City Council Considers Criminalizing K2
The Dog in the Sky: The Decline of Long Island's Fishing Industry
By Fahmo Mohammed
A rainbow of orange, yellow and pink sifts through a blanket of clouds as the sun begins to rise over Long Island's North Fork. It looks like a bright day ahead, a good day for fishing. It also promises to be a chilly day. The early morning air is frigid and within minutes feeling is lost in hands and face if not covered.
Capt. Dave Brennan's boat is still tied up at the Greenport, New York, marina, swaying gently with the swells of the sea. Cars carrying hopeful fishermen and fisherwomen are parked nearby, their passengers staying warm inside their cars until the last minute.
As daybreak hits, autos line up near the dock to the North Ferry Company boat that shuttles between the mainland and Shelter Island. Seagulls cry as they follow the ferries up and down the Peconic Bay carrying people to work. An aroma of salt and diesel fumes perfumes the air.
Two of Brennan's crew members set up for the day ahead. They place fishing poles, for those passengers who don't have their own, in rod holders around the boat. Soon, The Peconic Star Express is ready to board.
Greenport Marina was once home to as many as 12 fishing boats. Now, only two remain: the Peconic Star Express and the Peconic Star II. Both are owned by Brennan. On this fall day, only one is going out into the Long Island Sound. Ten to 15 years ago there would have been dozens leaving from Greenport, which once had a thriving fishing industry.
Now, like many other ports around New York waters and elsewhere in the United States, the commercial and sports fishing industry has dwindled because of overfishing by commercial trawlers and fishing fleets, harsh federal laws on fishing quotas, climate change, and habitat and estuary destruction.
Brennan boards the Peconic Star Express around 7:20 a.m. A clean-shaven and portly man with white, slicked-back hair, he wears a navy blue Peconic Star crewneck sweatshirt, a light gray hoodie and blue washed-out jeans. He greets passengers with a smile and chats with them as he heads to the stern and climbs the ladder that leads to the bridge. Once there, he drops his black duffel bag, sits at the helm and turns on the engine to head out to sea. A small television is mounted on a counter, along with sonar monitors. The boat slowly eases out of the harbor to reach a cruising speed of between 10 knots and 15 knots.
Jermaine Owens, Brennan's mate for the day, joins the captain on the bridge to give Brennan the passengers' names and payments - $89 per adult for an eight-hour fishing day, and $79 for seniors. The captain takes the money and list, and thanks his mate. He asks for a cup of coffee, and Owens returns with a steaming cup.
The TV has a newscast on, giving details of a ship collision: A Canadian whale-watching vessel has crashed and sank off Massachusetts; some crew members have died. “Oh my god,” Brennan says, as he talks to a friend on the telecom system about the accident.
Brennan’s focus soon moves to the horizon. He looks and points to the right at a cloud formation.
"There’s a dog in the sky," he says. "Rain is coming in two days.”
That "dog in the sky” could be a metaphor of the fishing industry itself, which has collapsed from a once-bustling business to almost a relic.
The Fishing Business and Quotas
Fishing - both commercial and sports - was one of the largest contributors to New York’s economy in 1990. Today, fewer people are going into the business because of the costs associated with the upkeep of their boats, such as making sure each vessel fits Coast Guard standards, maintaining insurance and making general and annual repairs, such as scraping and painting the hull each season.
For an open-boat fisherman such as Brennan, it costs $200,000 a year to maintain a charter boat. Charter boats must also comply with fishing quotas, which drastically cut into their profits for each trip they make.
Quotas are set by the federal government. Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act on April 13, 1976, to stem the amount of foreign fishing in U.S. waters. In the 1960s and 1970s, foreign trawlers could fish in the United States, said Brad Sewell, senior attorney of the oceans program at the Natural Resource Defense Council.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act, which was amended in 1996 because of overfishing, now bans foreign vessels from fishing anywhere within 200 miles of U.S. continental shelf, Sewell said. The National Marine Fishery Service -- part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- reported that state fishing stocks have declined drastically, some almost to extinction. Others have reduced substantially, and are vulnerable to dying out.
The agency said the decline was a result of, “increased fishing pressure; inadequacy of fishery resource conservation and management practices and controls; and direct and indirect habitat losses which have resulted in a diminished capacity to support existing fishing levels.”
Today, the same regulations help restore fish populations. Besides regulating overfishing, the law mandates that regional committees rebuild overfished stocks by meeting quotas for each species of fish. The law also enforces long-term economic interests and helps local fishermen make a living. It also ensures a sustainable supply of seafood by restoring stocks of fish.
The National Marine Fisheries Service 2011 Report to Congress on the status of U.S. fisheries discusses "overfishing" and "overfished," and notes the difference between the two. This is important in understanding how catch levels and quotas are set.
When overfishing occurs, it means fish populations are being removed at high rates. Overfished is defined by those species threatened by extinction when an area has been exhausted by overfishing. For example, the stock distribution for summer flounder is moving up the coast to New York from where it used to be in Maryland.
“As we set catch levels at more sustainable levels, it enables us to sustain them going forward when they return,” said Sewell.
