Come fall, the battle starts all over again," said Richard Miller, a lobsterman turned executive secretary of the Long Island Fishermen's Association, a commercial group. No sooner had Miller said this one afternoon last week while watching a haul-seine crew set a net off Southampton Beach than a motorboat a quarter of a mile offshore suddenly headed toward the net. Reaching down with a knife, the boat operator lifted the net from the water and cut it in two. Then he sped away a half mile down the shore and into the safety of Shinnecock Inlet.
Slashed nets are just part of an intense feud that has been going on for years on Long Island between commercial fishermen and anglers. The striped bass—the glamour game fish of the Atlantic coast—is the cause of it all. An anadromous species, the striper leaves the coast to spawn in rivers in the spring, and it is vulnerable to haul seiners on Long Island during its fall and spring migrations. On the theory that haul-seining is fast depleting the striper population, an organization called Save Our Stripers wants the bass legally made a game fish to be taken only by hook and line—a status the fish enjoys in the adjacent states of New Jersey and Connecticut and also in Massachusetts. For their part, the haul seiners see no reason to stop a practice that has gone on for generations on the beaches of eastern Long Island.
Bitterness breaks out when a haul-seine crew arrives on the beach in two trucks towing an 18-foot dory, a 2,400-foot net and a pair of power winches. Sighting a school of bass, the haul seiners launch the dory and encircle the fish with their net. It usually makes no difference to them that the beach has been occupied for hours by surf casters waiting for the stripers to come by. When the seiners make their set, the sports fishermen had just better get out of the way or get trapped in the net along with the bass.
"The haul seiners have antagonized a lot of people," says Blair Moger of West Sayville, N.Y., a high school guidance counselor who is president of SOS. "They'll leave a beach cluttered with unwanted dead fish, including small bass under the 16-inch legal size."
Richard Miller admits that not all members of the Long Island Fishermen's Association have been angels. "We've got bad guys as well as good guys," he says, adding that he has urged members to discipline themselves. Bill Robinson, owner of the net that was slashed last week, says, "We try to give people less to holler about."
Robinson's seining crew of five men is typical of the dozens of teams that work the eastern beaches of the Island. Except for one Polish-American, the crew is composed of "Bonnickers," the local nickname given to old fishing families east of Shinnecock Inlet. Bonnickers are a unique lot who make a living from anything that comes out of the water—clams, scallops, cod, stripers, etc. In style and speech they are something out of a marsh scene in Great Expectations. They say "sigh" for "say" and speak an altogether odd patois. "I sigh it's just jealousy and hogness," said Bonnicker Bob Lester of the sport fishermen, or "pinhookers," as he calls them. "You want to see pollution, go to Montauk and see what they leave in the water. Last year they went out and got giant tuna and photographed them and then said to me the next day, 'You can have them.' They was rotten." To which another seiner, Hans Finne, added, "The average sports fisherman is a guy who works in an office or a factory. He comes down here on Saturday or Sunday and he wants to catch fish, and I can understand. He sees us catch fish, and he gets mad, but he doesn't see that it's our livelihood. We don't want to start no trouble, but if they're going to stop me from what I'm doing, I get angry."
SOS has tried for the past several years to get the state legislature to declare the striper a game fish. "There would be no sale of stripers in New York," says Moger. "We're not just after the haul seiners but the other commercial netters as well. The game-fish bill would also stop sports fishermen from making huge catches and selling them." On three occasions, the SOS game-fish bill has sailed through the State Senate by a unanimous vote only to be bottled up in the Assembly because Speaker Perry Duryea Jr., a wealthy lobster dealer from Montauk, is close to the haul seiners. "Duryea is simply the boss of the Assembly," says Moger. "In his assembly district he's lord and master, but when he runs for governor, he's going to find he's antagonized sports fishermen from all over the southern part of the state." This year, in response to Duryea's nonaction, SOS started an economic boycott of the Montauk area. Organizations representing 70,000 sports fishermen agreed to join the boycott, and, without question, Montauk was hurt. The Chamber of Commerce attributed the decline to bad weather.
Apart from Long Island, SOS has become very much alarmed by haul-seining of stripers at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina. Wintering bass there are extremely vulnerable to netting because they congregate in certain areas in enormous numbers. One day last January at Hatteras two crews pooled their nets and brought in 100,000 pounds of stripers, most of the fish roeladen females of from 20 to 50 pounds. Without question, hauls such as these can put a dent in the Atlantic spawning stock.
There is a possible solution to the controversy, according to John R. Clark, an outstanding striped-bass authority formerly with the Federal Government and now a senior associate of The Conservation Foundation in Washington who says, "We now have a framework for the understanding and management of striped bass on the Atlantic coast." The framework to which Clark refers is, curiously, the Final Environmental Statement issued in September by the Atomic Energy Commission relating to the operation of Consolidated Edison's Indian Point Two nuclear plant on the Hudson River. In the course of hearings on the matter, the AEC referred the question of possible damage to fish life to AEC staff scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. There, Dr. C. P. Goodyear reviewed all available literature and tagging studies on the striped bass, and played the results out on a computer. His report is a shocker. Until Goodyear came along, biologists had held that the schools of migratory bass in the Atlantic primarily had come from the Chesapeake Bay system. Not so, says Goodyear. The Atlantic striped-bass fishery mostly emanates from the Hudson; indeed "93% of the variability in recruitment to the Atlantic population can be attributed to the abundance of mature fish in the Hudson."
Although some biologists are likely to question Goodyear closely, Clark is certain that the findings are fairly on the mark and, granting this, the feud between haul seiners and anglers on Long Island can be resolved because the fish come from one manageable source. To start, Clark suggests that the haul seiners be licensed and restricted in number only to those who historically have fished for striped bass. In return for this exclusive privilege, the seiners are to be subject to regulation, such as to the length of net they can use in order to maintain the optimum level of the catch. "Meanwhile," says Clark, "there should be searching examination of the conclusions provided by the AEC and, based on that, recommendations made as to the amount of fish taken by the seiners. I would keep hands off the situation as much as possible so that the economy of existing markets is not disrupted. If the haul seiners began to cut down drastically on the breeding stock, netting could be temporarily reduced. Economically, this would benefit the commercial fishermen in the long run since fewer fish would be going to market and the price would rise. It would be a mistake of the worst sort to make the striped bass strictly a game fish, with no sale allowed in New York. A bag limit could be put on anglers, too, and anglers could sell their catch, but those who did would have to buy a special license, with the license fees earmarked for additional research. If you impose a no-sale, game-fish-only law, the striper no longer becomes available to the public as food. Thus, if the striper fishery is later threatened, the public would not care."
Both the haul seiners and Moger of SOS have expressed interest in Clark's ideas, and they may sit down to talk them over. It would be ironic if peace finally came as the result of a report by the AEC, an agency hitherto considered to be the enemy by fishermen of every persuasion.
At Hatteras: 100,000 pounds of food for the table, and also food for some serious thought.
On Long Island: the Bonnickers just do what comes naturally—making a living from the sea.