Shellfish License

Written By: Monica Leeds

Shellfish License

“Come to the Hamptons with us, my boyfriend has a share house.” My fun-loving cousin Sally said to me one warm summer day. In 1980, at age twenty, always ready for a good time, I happily joined them, landing in paradise. Soon after, I moved into a cottage where in the mornings the sun crested and glistened over Peconic Bay followed by misty nights lulled to sleep by the Coast Guard foghorn. I bartered my way to a low rent with a senior couple who lived next door. I took them to their doctors’ appointments and took care of their health needs, in exchange for a hundred dollar monthly rent. I learned about some of the obstacles East End health care was for our aging population. Gladly, however, many times when there was a gap in care there was various community groups who opened their arms and wallets. They would volunteer to build a wheel chair ramp and donate medical equipment.

As a poor Stony Brook University nursing student, frugality was a necessity. I knew where all the Ladies nights were at the local watering holes. On Mondays the Cruiser Club, by the Shinnecock Inlet, had free cocktails and a buffet spread of all you can eat hero sandwiches. I’d put on my mini skirt, spiked high heels, then proceed to flirt my way in to avoid the five dollar cover charge. When the band would start jamming, calling everyone to the dance floor I would proceed to stuff my extra large purse with as many sandwiches as it could contain.

Tuesday nights led me to Dune Road. The Catbalu was the happening spot. Their Ladies night included shrimp and corn on the cob. Peeling your own shrimp and husking the corn was the only minor inconvenience for a free meal. Wednesdays brought me to Hot Dog beach, where you guessed it, free hot dogs. Thursdays through Sundays was reserved for date nights or potluck ladies night leftovers.

At low tide on many walks along Peconic Bay beach I would see various sizes of scallop shells wash up along the shore. Cascading each shell’s rim had the most brilliant blue eyes. Growing up on a lake in New Jersey, I knew how to fish but shellfishing was new to me. I’d seen scallops served in restaurants, but never saw them in their natural environment. It fascinated me how each ocean creature could live harmoniously together. I envisioned they swam by noticing what was right with each other rather than what was wrong. They serenely shared the vast brine with no hatred or war in their sea world.

On a recent date with my classmate Scott, we went to a festival at the Long Warf in Sag Harbor. Here we observed the Baymen shucking the shellfish and discovered the sumptuous taste of fresh bay scallops.

Since this was the beginning of the semester, my meager budget was gobbled up buying textbooks, a stethoscope, a blood pressure cuff and other nursing gear. The next day after school I decided to swim for my supper.

I went down to the bay near the Lobster Inn Restaurant, amongst the sea grass, rocks and sand there was an abundance of shellfish. When the tides are changing the currents swirl and stir up the small shells. Carrying my two gallon yellow net bag into the water, I had a vague feeling I was doing something wrong but brushed it aside. I was faintly aware of a shellfish license but thought it was only for commercial fishing. My stomach was rumbling, remembering how melt in your mouth delicious scallops are.

The tide was just right, where the bay and canal currents met; thousands of bright blue eyed shells lay before me. I imagined them screaming “pick me” as if they knew they were sacrificing themselves to a struggling college student whom would appreciate every morsel. Under the water felt like I was in a Salvador Dali abstract clock painting in which time is endlessly skewed. Floating in the primordial ooze where problems drifted away giving me new hope and stamina to help solve the world’s ills.

In the rippling tide jellyfish appeared like parachutes. I‘d been stung before but today they barely noticed my presence. In about half an hour my bag had about two dozen scallops. Diving up and down the water I failed to notice the bright orange Bay Constable boat perusing the water for illegal activity.

The yellow net bag had a wire handle attached to a ten-foot rope that I tried as inconspicuously as possible to tie around my ankle.

‘This would be my get away plan. I’ll pretend to just swim and nonchalantly swam back to my cottage.’

Since I had been on the swim team almost every summer in my youth, I thought I could swim faster than the Bay Constable’s boat. I tried to swim like my best fifty-meter freestyle race in thirty-five seconds. Heading out as rapidly as I could muster with the contraband scallops flopping back and forth as I tried to kick with one leg while attempting to conceal my other leg under the water. I managed to get about a thousand meters from my cottage. Suddenly I heard a loud horn blow and the officer yelled for me to “stop swimming.”

‘If I ignored him and get close enough to the shore, I’d wiggle the bag off my ankle and drop it. I’ll walk off the beach and when he drives away go back to retrieve my dinner bag.’

The more I tried to ignore him the angrier he yelled. I finally relented and stopped. A big burly no nonsense guy. A hybrid version of the Incredible Hulk, red faced with angst from screaming at me, a force not to be messed with or disobeyed. He commanded me “get in the boat!” He hoisted my petite blue bikini clad curvaceous body…followed by a ten-foot rope and the yellow net bag … full of my loot of scallops into his boat. “Where is your shellfish license?” he asked.

With downcast eyes I said, “Oh, I guess I left it at home.”

“Well I’ll drive you home, if you can show it to me I will not give you the five hundred dollar fine.” He blurted out.

At that moment, all I could think of was how was I going to come up with that kind of money. That is a semester worth of rent. Nursing school was very expensive. Trying to juggle studies, a part time job as a nursing assistant, barely kept me ahead of the monthly bills.

The Constable officer drove me home. I was cold, shivering and frightened. I pleaded with him, “please don’t give me a ticket. I promise I shall never do it again, I’m just a college student trying to make ends meet.”

He looked at me with an air of disgust and said, “why didn’t you think of that before you broke the law?”

I stammered, “I grew up in New Jersey. I have only lived here six-months and did not know about the shellfish license. I thought it was only for commercial fishermen.” As a last resort I began to sob. This tactic had worked many times with my parents. To my amazement it worked. I confessed, “I don’t have a shellfish license.”

I endured his lecture on how hard the local commercial fishermen work and who am I to try to take away their livelihood. Briefly flashing back to the recent Sag Harbor festival, I recalled how the local Baymen generously donated their catches of the day for everyone to enjoy fresh shellfish. As remorseful as possible I apologized again. He dropped me off on the shore near my cottage. He took my yellow net bag, dumped out the scallops into a bucket, then handed me the empty bag as he sped away. I pondered, were those unlucky scallops going to be his dinner? Why didn’t he dump them back into the bay?