Today, catch levels and quotas are mandated by scientists who study fish populations to determine which species are overfished or in danger of being depleted. They also set restoration plans for permitted levels of growth for those endangered species, until they show positive signs of sustainable growth. As a result of drastic change in overfishing, and restored fish, quotas change every year for each species.
“The importance of these set levels is that they represent the amount of removals the population can sustain, while allowing the population to persist,” Victor Vecchio, acting legislative affairs specialist for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, said in an email.
One of the amendments in the Magnuson-Stevens Act gave regional fishery councils a stronger role in enforcing set quotas. For the New York City-Long Island region, they follow the instruction of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
“I work on summer flounder, black sea bass, and scup,” said Moira Kelly, fishery policy analyst for the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office at the National Marine Fisheries Service. “In the '80s and '90s, summer flounder were severely overfished. They introduced a restriction on fishing on summer flounder.”
Kelly said that the council and Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission are starting to reallocate the quotas on a state-by-state basis.
As quotas change for each species, there is added pressure for fishermen to turn a profit, particularly when they only fish for specific species. After quotas are set, public hearings must be held to communicate with fishermen and provide an open platform for them to voice their concerns.
“Very rarely do they take into account our opinions,” said charter Capt. Tom Michael Mikoleski, whose boat Grand Slam is based in Montauk, Long Island, and who is the treasurer of the North Fork Captains Association. “When the government comes to give you what they’re going to do, they’re basically letting you know what they’re going to do. Whether you like it or not, that’s the way it is.”
Although some fishermen feel this process is a political scheme, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration finds it essential in establishing a discourse between fishermen and fisherwomen about whether these quotas are feasible.
“The collaborative process helps fishermen help themselves by sharing a knowledge base ... and getting into a qualitative process,” said Vecchio.
Restrictions and quotas affect the industry as a whole. All the different sections – commercial, charter, recreational fishing -- are impacted differently by these laws. The commercial and recreational sectors are affected much more harshly, because they only prosper by how much fish they can receive. Charter fishing is different.
“At some time in the near future, if it continues on this direction, you will not have anything to fish for," said Capt. Michael Barnett, member of the board of the directors for the New York Sporting Fishing Federation. “Because, when they take pressure of one fish because of regulation, that sends the whole recreation community out to catch another fish, which is now going to put a dent in that population. So, little by little, you will have nothing to catch.”
A Bucket of Blood
Greenport is on the eastern end of Long Island. Dave Brennan's customers, though, primarily come from western areas of Long Island and New York City. He has been a fisherman in Greenport for over 40 years and has seen the industry transform.
"Greenport, when I first got there, the town was a bucket of blood,” Brennan said. “It was a hustlin’, bustlin’ commercial fishing town. And, that’s changed dramatically.”
Brennan moved his boat in 1980 from Captree State Park on the Great South Bay. He purchased his first boat, a 45-footer that carried 38 passengers, in 1974. He later bought a 63-foot boat in 1979.
At first, fishing was good in Greenport.
“As more and more competition arose in the west ... more boats started up business and ports west of us, we saw naturally our business drop,” Brennan said.
“Every year we have more and more for hire boats going by the boards, because the regulations are putting them out of business,” said Barnett, who owns a boat called Codfather in Freeport, Long Island. “There’s a number of things that attribute to that. ... A lot of people don’t fish as much as they used to.”
For a charter boat fisherman such as Brennan, the focus is on the head count. Brennan said he doesn’t know who is going to show up each morning, but he needs at least eight people to take the boat out and turn a profit. He supplements his income by giving lighthouse tours and allowing people to host parties on his boat.
But pleasing his customers is what matters most to Brennan.
“Your loyal customers, or your ‘regular steadies’ as we call them, are certainly the life blood of the industry,” Brennan said. “Without the tourist influx in the height of the season, as far as the summer time, we desperately need them. I could not make a living, if I lost one or the other of these groups.”
Vecchio considers this the reason why charter fishermen are more willing to negotiate on quotas, and other restrictions. They aren’t directly influenced by catch, as much as they are affected by their customers.
“Why do we buy lottery tickets?” Vecchio said. “Because, there is a $400 million chance to win. Why do people fish? Because, they want the recreational experience.”
Brennan fishes for scup (also known as porgies), sea bass, fluke and blackfish, all native species to the Mid-Atlantic. In 2015, the quota for porgies changed by season. In May through June, the quota was 785,060 pounds. Daily, the quota was 800 pounds, which is 60 percent distribution of the fish. July through August, the quota was 261,687 pounds, or 400 pounds daily.
Last year, New York regulations for porgies, May through December, were 30 to 45 fish that had to measure at least 10 inches, said the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
“We do have a unique situation out here, where the fishing is generally better than a lot of other places on the island,” said Brennan. “So we still get the hardcore fisherman, as opposed to someone who goes out to spend a day on the water.”
