Sunday, April 20, 2014
There are seasons, of course, in the sea.
Neither calendars nor clocks define them. Instead, like all the true measures of time—the years, the days, the tides—they are scribed by sun and moon across the vault of the sky. Yet, though seasons follow the sun, no two are the same. One spring may be precocious, and bring an early quickening to life at the water’s edge. Another may be timid, permitting frost to rime the salt marsh long after the equinox has passed.
I have spent my life close to the ocean, and know the rhythms of sea and sky. When a cold March plods at torpid Winter’s pace, April catches me unawares, and is gone almost before I know it has come. It was so on one late-April Sunday, when I found myself headed toward Robert Moses State Park. I planned to buy a fishing permit before sales stopped at month’s-end, although I didn’t really need it. I own a boat, and seldom fish from the beach. But I buy permits all the same, each one memorializing the start of a new season.
I drove over the bridge spanning Great South Bay, noting that the bay was surprisingly empty. There were no boats at all to the west. To the east, where flounder anglers once clogged Dickerson Channel, it was nearly as quiet. I could make out the silhouette of just one party boat, with one or maybe two private boats in attendance, perhaps two miles away.
Weather didn’t explain the emptiness. Clouds filled the sky, but they were a bright buoyant blanket that did not threaten rain. Only a light chop wrinkled the skin of the bay.
Farther along, I crossed the shorter bridge across Fire Island Inlet. A party boat floated beneath me, while a few small boats clustered around the bridge pilings and drifted over the bar to the west. Everyone seemed to be seeking a fluke or striped bass, trying to get the jump on seasons that wouldn’t really begin until May. Not a single boat was anchored near the lighthouse or elsewhere along South Beach, where they once would have waited to intercept hordes of flounder on their annual trip toward the sea.
The Park office, too, was unseasonably quiet. Its parking lot, usually jammed with anglers hurrying to buy their permits before sales ended, was all but empty. One person approached me, asking how he might get a permit for himself. He qualified his question by saying, “Oh, no, I don’t fish. Just want to hang out.”
With permit in hand, I climbed back into my truck and headed for home. On a whim, I turned down the road that led down to the party boat docks at Captree State Park.
I hadn’t gone that way for a while. Years ago, I frequently walked Captree in winter. Then, throughout the cold months, unless the bay was locked solid with ice, half a dozen boats would take anglers fishing for cod. It was a very modest fishery. For every day that provided good fishing, there were a few when little was caught. However, it provided some business for the boats and some income for the crews, until the government’s failure to end overfishing made fishing so bad that the anglers all stayed home.
For a while after the codfishing failed, Captree remained active in winter. Some trapped the red crabs that came in with the cold. Some fished for herring. On warm February afternoons, a handful of anglers might come out on a quixotic quest for flounder. When weather allowed, party boat crews would start getting vessels ready for spring, waiting for days warm enough to paint a hand-worn rail or weathered deckhouse. Many of the boats bore signs announcing that flounder fishing would start on the first weekend of March or, more often, on St. Patrick’s Day, long the unofficial start of the season.
But flounder grew scarce, and efforts to stem the decline failed, in part because the boats’ owners successfully fought needed regulations. They admitted that the fish were disappearing, but argued that limits must remain high; anglers needed the “perception” that they could kill lots of fish, even if reality dictated otherwise. In time, nearly all of the flounder were gone and that closed the March season in fact well before that season was closed by law
With April almost over, I had no problem finding a parking spot close to the dock.
Even a decade ago, the lot would have been filled with anglers' cars. Now, motorcycles sat in the spaces, and packs of leather-clad men with helmets beneath their arms replaced the anglers who used to stop to talk on their way to and from the dock.
Sixty-year-old teenagers with unshorn hair the color of winter rain huddled beneath the hoods of cars built when a gallon of high-test gas cost 29 cents. “442” and other such numbers shone from the side of each car, proclaiming their engines’ power; those engines rumbled and roared as if their noise alone could reverse the flow of time, erase things such as OPEC, foreign imports and Mideast wars, and take us all back to the world that used to be.
I left my truck then and walked to the dock, past a row of idle boats and onto the fishing pier, where I was welcomed by the piping “dee-dee-dee” of an oystercatcher flying above the marsh to the north. A song sparrow flew out from under the pier and into the phragmites lining the shore. Otherwise, I was alone.
