Photographers Doug Kuntz, 57, and Tara Israel, 30, are both natives of Eastern Long Island. Although they grew up decades apart, both Kuntz and Israel were drawn to a similar subject: the small-scale commercial fishermen who search for seafood in the Long Island Sound, using essentially the same techniques their families have for centuries. As these fishing families dwindle in the face of environmental regulation and competition from big business, Kuntz and Israel share their memories from many mornings out at sea.
A few miles west of the big commercial fishing docks in Montauk you will find the baymen of East Hampton. Working in small crews, sometimes even individually, these families have been fishing the waters of their ancestors for nearly 400 years, using the same methods that were passed to the early European settlers by Native Americans.
The same few crews, usually comprised of fishermen (and a few women) who are related to each other, set pound traps out in the bay, while a smaller number haul nets out of the ocean.
Others catch scallops by hanging dredges (metal baskets) over the side of small boats, then pulling the dredges in by hand and separating the scallops from seaweed and other unwanted items. The crews’ numbers have dwindled as many young people leave town after high school because of the high cost of living, or pursue the more lucrative path of offshore fishing.
If you ask any of these men to describe how they lift the pound traps or set the nets in the ocean, they usually reply with, “You have to see it to understand.” For the last few years I have been waking up before sunrise, hoping to do just that. I still don’t understand what makes one fisherman better than the next, but I have learned to recognize when some of these men are having a spiritual experience. They will go quiet for a while and point at something with a smile.
“You see that there?”
I will look to where they are pointing, sometimes on the horizon, other times a few feet away. I never see what they are pointing at. I just smile and nod.
“That’s pretty incredible.”
I rarely find what they are looking at, but even so I can identify an expression of pure bliss on the face of a fisherman who sees something they consider to be remarkable. It’s the color of light reflecting off the water. It’s the way birds follow a school of fish. It’s the moment, when focusing on a finite point, that you become aware that the universe is filled with infinite possibilities.
I first met Calvin Lester in 1964 when I was eight years old and Calvin was ten. This was the year that began my incredible thirty-six year journey as a commercial fisherman on Eastern Long Island.
Although I continued to work with these men on and off for four decades, I was looking for a way out as early as August 1983, when then-Governor Mario Cuomo, prodded primarily by sport fishermen, signed a striped bass bill that aimed to reverse a decline in bass population by increasing the minimum size of fish that could be caught. Most of us feared the new law would begin to erase centuries of fishing history on Eastern Long Island.
By the time this first legislation passed in 1983, Calvin had three children of his own: Danny, ten at the time; a sister Kelly; and younger brother Paul. All three followed in their father’s footsteps, and even as more restrictive state and federal legislation went into effect over the years, Danny, Paul and Kelly are still fishing today. However, they are never far off the radar of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, whose job it is to enforce the laws that many complain are enforced using outdated and faulty data.
Calvin’s own incredible journey would end sadly with his passing at the young age of fifty-four, in August 2007.
There is a spot called Waterfence, located at the end of a long dirt road that snakes and bumps along through the woods. Eventually the woods give way to the long grass of the dunes, which gives way to the winding shoreline of Napeague Harbor. There are stray wooden posts sticking out of the water, relics of past years’ traps, serving as tally marks of all the fishermen who have retired or moved on. There are still a few men out in the water almost every morning, deftly maneuvering small boats into their traps, hand sorting whatever fish are caught in the nets. Whatever is in season goes in the boat. Whatever is not to be caught that day is thrown back into the water, still alive.
Compared to the big draggers, overhead is low, as is the environmental impact.
The baymen grumble and shrug when the topic of the D.E.C. comes up, mostly because whatever happens, they know they are still going to keep doing what they are doing, even if they have to modify their techniques and practices.
When New York outlawed haul seining (a practice of fishing for striped bass in the ocean using a net set from the shore) in the Eighties, the local crews simply started using a gill net instead of a seine.
Beyond the introduction of trucks instead of horses, and rubber overalls instead of wool pants dipped in duck grease, the simple, efficient process remains mostly the same.
I first met the Havens family when I was eight years old. They were William, Floyd, Freddie and Lindy. They accepted me, an “outsider,” for the simple reason that I worked hard, and my mother, who had divorced, happened to be dating Floyd. By the time I was nine I was spending more time at the Havens’ than at my own house. As a teenager I was pretty much living on their couch for a couple of years, until I rented a room across from “Maggot Mike’s” diner in Amagansett for sixty dollars a month.
They took me in at a time when my home life was less than ideal, and they fed me and treated me as one of their family. Much time has now gone by, and all but Freddie have passed on. Growing up with them will always be close to my heart.
Men’s Lives, Peter Matthiessen’s 1986 book about Long Island’s baymen, starts with a Sir Walter Scott quote:
“It’s not fish ye’re buyin, it’s men’s lives.”
It’s true. It’s the men and women who have fought to adapt to the changing commercial industry. It’s the children and aging parents of the folks in the water who rely on the working generation. It’s the community that has been nourished by the ability to go to the market and buy fish that came in that day. It even trickles down to the guy who works at the gas station near where most of the fishing occurs—the baymen often give him some of their fish to express gratitude for him showing up for work so early in the morning, allowing them to fill up their trucks and boats before setting out for the day. There may only be a few of these small crews left, but the impact on this community is great.
Every few years another photographer will make their way out on the small dories with the fishermen, watching the sun come up over the quiet bay. The photos show the constant threat of being shut down they have faced for years, but they still set out every morning. The only thing that has really changed is the style of haircut and the color of the dog waiting patiently in the truck.
On July 8, 2011, D.E.C. officers entered Kelly Lester’s home in Amagansett through the backyard, without a warrant. The Lesters were not home, and the officers confiscated fish they believed were above the legal limit, including one Kelly had planned to eat for dinner. Kelly and Paul were also ticketed for selling shellfish illegally from a self-serve cooler. After a trial on October 26, 2011, both charges were dropped. The Lesters continue to make their living on the water, but the highly restrictive quotas that they are forced to abide by make it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to make a decent living.
I drive by Kelly’s house almost every day, and cannot help but wonder how she is doing, and also what her young son Will might be allowed to fish for —should he decide to when he gets older—without being arrested.