay, a pod of dolphins that had to be like 300 dolphins. This was unheard of before. And as any tuna fisherman will tell you, they usually fish for a blue fin school tuna, certainly right within pods of dolphin. You know, the dolphin is smart enough not to bite your lure or line, but the bluefin tuna aren't. So I was wondering, “God, could there be tuna mixed in with this dolphin?" Which is usually the case because they usually, you know, eat the same thing and they sort of travel together. 

So the whales are here, the dolphins are here, the bluefin tuna are here. And all of this, I have to say, has to be climate related. The water is so warm, they're chasing bait that's not normally here or is here in greater abundance than it normally is. 

Alliyah

Yeah, that's so intriguing to me that when you start seeing dolphins, you question, “Oh, bluefin tuna are usually with these dolphins.” So yeah, that's a signal that you had which is so interesting to me.

Dave

Yeah, and to have it that close in our bay this time of year is unheard of. You know, you might see, in the past, you may have seen some bluefin tuna in the fall, small schools of them surface at the mouth of our bay and leave. 

But we have anglers who have never, ever bluefin tuna’d in their life. They know the bite is on. They go to that tackle shop. They buy gear to target bluefin tuna and they've gone out and tried it and are catching fish. So this is unprecedented having that amount of bluefin tuna around this close to the shores of Rhode Island.

Alliyah

Yeah. When did you first start seeing this instance? And also, I guess to make it a larger question, when did you first start noticing drastic changes in your environment?

Dave

Well, I think the bluefin tuna thing is really current. It's 2021. It didn't happen last year. You know, it's happening this year. But I first noticed some changes with the water warming in our bays and estuaries. Low oxygen levels. Fish kills. What happens when the water gets warm and leads to or contributes to low oxygen levels in the water? You have species that can move, move, but species that can't move or that are trapped for some reason, they die. So that was sort of what raised my curiosity. 

And then I got into the most recent and best available science years ago that was available on water temperature in our bay and sort of monitoring that. Trying to figure out the relationship between that and the abundance of bait fish and the abundance of recreational fish that we want to catch. Sort of quickly correlate, well, the water is warming up so much that the bait is leaving and the fish we like to catch are leaving as well. 

So that was an awakening, you know, maybe 15 years ago or ten years ago that that was going on. As a fisherman. Again, not a scientist. And then as a fisherman started to see greater abundance of fish that we've never seen, like black sea bass and fluke. 

When I first started in the charter business, black sea bass were not caught when I grew up. Black sea bass were never caught in this area. At least I never caught them. But now they're here in abundance. In doing fish abundance studies, you can actually see the biomass of these species. Black sea bass, summer flounder and scup. The biomass actually moving up the coast to the northeast. So I started to sort of research that and what's the most recent science that NOAA was doing in that area, and then writing about it which is something that I do a lot of.  Writing about climate and its impact on fish, both good and bad, because as I say, there are winners and losers in climate change. So far, everyone's going to be a loser and I know that. 

But from a fisheries standpoint, we started to talk about all we have to fish here and I think we've lost cold water species, but we've gained so much of the warm water species at this point that it's added to the abundance of what we have to catch. But that will change, too, as the water gets warmer. The fish that we have here are going to be moving further north. So I don't know if that's helpful.

Alliyah

Yeah, that's super helpful. And I actually have a quote from the last time we talked when you said, “Fisheries have to adapt much quicker to climate impacts.” And you're describing that now. 

Can you tell us more about the work that you're doing and how it's addressing all that you're seeing in Rhode Island? And also how are people talking about it there? How are people reacting?

Dave

Well, I think people are just starting to get used to really understanding how it's impacting the fisheries. You know, they see the fish changes and the abundance and realize that this is not going to stop, that it's going to continue. 

Most recreational anglers are very conservation minded. They want to continue to fish and realize that they need fish at sustainable levels to do that. Many want to grow fisheries to abundance. So there's more fish in the water for folks to catch and eat and or release because a lot of fishers, recreational fishers are firm believers in catch and release of certain species, certainly. 

