Public domain photo

Long Island’s fishing industry may have dodged a bullet this hurricane season, although the official season for the Atlantic Basin does not end until Nov. 30. Yet stormier seas may be brewing for the years ahead.

Local fishermen sounded an upbeat tune after a sequence of intense tropical cyclones did not make landfall. While precipitation disrupted some local events in recent weeks, fishing operations have gone along without interruption.

Eric Huner owns and operates Captain Fish Port Jefferson, a fishing charter boat based in Port Jefferson that transports tourists and locals for fishing charters.

“For me personally, it didn’t affect me at all,” he told TBR News Media. “I can’t say there’s any real loss, probably for any private fishing boat like myself.”

On the commercial fishing side, the experience was relatively similar, according to Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association.

“As far as those guys that were fishing, most guys were out fishing the next day” after Hurricane Lee brushed past the Northeast, she said. “There wasn’t really much of an impact, thank goodness.”

Difficult past, uncertain future

Those interviewed suggested the Long Island fishing industry had averted a major threat with these storms avoiding landfall.

Reflecting upon the commercial impacts of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Brady remembered it as “particularly vicious” for the shoreline, with consequences for the fishing industry as well.

However, Huner said that irregular winds and tidal patterns are increasingly commonplace, complicating matters for his business. With projections for more frequent and intense storms, Huner said his line of work is becoming less predictable, noting the increasing difficulties in deciding which days to fish and selecting departure times.

“This year was the first time I took notice of the weather patterns being very difficult to predict,” he said. There was “a lot of volatility in the wind patterns, difficult to find windows of opportunity to go out,” adding, “It was not a normal, stable summer.”

More broadly, Brady expressed reservations about the regional trend toward offshore wind, saying this infrastructure could disrupt the local fishing industry.

“Offshore wind is going to, from our perspective, industrialize the ocean beyond any kind of repair,” she said. “It’s a very frightening time for our ocean, and that’s why we’re fighting so hard against it.”

Optimistic outlook

Huner said that the fisheries remain well populated despite the climactic challenges, a positive indicator that conservation efforts are working.

He also stated that the nature of the trade requires frequent adaptation to changing conditions. “The local fisherman is a pretty experienced person on the water,” he said. “I’m constantly reviewing what the weather forecasts are, what the wind forecasts are — and that’s a big part of my job.”

He added, “It takes a little more work, and if this is going to be what we call our ‘new normal,’ then we’re just going to have to be really on top of it.”

Adding to these sentiments, Brady said local fishermen are used to adapting “to changes in the water every day.”

“Those who are good at this trade tend to be experiential learners,” she said. “Every day, the ocean can change. The tides change. The moon changes. So they learn to adapt based on living it.”

By Patricia Paladines

West Meadow Beach is one of four locations in New York State where horseshoe crabs are protected from capture for the biomedical and bait fishing industries throughout the year. It is a beach where during full moons of May and June we can witness an annual event that has been occurring for thousands of years in this part of the world; the migration of horseshoe crabs from the depths of the Long Island Sound to mate and deposit eggs on the shore at high tide. The beach’s sand bars are literally where single males and females “hook-up.” 

Horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) have roamed the seas for over 400 million years. Long Island’s north shore, having existed for just around 20,000 years, is a relatively new site for the romantic rendezvous. 

I’ve led walks for the Four Harbors Audubon Society at West Meadow Beach where we’ve counted hundreds of horseshoe crabs on the stretch of beach between the parking lot and the jetty on the southern end. On a recent solo walk, I came upon a fisherman who had reeled in a horseshoe crab. He was about to use a knife to tear the baited hook out of the horseshoe crab’s mouth. I stopped him and showed him how easy it was to remove the hook by hand. He said he had been told the crabs were dangerous and that the tail could hurt you. After informing him that was incorrect, I took the crab and placed it back in the water while letting him know these animals are protected on this beach. 

I may have come upon the scene just in time to save that horseshoe crab, but the beach was littered with the shells of other crabs that appeared to have been purposely killed. On the same walk I found a large female who had been smashed by a piercing object. A few weeks ago, a couple of friends found a horseshoe crab that appeared to have been burned. There is evidence of many overnight bonfires on the dunes, some very near the piping plover nest barricades. 

Dead horseshoe crabs were not the only bottom feeding sea creatures strewn along the beach. Sun dried sea robins and a few skates also littered the high tide line. 

It was late afternoon and the beach was filling up with fisher folks, both men and women. That meant there would be a lot of bait attracting bottom feeding animals, AKA scavengers, fish and crabs that stroll the sea floor feeding on whatever they can find. Fisherman’s bait is easy pickings, but not the safest, especially if you are not a species preferred on that fisherman’s plate. 

I spotted two fishermen who had just reeled in two sea robins. I went over to ask them what they were going to do with them. They told me they were going to throw them back, but then I noticed a live sea robin on the sand just behind them. I picked it up and threw it back in the water hoping they would do the same with the ones they had on their hooks. I continued my walk near the line of fisher people and found more live sea robins on the sand and threw them all back in the Sound. One woman told me the fish just wash up on the beach with the waves. No, that doesn’t happen. 

I came out for a walk to find peace in the natural beauty this beach offers Brookhaven residents; instead, what I found was upsetting. I talked to a few of the fishermen and learned that some are coming from Nassau County and Queens. Do these people have permits to fish on Brookhaven Town beaches? 

When granted a fishing permit, does the person receive educational material about our local sea creatures and respectful beach use etiquette? The beach is littered not only with dead animals, but also fishing-related garbage — hooks, lines, plastic bags advertising tackle. Educational material should be in various languages. I’m a native Spanish speaker so was able to speak to the Spanish and English-speaking fisher people in the language they were most comfortable with. My experience as an environmental educator on Long Island has informed me that there are speakers of many languages who enjoy catching their meals from our waters; Czech, Polish, and Chinese are some of the other languages I’m aware of. 

Education and patrolling are needed on our beaches. Additionally, West Meadow Beach should be closed to fishing during the horseshoe crab breeding season; allowing fishing during this time is counterproductive to efforts in place to protect a species whose numbers continue to decline along the Atlantic Coast. 

Patricia Paladines is an Adjunct Instructor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and Co-President of Four Harbors Audubon Society.