A chill ran through me then, that had nothing to do with the cool water or the freshening breeze. Spring winds and April waters have been my companions for the past half-century and more. They are welcome old friends, and remind me of the joy that I’ve found just being alive near the shore. What I felt was a frisson of sadness, or maybe of fear, as I realized that a life I had loved may be dying.
Those who once would have lined the pier—singles, couples and entire families—were nowhere to be seen. A small huddle of people, hunkered out of the wind at the pier’s very end, playing some sort of card game, was the only human presence. Their four fishing rods stood ignored at the rail, lines trailing into the bay.
I felt a second’s guilt.
I have spent much of my life trying to promote conservation, speaking as a private citizen, representing various groups and sitting, for a time, on a federal fisheries management council. Members of the fishing industry have often accused me of backing laws and regulations that put their lives’ work at risk.
Is it possible, I wondered, that I could be partly to blame for the desolation on the pier? But, no.
To have fishermen, one must first have fish. The fishing industry successfully fought regulations needed to help the flounder and the cod. Anglers perceive that the fish are gone, so the anglers, too, have moved on.
I walked farther out onto the pier, to see whether the channel beyond had shifted over the winter.
To the east, a row of low islands—Sexton, then after a miles-long expanse of flats, West and East Fire Islands—stood dark against the haze-blurred horizon. They mark a place where Captree’s island once stood. But time moved on, Fire Island Inlet moved west and the island followed, with only a few sandy humps to mark where it once had been.
Twenty years ago, the island extended past the pier’s end, and ramps ran down from the pier to the shore. Today, ramps hang above open water, as more and more of the island’s sand washes into the bay. In two decades, the island has retreated a long way; perhaps a dozen yards from its current shore, a barrier of low, man-made dunes guards the edge of the parking lot. It is likely that, perhaps as early as this autumn, the northeast gales will blow, and the best efforts to hold back the tide won’t prevent the lot from being reshaped by the sea.
I started walking back down the pier. Over the bay, a flock of double-crested cormorants, flying northeast, drew a stark, black “M” against the cloudy-bright sky.
Back on the dock, I walked west past the boat slips. Many were empty. Judging by the signs, some of the missing boats were still seeking the bay’s scattered flounder. From the reports I had heard, they found very few.
In a reprise of a scene played out too often in too many ports, other boats were already seeking fluke and striped bass, the collapse of one species shifting effort onto other, healthier stocks. Whether those stocks can weather the added attention is anyone’s guess.
Whether the boats can survive is also an open question. A number of them sat empty in their slips, their owners having made the painful decision not to sail until later in the year, recognizing that there were too few fish—and thus too few anglers—to support all of the vessels in port. Instead of fishing, they attended to repairs. Mixed among the sound of hammers and saws, I heard the voices and songs of the Eagles and Bob Seeger, the same music that played on the stereo in my truck.
We are of an age, those owners and I. I used to have my boat in the water by the last week of March, and my wife and I celebrated the coming of spring with a meal of asparagus fresh from our garden matched with flounder fresh from the bay. We replanted the asparagus bed when harvests grew sparse, but could not help the flounder, so now my boat stays on shore until the weakfish show up in May.
Most of the owners had bought their boats when the island was longer, fuel was cheaper and there were plenty of fish in the sea. Now, too many fish stocks are down. Regulations designed to restore their abundance, and to guard other stocks from decline, hold promise for the future, but the owners fear that the price of waiting for that future to come will be far too high.
Life has changed for us all.
Over a century ago, Native Americans faced life-altering change. Many turned to the shamans who told them that, if they joined in the Ghost Dance, bullets would not harm them; the white man would be defeated and buffalo would return to the plains. Thus, it is not surprising that many of the owner have turned to latter-day prophets who promise that, if they all join together and speak the right words to the powers that be, regulations will not vex them, anglers will return to the port and, somehow, they will still, somehow, be plenty of fish for us all.
Having nowhere left to go, I climbed back into my truck. As I started to turn the key, a metallic-blue Dodge convertible, driven by what might well have been its original owner, peeled out of the lot and onto the ramp to the parkway.
Its engine growled defiance to the wind.