Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Last Fisherman

I met Dan Dzenkowski well before dawn on a Saturday morning in July 1989, at his dock, which was next to a fish market on an inlet called Stirling Creek, in Greenport. Dan was the last pound net fisherman on Long Island Sound. We shook hands and boarded his boat. He was 64, friendly and open and perfectly willing to accommodate me and my questions. His brother Joe was another story. I shook Joe’s hand and he scowled, and kept scowling for the entire trip.

The other mate hadn’t shown up yet and after a wait of a few minutes, Dan telephoned him, woke him up, and reminded him that they were working that morning. He turned out to be a much younger man, named Jim, who went about his business without any nonsense but without any hostility either.

As we waited, a trawler eased alongside the fish market for its supply of ice, which the one-man crew shoveled into three tubs the size of bushel baskets. Dan told me than Greenport used to be far busier. Each day an ice house would deliver a ton or more of ice to keep the catch fresh. Fishing boats would line up for ice in the morning and return later, their holds filled with weakfish and striped bass and squid. These days, Dan said, three or four boats at most needed ice.

Dan maneuvered his boat down the creek — which he pronounced crick — and through Greenport Harbor, turning south past Long Beach Point, and then east along Peconic Bay toward Orient, an hour away. Joe stayed on deck for the duration. Jim dozed in the cabin. I talked with Dan as he stood at the wheel.

He told me – no surprise here – that the fishing was not as good as it used to be. Fishermen have retired or found other work and few young men want to sacrifice the security and relative ease — weekends and holidays off, steady hours — of a conventional job. And there aren’t as many fish as there used to be.

As a young man Dan grew potatoes and cauliflower on a North Fork truck farm, catching lobsters evenings and in winter. Fishing accounted for a substantial part of his income for about half of his 64 years. By then, however, most of the small farms were gone, and their maritime equivalent — the fishing boat with a crew of two or three men — was disappearing too. Stirling Creek had been taken over by cabin cruisers and condominiums.

At the lighthouse beyond Orient Point we made a hairpin turn and plowed through Plum Gut into Long Island Sound. The sky was growing lighter although the sun hadn’t risen yet. Only one of Dan’s six nets were in the Sound – the others were in Gardiner’s Bay, but we were heading to the Sound first because the net is staked close to Plum Gut, which funnels water between Gardiner’s Bay and the Sound at six knots, and the only safe time to work it is at slack water, which was approaching.

A pound net is set up perpendicular to the shore. The fishermen stick eight or ten large posts into the water leading out from the beach, and then string a net along the posts. The net intercepts the fish as they’re swimming along the shore and forces them to swim out from shore. The pound, which is also made of netting, is attached to poles at the far end. The fish are led into the pound which is constructed so that once they get in, they can’t find their way out.

Dan’s judgment that morning was solid — the water was calm and he easily edged the boat against the pound net’s outer side. Without exchanging a word, the crew moved into action.

On the bow, Jim looped a rope to one of the net’s outer stakes. The boat rocked briefly, then stabilized. Then Jim and Dan each dropped into one of the dinghies we had been towing. Each found his balance standing on the bow and maneuvered along the net to the far end of the pound. Now Pulling themselves back toward the boat, they began to raise the net by unhooking it and re-hooking it at a higher spot, flapping it to loosen the hundreds of spider crabs that clung to it, making the pound smaller and smaller as they progressed. When Jim arrived at the boat, Joe hopped down onto his dinghy alongside him, and together they returned to the far end of the pound, where Jim crossed onto Dan’s dinghy. Joe returned to the boat and tied the dinghy to the stern.

Now standing in the same dinghy, Dan and Jim began easing their way back toward the boat, hoisting the net with hooks, closing it even further, shaking the spider crabs loose.

I could look down from the deck of the boat into the pound, which the three men had made much smaller by tightening the net. The fish knew they were trapped, and they looked panicked, flashing and bolting across the pound and around its edge, quick as lightning.

When Dan and Jim were about five feet from the boat, Joe extended a grooved plank to their dinghy and Jim used it to climb up on board. Joe grabbed a mechanical scoop net, and Jim, operating a pulley fastened to the cabin, lowered it into the pound, where Dan, who had his own scoop net, filled it with fish.

