It's 2:45 a.m. under a moonless sky at Montauk Harbor at the far tip of the South Fork.
In spite of the hour and the bone-numbing cold, there is activity among a handful of fishing boats tied up to docks along the icy rim of the harbor. Soon, they will move out of the harbor into open ocean in search of cod.
"Thank God for cod," sings Jamie Quaresimo hoarsely.
He stands under yellow dock lights in a knit skullcap and boots, alternately drawing on a cigarette and sipping from a coffee cup. His party boat, the Fishin' Xpress III, quickly fills with 20 men and a woman, all wearing stiff layers of heavy clothes and foul-weather gear.
"Cod is off the charts," says Quaresimo, a fisherman for 20 years.
For many of the scores of party and charter boat captains who make their livelihood in Montauk, the East Coast's premier fishing harbor, the cod fishery this winter is an unexpected bright spot. Atlantic cod landings from charter and party boats along the Northeast coastline more than doubled from 2005 to 2010, to a record 6.8 million pounds last year.
Carl Forsberg, captain and one of the owners of the Montauk-based Viking Fleet, said the 1990s and early 2000s were tough years for cod fishing. But that began to change four years ago, and the Viking fleet was quick to capitalize. "Now it's like a blessing for us in the winter," he said
He attributes the increased activity to fishing regulations that protect not only cod, but the baitfish such as herring that they feed on.
For Montauk, the increase means more than just a welcomed winter fishery. The cod fishing has also brought boats and their crews to the harbor from New Jersey, Hyannis, Mass., and western Long Island. The harbor's charter boat captains are benefiting.
"It seems like the cod are coming down earlier and earlier," says Burt Prince, captain of the charter boat Susie E, which docks at West Lake Marina. "Now we're catching them as early as the end of December. There used to be none till late January or early February."
Cod fishing is not for the faint of heart, even on a windless winter morning like last Friday, with temperatures in the teens and ice quick to glaze anything water splashes on. Longtime cod fisherman Bill Witchey Jr. of Lindenhurst says much of the allure is not knowing whether you'll get a 10-pounder or a 50-pounder. For that, he'll pay a price - $120 to $135 for a day on a party boat. The winter conditions that go with cod fishing are also taxing - and part of the allure.
"The fish are freezing on the deck, the bait's freezing, the water freezes on your line, you can't feel your hands - you're cod fishing," he says exuberantly.
While most party boats are enforcing a 10-fish limit per person (and a 22-inch minimum size), there's a regulatory loophole this year that has made cod fishing even more attractive. Recreational boats fishing in federal waters like those around Block Island east of Montauk Point have no limit on the number of cod that can be taken, federal and state fisheries officials confirmed. That's a sharp contrast to commercial boats, which are subject to complex new rules that make travel to the cod fish grounds off Block Island unfeasible.
"We haven't been targeting cod because of the catch-share program," said Greenport commercial fisherman Mark Phillips, captain of the fishing trawler the Illusion. He was referring to the so-called "bycatch" that comes with most commercial fishing.
Fishing for cod means a bycatch of yellowtail flounder, Phillips explained, and reaching his limit on that type of fish would restrict him from the fishery for all other bottom fish, including cod.
Federal fisheries management officials are reluctant to say the stock is fully restored.
"There's some indication there may have been a decent number of fish born in 2008, and so you'd expect to start seeing those" fish, now grown, said Terry Frady, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration's Fisheries Service in Woods Hole, Mass.
Increased landings numbers aren't the same as actual fish population surveys, the most recently available of which showed declines in cod numbers to 2005, she said.
Stephen Heins, a fisheries official with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's Marine Resources Division, said the agency is likely to propose new limits on cod to close the federal no-limit loophole for recreational fishing sometime this spring, just to put the brakes on largely unchecked fishing.