Chapter 10 - Sportsmen and Politicians
Every year since 1951, a bill designed to curtail or eliminate the net fishery of striped bass had been submitted to the New York State Legislature, accompanied by a great amount of paper-waving, fist-shaking, and shouting, and a pervasive outrage not unlike the crackling sputter of a basket of blue crabs. These perennial "bass bills" were the violent concern of the thousands of New York anglers who were said to support them and the few hundred commercial fishermen who were opposed; they also concerned marine biol-ogists and conservationists, most of whom had never endorsed such legislation, first because, despite strenuous claims that these bills were conservation measures, the real benefits to the bass itself were not apparent, and second because their one consistent feature had been dogged insistence that the recreational fisherman be permitted to sell his catch on the commercial market, in direct competition with a handful of men who still earn a hard livelihood from the sea. From the start, these anglers had been encouraged by their allies in Massachusetts, which prohibited netting in 1945, yet remained one of the leading states in commercial landings of striped bass; all Massachusetts fish sold on the market are caught on hook and line.
On February 29, 1956, I went to Albany with a delegation of commercial men led by Captain Ted Lester of Amagansett to attend the Joint Public Hearing on Striped Bass Legislation; we were there to fight the latest bass bill, known as the Hook-and-Line Amendment, which proposed to follow Massachusetts's lead in reserving the capture (and sale) of the species to those who fished with rod and reel, thereby eliminating the commercial netters at a single blow. With self-serving statistics and conservation propaganda [/ to further discussions on the subject of anti-commercial "spin doctoring"], the sportsmen's lobbies were establishing sly tactics that would harass the netters for the next twenty-five years.
The New York State Assembly chamber, ornate and heavy in the style of a cathedral, was brightened that day by the cold bright light of winter afternoon in the high windows. The small group of commercial men, squashed into one wedge of benches far around to the Speaker's left, seemed almost excluded from the chamber by a noisy crowd of anglers, who were passing about a stuffed striped bass for the edification of the Conservation Committee. After five years of debate, the legislators showed small interest in this plastic fish, and the bass, a large browning specimen with a stricken gaze, was probably more helpful to the delegates from the bird and garden clubs, who otherwise might not have known what manner of beast they had been mustered to defend.
Observing the horseplay from their corner, the Laymen spoke little among themselves. They did not feel comfortable in sports jackets, much less in the assembly, and with their livelihood on the line, they did not share the jocularity of these "sports" who were so anxious to put them out of business. For the most part, they fidgeted in silence, like children instructed not to speak in church. Staring upward and about at the vast stone monument to their state taxes that enclosed them, they waited grimly for the business to proceed.
Shortly after 2 P. M., the Speaker (Leo Lawrence) called the hearing to order. Welcoming the delegates on behalf of his committee, he expressed the hope that this year things might go more peaceably than in the past. He then introduced various personages in the legislature, the Conservation Department, and the Sportsmen's Council, Marine District of New York, an organization of one hundred or more fishing clubs that coordinated the anglers' political lobbies. Finally he introduced the secretary of the Long Island Fishermen's Association (Nick Griek), an urbane, sad-eyed, soft-spoken man whose crestfallen air at the very mention of the Hook-and-Line Amendment conveyed deep sorrow that such rank hypocrisy could be presented as a conservation measure to the honest lawmakers of New York State.
Presently the sportsmen and their affiliates rose one by one to identify themselves, and to read off the names of their fishing clubs and kindred organizations, all of which had organized behind a lobbying outfit called the Sportsmen's Council, and all of which pledged undying support to the high principles of the Hook-and-Line Amendment. The idea was to confront the legislators with a whole army of earnest voters whose main concern in life was the rescue of Morone saxatilis.
The Speaker had earlier announced that all speakers on both sides, in any number, would be limited to five minutes apiece, and the anglers elected to turn over their collective time to a Howie Fink of Montauk, whose smile of greeting faded quickly as he got at the meat of his dissertation. At what one must suppose was the top of his voice, Mr. Fink portrayed the migration of unsuspecting Chesapeake stripers, venturing north along the coast until, in all innocence, they fell afoul of the treacherous shores of eastern Long Island. "There," cried Fink, red in the face, so outraged was he by his own revelations, "up pops the Devil!"—he whirled to stab a big thick finger at the small diabolical delegation in the corner—"and MASSACRES those fish!" Describing such infernal machines as the beach truck, seine, and dory, Fink invited the assembled politicians to contemplate the sad fate of those voters—hotel and motel keepers, restaurateurs, garage owners, tackle shop operators, tavern keepers, and liquor store owners—who were being forsaken by the empty-handed anglers, and the suffering caused by the seiners' unholy greed [ "Who catches more of what" is a constantly recurring theme if fishery allocation issues. Follow this link for an analysis of recent recreational and commercial catch of the important Mid-Atlantic fisheries]. In effect, he accused the fishermen of cruelty to the rich, since the victims were far more prosperous than their oppressors.