But from a management state standpoint, with all of this fish movement, with new fish moving into an area, and then all the species that everyone has fished that have moved up the coast like black sea bass and scup and summer flounder, these species are moving so quickly geographically that we need federal fishing laws and state fishing laws, too, that allow fish managers to adjust fisheries management plans, species management plans. 

So that “Hey, should we be doing something that adjusts fishing harvest limits or quotas up or down depending upon where the fish is geographically?” But we also need to do scenario planning as to what could happen in the next six months or year, like the bluefin tuna bite off Rhode Island this summer. Could we scenario play that out? And other species as they move further north out of our area and others that move into the area.

And then always be on the lookout for science that allows us to explore where we should be with fisheries and estuaries. Ultimately, we know we have to reduce the amount of carbon that we're generating. Renewable energy, solar, wind power, all these sort of long term solutions to the problem. But in the interim, we have to do all three things.

We have to look at the end game and as responsible fishers and citizens, we need to try to solve the problem long term. But in the interim, as well, we need to safeguard our fisheries by fishing them responsibly at sustainable levels with strong national fishing laws that allow us to do that. And then we need climate ready fisheries that enable managers to manage more effectively in terms of fish abundance geographically and being able to adjust fishing laws and quotas and regulations that don't hammer a particular species before regulations are in place.

Alliyah

So I'm hearing species management plans, scenario planning, research and science, solving this in the long term, sustainable fishing and climate ready fisheries. 

50 years from now, when you imagine what a healthy ecosystem, what healthy fishing looks like, what it takes to be in that place that we want to be, what do you see? What do you see there and what are we keeping? Or what must have changed along the way?

Dave

I think the magic wand 50 years from now would probably kind of be like how fisheries were 400 years ago, and that would be Native Americans catching cod 20 feet from shore, a 40 pound codfish. There would be an abundance of fish, but the only way that is going to happen is if we do work on the long term challenges of climate change.

So that has to happen and what also has to happen is growing our fisheries not just to sustainable levels. If you say a sustainable level, it’s where codfish is right now, or where striped bass is right now, which is a stock that's been overfished and overfishing is occurring, is not the magic wand that I have in mind. The magic wand I have in mind is that these species are in such great abundance that you cannot help not catching them. How to get there, I think, is responsible fishing, responsible management and respect for all fishers and stakeholders at the table. But everyone has to realize that the goal is having climate ready fisheries to adapt and change, to grow fish to abundance, working on the root cause of climate change.

Alliyah

Yeah, I really like that. You talked about it as sort of a mindset and a feeling of there being abundant fish in the water and just that being the normal, the comfortable, the comfort and not having to worry about all the impacts that climate has negatively on fisheries and everyone that's involved. 

Do you have any final words before we wrap up?

Dave

I think the biggest thing that I've learned over the years is that I had mentioned respectful concerns of all stakeholders. This is a tough problem, and being engaged with this for maybe the last 15 or 20 years or so as a fish advocate and certainly writing about it, if there's anything that I've learned, everyone needs to put their own concerns, leave them at the door and talk about how we can solve this problem together moving forward.

Everyone has to try to put on the hat of being a good conservationist in the sense that we know the goal is to grow fisheries to abundance so there's more in the water for all to catch, eat and or release. And that's commercial fishers. Recreational fishers. And we just have to respect each other and allow all of us to speak our point of view.

And that's the only way that we're going to move forward as an industry, a state, a nation, a world with this climate change issue and how it's impacting fisheries.

Alliyah

Alright thank you, Dave, for joining me today. From one writer to another, I really appreciate hearing your story, your influences, what you're seeing out in the water these days and your thoughts on the magic wand. 

To our audience, thanks for listening in. I encourage you to check out Dave's charter business, No Fluke Fishing. If you're interested in learning more about it, check out his website. You can read his column “Where's the Bite?” there or just learn more about how to visit his vessel if you happen to be in Rhode Island and want to get out on the water there. This is Alliyah signing off, till next time.