Joe called out, “O.K.” Jim switched on the pulley, lifting the scoop net over the deck and opening its bottom to spill fish into and over the edges of a plastic basin. The fish smacked together. Dan filled the scoop net twice more before the pound was empty. Then the men lowered themselves into the dinghies to reset the pound. I counted the catch — winter flounder, fluke, an eel, bonito and bluefish, lobster, moss bunkers, butterfish, scup, spider crabs and horseshoe crabs, squid, sea robin, skate, Spanish mackerel.

By 6:20 a.m. we were back around Orient Point, heading west in Gardiner’s Bay to repeat the routine at Dan’s six other nets. The sun suddenly was a dull orange disk above Plum Island. A tern cried as it flew past.

As he piloted the boat Dan told me pretty much what I had expected to hear: the fishing was not as good as it used to be. He said he was catching the same species as always but there were fewer of them: “You catch as much but you don’t catch as much of it,” Dan said.

He told me that the pollution scare of 1987 and 1988 — when medical waste was befouling beaches in New York and New Jersey — hurt him seriously. He sold some of his fish to the fish market near his dock in Greenport and sent the rest to Fulton Market. “Last year was the first time the guy I deal with called and said don’t send any more in,” he said.

At the time, there was a total ban on commercial fishing for striped bass, because of PCBs. Like all commercial fishermen, Dan believed the fears were exaggerated. When stripers were legal to keep, Dan would fish until Thanksgiving because bass are so numerous in the fall. At the season’s peak he would ship 200 60-pound cartons of bass every day for a week. Now, because of PCBs, Dan quits about October first. At the day’s first pound, when two fine specimens had thudded to the deck, Joe barely glanced at them. He grabbed them by the tails and flung them back into the Sound.

At the second net, in Peconic Bay, an osprey was sitting on a stake. “This is where the fish hawks get all their fish,” Dan said. “They just sit there and pick what they want.”

At the third net, every stake was a perch for a cormorant. “Especially in spring that net will be solid black with birds,” Dan said. “You get a couple of hundred birds on a trap, they can really do a job on them. Plus, they drive the stuff out.”

Black-backed gulls sailed behind us as the boat rumbled from one net to the next. They screeched in anticipation when a load of spider crabs — inedible and no good for bait — was dumped overboard. When the crabs hit the water the birds shut up, realizing that the crustaceans were not what they were hoping for.

The birds’ luck changed after the sixth net. Dan set the boat’s automatic pilot and the three men began cleaning bluefish: the belly of a large blue will sometimes hold a smaller fish, which will putrefy and ruin the bluefish. They worked fast, slicing open bellies with a ripping sound, scraping out the innards, which they tossed overboard, sending the gulls into a frenzy. The boat moved steadily forward, with Dan showing no concern as it neared the next pound. I stood alone in the cabin, looking from the pound, which was growing ever nearer, to Dan, who did not bother even to glance up. I held my tongue. The boat bore down on the pound net. I looked back at dan again. We were going to slam into the net. At exactly the right time – and at precisely the last second -- Dan quit cleaning bluefish, returned to the cabin, and guided the boat alongside the pound with such matter-of-factness that it could hardly even be called grace under pressure.

We were done by 9 a.m. At the fish market near the dock the men lifted the catch onto a platform, weighed the fish, and packed them with crushed ice in waxed-cardboard cartons. The market bought 45 pounds of Spanish mackerel, 17 pounds of bonito, 16 of squid, five of flounder, 12 of porgies, and 60 of bluefish. Dan, Joe, and Jim packed the remainder to be shipped to Fulton Fish Market — 370 pounds of blues and 48 pounds of porgies. They didn’t bother to weigh the bait fish, which they would sell to lobstermen and conch fishermen. The day’s total: 583 pounds of fish, or the equivalent of about 10 60-pound cartons. Five or six years ago, Dan said, he would ship 4,000 to 5,000 cartons a year to New York, half of them bass. Now he ships about 1,000. A decline on that scale takes its toll. Dan said only three crews fish pound nets on the North Fork of Long Island now. Two decades ago, he said, there were 25 or 30.

“It seems like every year you lose a few,” Dan said. “It’s something that a few years from now you probably won’t see any more.”

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