ROCKLAND, Maine — Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but even fish scientists agree that the bottom-dwelling monkfish may be one of the least attractive creatures that swims off the coast of Maine.
“In grad school, we said it was on the all-uglies squad,” John Hoey said Thursday. Hoey is the director of the Cooperative Research Program at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Rhode Island.
But even though the wide-mouthed monkfish, officially known as goosefish, may not win any deep-sea beauty contests, it still is an alluring subject to the federal government — and to local fishermen like Glen Libby of Port Clyde.
“Monkfish is very important,” Libby said Friday. “It’s our most consistent fish pricewise, too. You can count on getting a good price at auction.”
Hoey said the monkfish’s flaky white flesh has led to a growth in popularity among fish consumers, and a rise in importance among fishermen.
“The monkfish is a species that now supports one of the most valuable fisheries in the Northeast,” Hoey said. “Twenty years ago, it was very underutilized. Now it supports a very strong market.”
The government is interested enough in monkfish to spend $1 million this spring on a survey designed to discover more about the geographic distribution and population of the species.
To Libby, that kind of interest is welcome.
“It’s good to have as much data as we can,” he said. “One of the big problems with the science [of fish management] has been the lack of data.”
Without information, bad things can happen to good fish, he said, mentioning a time a few years ago when monkfish were in trouble. Their livers were in demand as a delicacy and the prices were sky-high.
“Guys were just slaughtering thousands and thousands of small monkfish, taking the livers and throwing the rest overboard,” Libby remembered. “That’s just an example of bad fisheries practice that needs to be changed.”
Hoey’s scientists have been joining forces with fishermen out of New Bedford, Mass., to complete this year’s survey, which comes after earlier efforts in 2001 and 2004. Scientists on the 119-foot fishing vessel Endurance are working at the northern end of the survey, sampling at locations in the Gulf of Maine from the Canadian border and the northern Georges Bank region, while the 100-foot Mary K will work as far south as Cape Hatteras, N.C.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing — the Endurance had a tense moment off the Down East coast in February, when it started taking on water, Hoey said.
At 1 a.m., the ship’s captain heard an alarm telling him that a compartment in the fish hold was starting to fill up. He steered the ship toward port in Rockland and called the Coast Guard for backup.
“When the news hit that a boat had to call the Coast Guard and there were five scientists on board, NOAA was very concerned,” Hoey said.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration ultimately is responsible for the research project.
The fishing boat made it safely into port, where a diver found it had tangled with offshore lobster pots that dislodged a bilge plug. Within 48 hours, the Endurance was back on the water.
It’s all in a day’s work for the fish researchers and fishermen, Hoey said.
“It’s vital for us to get this type of information to improve fish management,” he said.