Fishing villages dwindle along Atlantic coast

Development, pollution, recreational boaters overwhelm a way of life

October 14, 1999|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,Chicago Tribune

EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. -- Dan King's back yard is an outdoor museum for a way of life that is fast fading into oblivion.

Next to the gravel driveway sits a long, narrow rowboat that King once used to haul striped bass he caught in the bays and inlets around this Long Island town. King is a bayman, the local term for a commercial fisherman, and government regulations have all but ended commercial catches of the prized fish.

Behind a fence, he stores the dredges that he once dragged behind his boat to scoop up bushels of scallops. A plague of brown algae smothered the sensitive shellfish in the mid-1980s. The few scallops that remain, he says, are hardly worth the time and expense required to catch them.

From New York and Maryland to Louisiana and California, small communities of traditional, independent fishermen are dwindling toward extinction along the coastlines of America.

These sailors and seamen, the living links to a way of life that stretches back to Colonial days, find themselves caught between forces as inexorable as the tide: restrictions on catches to prevent overfishing or to give bigger allotments to recreational fishermen, heavy development of coastal areas as weekend retreats for affluent city dwellers, and declining stocks of fish and shellfish because of the runoff and pollution that such development brings.

"A way of life and a close-knit community that has lasted generations is coming apart at the seams," said Arnold Leo, 63, who gave up commercial fishing off the east end of Long Island in 1990 because he could no longer make a living at it. "Young men are not going into fishing for the first time in 10 or 12 generations."

King, 50, started going out with his father and grandfather to harvest scallops at age 12. East Hampton then had about 100 baymen supporting their families with hauls from the sea. Now, if more than 30 men make their living on the water, "I'd be surprised," said Leo, who has stayed active in the baymen community, although he makes his living managing the property of a wealthy owner.

Other fishing communities scattered around the eastern end of Long Island have suffered similar declines. In Southampton, for instance, the local baymen's association had 350 members 25 years ago, according to president Wayne Grothe. Now, it has about 50 members, of whom perhaps 20 are full-time fishermen.

Although many baymen in East Hampton blame their sagging fortunes on state restrictions on the striped bass catch, another source of trouble is the intense development of the Hamptons.

As a result of a surging economy that has put $1 million bonuses in the pockets of some Wall Street brokers and corporate lawyers, former potato fields are now sprouting five- and six-bedroom weekend homes. Even those are modest compared with Fair Field, the 29-bedroom, 72,000-square-foot domicile investor Ira Rennert, head of the holding company Renco Group, is building here, at a cost of at least $30 million.

Friction inevitable

Inevitably, there has been friction between the fair-weather crowd and the lifelong residents.

King recalls once stopping in tony Bridgehampton for a sandwich after a successful morning on the water.

His bruised pickup, a sore thumb among the Porsches and Range Rovers, was loaded with conchs, which filled the air with the unmistakable smell of things that live in the sea.

A horrified matron asked him, "You're not going to leave that truck there, are you?"

"I sure am,' I said," King recalled. "And I sat in my truck and ate my sandwich. I enjoyed my lunch that day. Took my time, too."

The now-affluent villages that make up the Hamptons, a summertime playground for the rich and famous who include billionaire investor Ronald Perelman and film director Steven Spielberg, were settled in the mid-17th century, making them some of the oldest communities in America.

In the shallow, protected waters around the island, colonists found a trove of marine life, which they caught mainly for local consumption until the Long Island Railroad reached the area at the end of the 19th century. That allowed baymen to send their catch to New York's Fulton Street fish market, still an outlet for some of them today.

In the 1960s and '70s -- "the good years," as baymen fondly remember them -- the scallop catch alone was worth up to $2 million a year. Those days are long gone. In 1985, brown algae savaged the scallop beds, which have never recovered. Also that year, New York state officials halted fishing for striped bass, another major revenue producer, because overfishing had reduced their numbers.

Since then, striped bass have made a vigorous comeback, but fishing is strictly regulated. Most of the annual quota goes to recreational fishermen.

'A problem nationwide'

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