The Baymen stared at Mr. Fink in sincere astonishment, then laughed, and their amusement was shared uneasily by some of Fink's own cohorts, who looked taken aback by the vehemence of their champion and no doubt feared that his violent speech would come back to haunt them.
When Fink had subsided, the Speaker turned over the floor to the bill's opponents. The first of these, a young surf caster, said he was ashamed of his fellow anglers, who were being selfish, since there were plenty of bass to go around. He ignored Fink's address, and so did the Suffolk County Supervisor (Stewart Topping); representing the region whose small businesses would theoretically benefit the most by the legislation, the supervisor had come to Albany to state that Suffolk County was squarely behind the netters. Nick Griek, nodding sadly at Mr. Fink, sighed as he rose, "Up pops the Devil," and stood there smiling diabolically until the laughter had subsided; then he coldly dissected the true purposes of the "phony sports" and "commercial sportsmen" who wished to have the sale of bass all to themselves. A fish trucker (Rodman Pell), who was familiar with Fink's sales slips, said that Mr. Fink was cleaning up as a commercial sportsman; in his opinion, Mr. Fink's Montauk residence had been constructed at the expense of the striped bass. The mayor of Greenport (Otis Burke) pointed out that the year-round economy of a fishing town deFended a great deal upon the commercial men, whose welfare was at least as important, from a municipal point of view, as that of the seasonal anglers. A manufacturer of fish boxes (Jack Scheres) called the New York State pressure on the striper insigificant by comparison to the commercial landings in Maryland and Virginia, and a spokesman for the Fulton Fish Market (Joe Monani) denounced the bass bill as a dishonest conservation measure. A repesentative of the Wholesale Fish Producers and Dealers (Bob Johnson) reminded the committee that a great number of jobs—drivers, packers, countermen and the like—were dependent on the commercial men, and Captain Ted Lester wondered aloud why Mr. Fink, a self-proclaimed expert on the commercial bass fishery and a resident of the seining area, was unaware that two beach trucks were invariably used and not one, as he had stated.
When the sporting faction had recovered its wind, a number of protesting voices asked to be heard. The Speaker limited the right of rebuttal to just one, a delegate from a Long Island fishing club not affiliated with the Sportsmen's Council. This young man, speaking for "true" sportsmen, said that the anglers of his acquaintance had no interest in profiting from their catch, and did not feel that the right to do so had any business in the Hook-and Line Amendment: they supported the bill because, as serious students of conservation, they had concluded that the haul-seiners were "decimating" the bass. (This conclusion spoke poorly for the conservation studies of his club, but his misgivings about the sportsmen's right to sell their catch while denying that right to the netters were shared by many other anglers, the great majority of whom do not catch fish in commercial quantities and would not consider themselves sportsmen if they did. ) In conclusion, Perry B. Duryea of Montauk, minority leader and lobster dealer, who would lead the political opposition to the bass bills for many years to come, extolled the heritage of the East End Laymen and their right to continue in their traditional livelihood.
From the beginning, the Montauk charter captains had played an ambivalent role in the bass bill disputes. These captains, whose own livelihood in spring and fall depends in great part on the bass, could have told their clients that the fish were plentiful but unresponsive, and that lack of success when conditions are not perfect rarely stems from a depleted bass supply. It stems, as they cannot point out, from the anglers' own lack of experience and skill with a phlegmatic creature not easily captivated by jigs, spoons, bucktails, plugs and poppers, swimmers, or rigged eels except during the rare "blitz" when the fish will take almost anything that moves. Sometimes big bass have been observed lying like logs on sandy bottoms, and it seems, at times, that the lure must bounce from fish to fish in itsquest for a susceptible and energetic specimen. Of those fish caught from charter boats, many are actually jigged' and hooked by the captain or mate, standing behind the client "checking" his reel as the boat passes over a known hole or rock. Once the fish is well hooked, the mate hangs on to the jumping line as the rod is returned to the unskilled labor in the cockpit; then he lets go, and the strike—"There he is!"—occurs a moment later. Even with such stratagems as these, few bass are outwitted on the average day by the much greater number of men and boats dedicated to this purpose.
In 1956 Captain Gus Pitts stated at a meeting of charter men that striped bass were plentiful, but his less expert colleagues supported a bill prohibiting the sale of striped bass in New York State, thus making it a game fish. This bill won very small support from the organized sportsmen, who, for all their conservation talk, were not yet ready to give up their own form of commercial fishing.
