Fishing villages dwindle along Atlantic coast; Development, pollution, recreational boaters overwhelm a way of life


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'

"It's indicative of a problem nationwide," said Thor Lassen, president of Ocean Trust, a Washington-based conservation group that supports commercial fishermen. "In some instances, they were just outspent [by the recreational fishing lobby]. Commercial fishermen in these local communities are not a wealthy group. They just can't compete financially with the people who have the money for recreational boats and second homes."

The effort to preserve the baymen's way of life has drawn the support of singer Billy Joel, a native Long Islander who recalls skipping school to spend time on the water. Over the years, Joel has written songs extolling the baymen and given at least $200,000 to pay their legal expenses and medical bills. In 1992, he was arrested on an East Hampton beach with a group of local baymen who staged an illegal netting of striped bass to protest restrictions on the fish.

"They symbolize the original Long Island," Joel said. "Little by little, I saw the farms disappear and then the fishermen started to disappear. They've been pursuing this way of life for so long that it's almost archaic."

Development has led to greater pollution of the area's bays because of pesticide runoff and septic system discharges. And that has contributed to declining populations of some aquatic species, said Grothe, 48, who has been fishing and clamming since the mid-1970s.

"Some fish that aren't even harvested commercially have almost vanished from the bay," he said. "How it looks now, I really don't think there will be any baymen left in Southampton in 10 years."

With property values soaring, longtime residents also are feeling squeezed out of the housing market. That makes it difficult to convince the next generation to stay and take up the back-breaking, low-paying work of a bayman.

Versatility necessary

For those who persist, versatility is the key to survival.

One recent sunny day, King made the rounds of his 30-odd pots, or traps, in Gardiner's Bay off East Hampton. He set them in the spring to catch conch, a type of shellfish. He has checked the pots almost daily, using a motorized winch to pull the rectangular wooden baskets up from a depth of 30 feet. He tosses the curlicued conch shells into a plastic basket and stacks the pots at one end of his white-hulled boat, the Marsha K.

During the height of the season, he can fill 15 bushel bags, but conch season is winding down. Today's work yielded only about three bushels. He predicts he'll get perhaps $45 for the haul. "Not enough to cover fuel for the boat," mutters the gruff, gray-bearded bayman.

Despite the hard work and the meager returns, the daily rhythms of the sea and the freedom of their lives give the most dedicated baymen the determination to hang on.

"If you're out in the early morning and the sun's coming up, I don't think you can get any closer to nature than being out on the water," said Grothe, who mainly harvests hardshell clams, but also has a small aquaculture operation raising oysters.

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