Among The Last

Written By: Russel  Drumm


By Russell Drumm  

For over three centuries, English settlers and their descendents fed themselves, bartered, and supplied the market from the vast store of sea life that came and went in bountiful waves around the East End of Long Island.

Some of the creatures, like herring, came south in winter. Others migrated offshore within theGulf Streamfrom southern waters, and still more swam north and east along the ocean beaches to fill the bays during the warmer months.

Fishing methods were borrowed from native people, or invented to anticipate, and meet Nature’s where-and-when.

Whales grazing on swarms of tiny fish swam within reach of canoes and then longboats with strong oarsmen, and the lance. Longlines with baited hooks were set off the south shore in winter where bottom-feeding cod were known to feed. In summer, the striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, and squid cruising the coast on the bay side were directed into the hearts of pound traps by way of a fence of net set perpendicular to the shore.

Strings of fykes, traps strung along bay bottom, attracted flounder when the sun’s late-winter rays first drew them from the mud. Ocean seines set in a wide semicircle from the ocean beach corralled bass, bluefish, and sturgeon. Lobsters and crabs were potted, eels speared, clams raked, oysters and scallops gathered and dredged.

Seasons staggered the arrivals. Fish were brought forth and taken away by Nature’s cycles of abundance. Fishermen followed Nature’s lead, switching from clam rake to scallop dredge, to fyke, ocean seine and pound trap according to each year’s variations. Some years were leaner than others, but the system worked and local families were imbedded in it for both subsistence and commerce, generation after generation.

In worked until one hot day in 1990 when Thomas Jorling, then-commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, stood before an angry crowd ofEast Hamptonbaymen in the agency’s low-ceilinged basement room UpIsland in Stony Brook.

Very much in the room, but not present, were the crusading legions of sport fishermen who were claiming, in the name of suburban sport, an entire species, the striped bass.  They were also demanding that the state disregard the guarantee, the right to fish “without lett or hindrance,” given the settler families, the baymen’s ancestors, by James I ofEnglandin 1686. The crusaders wanted to see the ocean seine banned, and the striped bass declared a sport fish only.

The powerful sportfishing lobby had chosen many of the commissioner’s words for him. First, Mr. Jorling lifted the moratorium on the sale of striped bass – potentially a good thing — but severely limited the market fishermen’s quota. Bass could be caught and sold again, but the ocean seine, the efficient net that had hauled fish ashore on theEast End, first by hand, then by horse, by Model T Fords, surplus Army Jeeps, and jury-rigged pickups, could not longer be used to catch striped bass, the baymen’s “money fish.”

Four years earlier, the state had banned the sale of bass. Tests had shown that bass migrating east from theirHudson Riverspawning grounds were contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs, the result of the General Electric Company’s 40 years of illegal dumping. That same summer, the bays were turned coffee brown by the first in a series of algal blooms. Within two years, nearly the entire population ofPeconicBayscallops, the baymen’s money shellfish, had died off.

On a stormy day in December of 2005, gale winds whipped the surface of theAtlanticinto a white froth that took to the air in clumps. The blizzard of sea foam raced ahead of waves the size of houses and blanketed the faces of a tall bluffs as though to spare them the sight of the seas bearing down.

It was an outrageous assault on headland that for millennia had thought of itself as terra firma. The waves licked rich soil from the bluff face and turned the ocean brown. Rocks of schist, quartz, and granite, along with their tiny satellite grains, cascaded from the bluff. In former times, the stones and grains would have joined the broad beach that had always separated headland from the sea.

For ten thousand years, gentle rain and underground streams had caused the bluff to slough at an acceptable pace. But on this day, tomorrow’s beach was stripped away as fast as it fell. For the first time since the last glacier pushed rock, sand, and soil fromNew Englandand piled them here, the sea was able to take big bites. The land was being devoured.