Battle Over Bass And a Way of Life

Sportsmen push to ban commercial fishery that has a 300-year tradition

THE striped bass are in their fall migration along the shores of Long Island. Sports fishermen talk of blitzes, feeding frenzies, and fiberglass rods bent double by 20-pound fish. Anglers are jubilant at the comeback of the prized fish some predicted was fast on the way to extinction.

But the baymen of Long Island's South Fork, a dwindling clan of several dozen commercial fishermen, do not share the "sporties" joy.

At issue is the migratory Morone saxatilis, a fish known by rod and reelers as crafty and hard-fighting. For the baymen, striped bass are known as bread and butter, a fall moneymaker up to three times more valuable than any other fish in their nets. But sport-fishing lobbies are pressing state legislatures along the Atlantic coast to classify stripers as game fish and entirely remove them from the commercial market. Should New York adopt this policy, baymen say their 300-year-old traditional fishery will

come to an end.

Although pressure from sportsmen's organizations to limit the commercial catch began in the 1950s, the most decisive move came in 1985 when New York lowered the threshold banning the sale of fish contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These tighter health regulations prohibited all commercial harvesting of striped bass. But in 1990, with lower levels of PCB present, a commercial bass fishery reopened with strict quotas and a ban on haul-seining, the baymen's most effective method to catch ba ss.

Many sport-fishing organizations conclude that during this five-year commercial moratorium, striped bass made a strong comeback - proof that removing the fish from the marketplace is the key to their recovery and survival.

"If we make striped bass a game-fish, we take the dollar bounty off its head," says Fred Golofaro, editor of Fisherman magazine. "That's the only way I see to insure its survival as a species. This is not a social issue. The interests of sport and commercial fishermen have no place in the discussion. This is a biological question, and the only relevant interest is that of the fish."

Mr. Golofaro is concerned that new publicity about the baymen will pressure New York lawmakers to increase quotas and again permit haul-seining. This trend forces his reluctant support for game-fish status, he explains.

Arnold Leo, secretary of the East Hampton Baymen's Association, says the conservationist rhetoric of the sportsmen's lobby is inconsistent with studies both by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the federal Department of the Interior. Each agency concluded that recreational fisherman account for at least 90 percent of the striped bass harvested along the Eastern seaboard.

According to DEC records, recreational fishermen killed approximately 1 million pounds of stripers last year in New York alone; 700,000 pounds were kept and 300,000 pounds were released but later died from stress or injury. East Hampton baymen harvested only 67,000 pounds.

"The sportsmen kept 10 times the amount we baymen were allowed to sell," Mr. Leo says. "Now they want it all. Just the amount they threw back - fish that later died and were wasted - was about five times what we could keep last year.

"So much of what the `sporties' say about us is plain propaganda. We're not asking for more fish to be taken out of the ocean. We're just asking for a more fair share of the million-plus pounds already harvested. For them, it's fun. And it's a billion-dollar business for the companies that cater to them. For us, it's survival," he says.

The greatest threat to the species, says bayman Danny King, is pollution of the coastal river spawning grounds, not the nets of the East Hampton haul-seiners.

"Thinking that game-fish status will take care of the problem is chasing a false sense of security," Mr. King says. "The real problem is pollution, not us. Putting us out of business is just scapegoating an easy target."

Public sympathy for the East Hampton fishermen heightened late last summer when King and his crew illegally haul-seined several hundred pounds of bass during an act of civil disobedience. Pop vocalist Billy Joel, whose music video about the baymen was among the more requested on MTV in August, participated in the protest and was fined by New York authorities. Largely through benefit concerts during the past few years, Mr. Joel has raised some $175,000 for the baymen's cause.

"The baymen are the essence of this area," Joel says. "The real Long Island, the disappearing Long Island. With no political base and no lobby, they are an old community trying to survive. They are living history."

When King launched his American-flag-emblazoned dory into the surf in defiance of New York law, he says he felt as if he was enacting the contemporary fisherman's version of the Boston Tea Party. Amagansett surfcaster Richard Berkley, a long-time Long Island sport-fisherman, called it an act of "ecological terrorism."

"Haul-seining is a dirty fishery, which can indiscriminately kill whatever happens to be in the way of the net," Mr. Berkley says. "It makes no sense to expand the very industry that was greatly responsible for the decline of the fish - just at the time when the species is recovering...."

The bass controversy underscores a fundamental problem for biologists and lawmakers alike: how to manage a fish that breeds and migrates from the Canadian Maritimes to the Carolinas - with fishery law varying widely from state to state - and whose stewardship is claimed by both hobbyists and working fishermen.

John Cole, author of "Striper," one of the most comprehensive books about the fishery, says caricatures created by both camps - a yuppie sportsman with an L. L. Bean fly-rod and a ruthless bayman with a bloody gaff - are self-defeating fiction.

"To be fair to the sportsmen," Mr. Cole says, "they're not elitists by any means. For every Wall Street investment banker out there with a new four-wheel-drive, there's two New York City firemen out with their kids.

"And the East Hampton baymen are the finest men I'll ever know," he continues. "They work hard for little pay in a dangerous job that offers few benefits. But you've got to understand that for a working fishermen, catching as much fish as you can as efficiently as possible is the goal. Some unwanted and small fish are killed and are thrown back dead. That might be upsetting to some people. But in the big scheme of things, it probably doesn't make much difference. But losing people like bayman Francis Les ter does."

Francis Lester is 82 and can't get used to throwing haul-seined fish back in the water. For a Long Island bayman with 300 years of maritime tradition behind him, keeping the catch is what fishing is about. But with his son Jens and grandson Mitchell, that's what the New York Department of Environmental Control (DEC) pays him $150 a set to do. And unless New York fishery law is changed, that tradition will disappear. Under a special research contract with the DEC, the Lesters are the last and only legal s triped-bass haul-seining crew left on Long Island.

After the Lesters' nets are hauled to the beach, wriggling with striped bass, DEC biologist Victor Vecchio weighs, measures, and tags the fish before releasing them into the surf. The Lesters tend their nets and gear, turning their backs to the fish.

"Don't make much sense but it's better than no work at all," says grandson Mitchell Lester, likely the last of eight generations of Lester haul-seiners. "There's enough fish to go around - the bass have come back strong. What was thrown back would make a decent day's pay."

According to Mr. Vecchio, a limited commercial bass fishery - including haul-seining - is compatible with sustainable management. He says haul-seiners like the Lesters have suggested modifications in gear and alternative methods of setting nets that reduce mortality of undersized and un- marketable fish - the chief complaint against their traditional way of fishing.

"We don't mind changing with the times. We just don't want our way of life to be put out of business by the times," says Mitchell, as the last bass marked with yellow tags escapes into the Amagansett surf.

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