Once again the Joint Conservation Committee decided against the bass bill, explaining its reasons in a statement issued a week after the hearing. "The striped bass has been the subject of study for a number of years by a number of eminent marine biologists, none of whom recommend such a law.... The Committee is much impressed with the healthy growth of salt-water angling as a recreational sport, and the figures which were offered in testimony to show that the sale of tackle, bait and other goods and services purchased by salt water anglers represent an important economic consideration.... At the same time, the Committee feels that the residents of Long Island who, like their forebears, have engaged in commercial fishing, are entitled to consideration in view of the lack of any showing that their fishing operations are endangering or even depleting the striped bass population."
With their defeat in Albany that year, the anglers' lobbies put aside the discredited conservation argument, producing instead a ten-page bulletin of economic statistics, copies of which were delivered to the Conservation Committee and the newspapers. The bulletin's purpose, to quote from its introduction, was to "present certain statistical data and economic analysis heretofore overlooked in considering the proposed Hook-and-Line Amendment for Striped Bass in the Conservation Laws of New York State. " Under the heading, STRIPED BASS IS NOT AN IMPORTANT FOOD FISH IN THE COMMERCIAL NEW YORK METROPOLITAN MARKET, the bulletin asserted that "striped bass, expressed in terms of'Fish Meal preference' served to the public, amounted to only one-tenth of 1 percent of all fish meals served!" The exclamation mark was characteristic ofthe astounded tone ofthe bulletin, which also arrived by ingenious means at the figure of 22.5 million dollars as the annual sum expended by striper anglers for the direct benefit of the "real solid citizens" of Nassau and Suffolk Counties (further identified, in capitals, as VOTERS). This amazing sum was favorably compared to the less than one million earned in the bass fishery by the commercial men, whose support of the businesses of the "real solid citizens" was not worthy of mention.
The qualifications of the sportsmen's statisticians were listed in imposing array on the final page. He was a member of five statistical and trade organizations, and he was also the delegate to Albany of the Matinecock Rod & Gun Club of Glen Cove, Long Island, and a director of the Sportsmen's Council, Marine District of New York, at that time the main lobbying organization. His bulletin supported the first of its two main points with an eye catching pink chart portraying two diagrammatic columns, side by side. One column, running nearly the length of the page, claimed to represent the consumption of all marine fish other than striped bass in terms of "fish meal preference," or f.m.p.; the adjoining column, dwarfed and pathetic, represented the f.m.p. consumption of striped bass. But his chart did not bother to indicate that over thirty-five species were represented in the first column, nor did it reveal that cod, butterfish, fluke, whiting, and porgy accounted for over 80 percent of all fish consumed, and the porgy alone for nearly half; on close inspection, it turned out that the great majority of popular food fish were in far worse "fish meal preference" condition than the striped bass. That year, among the remaining thirty species, the bass ranked fourth in pounds landed, third in total value, and second only to the swordfish in wholesale price per pound, plain figures that—to people ignorant of sportsmen's statistics—might encourage the idea that we like to eat it. In all of these categories the bass exceeded the bluefish, a poor f. m. p. fish if ever there was one, and it also exceeded in value as well as poundage the combined contribution to the New York markets of the shad, weakfish, sturgeon, and mackerel, all heretofore desirable species whose f.m.p. rating on the sportsmen's chart was simply terrible.
Under the heading, HAUL-SEINERS CAN EARN MORE MONEY ELSEWHERE, the sportsmen's dishonest bulletin went on to state that in "Printing and Publishing, the Apparel Business, and other industries," the fisherman could improve upon the ninety-four cents an hour that was his meager lot in 1956. Unmentioned was the likelihood that the fisherman would prefer a free and modest subsistence in the beautiful ocean landscape where his family has lived for hundreds of years to industrial labor in the cities as a wage-earner in the Apparel Business; that he might enjoy his way of life every bit as much as these sportsmen enjoyed the manipulation of statistics; that he should not be deprived of his traditional living so that a more powerful group could make money on its sport.
It is true that most fishermen are poor, but they are proud of their work and proud of their independence. Working on shares rather than on salary, they are no man's employees, choosing fishing as a way of life in the full knowledge that they could make more money elsewhere. Because striped bass are essential to their livelihood, they are at least as concerned about this fish as are the sportsmen; they dislike the destructive seining of immature fish in southern waters and the ruin of the many rivers that formerly harbored bass. As Dr. Edward Raney, the striped bass biologist, once observed of the campaigns against commercial men by anglers, "Ifthe sportsman would put equal energy into correction of known contributing causes to scarcity of stripers, the future of the species would be far brighter."