From May to September, for summer flounder, also known as fluke, fishermen and fisherwomen are restricted to catching only five fish a day measuring at least 18 inches. And for blackfish, the restrictions were just as rigid: four fish a day at 16 inches. The limits were mainly set because blackfish were being overfished and the federal government said that such restrictions will help restore the breed.
“Sustainable catch levels will enable the most fishermen to stay in the industry longer,” said Sewell of the Natural Resource Defense Council. “So if catch levels are too high, less fisherman will stay in the industry.”
Brennan struggles with the uncertainty of quotas regulations. Usually, he starts fishing for porgy and fluke on May 1. The opening day for fishing in 2016 has yet to be announced.
“It’s incredibly difficult for us to advertise, if we don’t know when we’re going to start,” he said.
The Last Haul and the Miracle Fish
Brennan is the last charter fisherman in Greenport. He says over the years many fishermen have come and gone, but he is the only one to survive, partly because of his experience and loyal customers.
“It’s his last day, that’s why I’m here,” said Donna Rudolph, a customer and assistant vineyard manager at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, New York. “I’ve been fishing with Dave for 12 years.”
“Sometimes we get tourist attraction but most of the time we get repeat customers,” said Brennan's mate, Owens. “And you get to know them. It’s like a family after 10 years, five years. I know all these guys a long time.”
Rudolph and others fished with Brennan on Nov. 15, 2015, for his last fishing day of the season.
“A month ago, this would be filled with porgy or sea bass,” said Steve Sullivan, a retired police officer, pointing to an empty blue bucket. “Today was the last day, so we wanted to come back and say goodbye.”
The day began bright, without a cloud in sight. The sky remained blue, and seagulls were in sight, but the air was brisk and the 10 miles per hour winds from the west made it difficult to fish. The boat swayed rapidly back and forth and fishing lines kept getting tangled.
“It’s funny. They say the worse the weather, the better the fish,” said Phil Rice, another retired police officer.
“Who said that?” Sullivan said. “Edgar Allan Poet,” Rice replied jokingly, playing on the name of the great American mystery and horror writer.
But on that last day of the season, something miraculous happened: Someone caught a codfish.
“In his 30 years, he has never caught a cod fish ... in late November,” Rudolph said about Brennan.
Atlantic cod are traditionally big fish - they can grow to be more than 40 pounds - and live in the colder waters of New England. Their migration south has a lot to do with how climate change is impacting fish populations.
“The range of fish like summer flounder and black sea bass have shifted north,” Sewell said. “Black sea bass are being caught in New England waters. Historically, it has been seen as a Mid-Atlantic fish.”
Customers aboard the Peconic Star have seen other oddities this year, including a number of dolphins and whales in August and November.
“It was unusual to see that and I’m not sure if that’s because of the bait fish or change in water,” Rudolph said. “Eventually, in climate change, we will see different fish come sooner or later."
“In the interim, the distribution of population changes as it grows,” said Vecchio of the oceanic administration. Fish populations now seen in the North, he said, are restored stocks that were being overfished in past years. The migration of fish has many causes, but as industry standards change, more fish are returning.
In 2014, the gross product for fluke, scup, and black sea bass was $90,633 in Greenport, according to a report by the Northeast Fisheries Center, which is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Bluefish grossed $40,661 and the value of groundfish - such as flounder and cod - was $26,536. Butterfish, mackerel, and squid grossed $20,400. These market values illustrate that most fishermen such as Brennan, who fish for fluke, scup, and black sea bass, do it because those markets are thriving compared to other smaller fish markets such as bluefish and cod.
Over the last year, the U.S. commercial fishing industry generated $6 billion, according to a report published by IBIS World. The market is expected to have an annual growth of 3.1 percent, and now employs 70,857 people.
Brennan said it costs him about $200,000 a year to operate his business and maintain his fleet.
“That’s including all your maintenance, fuel and crew, bait, insurance, advertising. … Anything over that I get to keep,” he said. Expenses vary. He pays about $2.40 a gallon for gasoline; his boat consumes 800 to 1200 gallons a week, costing from $1,920 to $2,880 a week.
The charter fishing market has a net worth of $316 million, said IBIS World, a global market research firm. The industry employs 4,177 people and has an annual growth rate of 1.4 percent. Over the past five years, charter fishing has been unable to revive economically after the recession, despite stiff competition and harsh regulations.
To maximize his profits, Brennan has started running four-hour days for tourists, charging $60 a head, rather than his usual $89 rate for all day.
“If Dave had to rely on locals he’d starve to death,” Rudolph said.
The difficulty of protecting jobs and protecting the fish stock is a delicate balance to strike. The fast-changing climate has to keep up with slow moving legislation, and fishermen such as Brennan and his crew are caught in the middle, and must continue to brace choppy waters ahead.
Although there may be a "dog in the sky," Brennan looks ahead to a future generation of fishermen.
“I’m at the end of my career, so I’m not as concerned as say, some of the younger guys in the business just starting out,” Brennan said. “It’s a pretty tough industry to get into.” Brennan worries for his crew members and the livelihood they will have in this industry because of the uncertainty their future.
But after heavy rains, the sky will clear up, and the dog will go away. At least for a while.