For all of his life, Ed Warner Jr. has gotten up each morning and headed out into the gray dawn, exactly as his father and grandfather did, to harvest fish and shellfish from Shinnecock Bay.
But this week, Mr. Warner and his son, Danny, are preparing to redirect a major chunk of their time, particularly in the fall, to the waters of the Atlantic instead.
At a dock near the rocks of the Shinnecock Inlet, a once impenetrable barrier for the fishermen who work the bays in tiny boats, the two Mr. Warners are outfitting a boat they recently purchased for dragging nets in the ocean. This is the first time the fishing family will have focused on the ocean rather than the bay.
One dock over, there rocks a row of boats hung with large drums wrapped in large-meshed netting—gill nets, to be hung in the water like a curtain beneath floats, to ensnare fish. Each morning, the fleet heads out into the ocean to set their nets and return in the evening with bluefish and striped bass for market.
At the wheel of one of the boats is Jon Semlear, also making the first forays into the ocean after a lifetime of fishing in the bays.
Fishermen like Mr. Warner and Mr. Semlear, both Southampton Town Trustees, were dubbed “baymen” centuries ago, for the waters they worked. In the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of baymen fled the profession for work on draggers and gillnetters, or changed careers altogether, after the “brown tide” and resultant collapse of the bay scallop stocks robbed them of the most lucrative and important harvest of the year.
Now, more of the few who have survived are being chased away by a new scourge, another bloom of algae even more insidious than the infamous brown tide.
The red tide, a bloom of algal-like organisms called Cochlodinium, has appeared each year for the last 10 years. The baymen say it chases the finned fish out of the bays by the fall, once one of their most important seasons for harvest.
“It literally runs the fish out of there,” said Kenny Mades, a bayman from Hampton Bays who has fished along the northern shore of the bay most of his life. “It has completely changed the northern side of Shinnecock Bay. They just go.”
Cochlodinium has been shown in lab tests by Stony Brook University scientists to kill fish and shellfish if they are exposed to it for more than one hour. Last year, a large school of fish died in a small enclosed harbor on the North Fork where a dense Cochlodinium bloom was occurring, and over the summer hundreds of thousands of bay scallops mysteriously died, almost all in areas where Cochlodinium blooms occurred.
Mr. Semlear says the red tide first appeared in the small creeks around Noyac, where he lives and fishes, 10 years ago, but that it didn’t spread into the bay around his traps until about four or five years ago. Since then, he’s seen the patterns the fish in Little Peconic Bay and Noyac Bay follow as the season wears on.
In the spring, the fishing the last several years has been very good. Porgies, fluke, striped bass and bait species like menhaden would flood into the bay in May and June. As the waters warm, they would settle into the deeper, cooler waters of the bays. Come early autumn, traditionally, they’d regroup and start to slowly filter out of the bay, mixing with a smattering of late-season arrivals like butterfish and herring, and provide a very lucrative fishery as baymen prepared for the winter’s shellfishing harvests.
But no longer.
“Since we’ve had the red tide, my fall fishery has been 25 percent of what it was,” Mr. Semlear said this week. The decline has forced him to take a job running a gill net boat owned by another fisherman. “That’s why I did it—my fishery is falling apart.”
Mr. Semlear recalled going for a ride with a friend in an airplane over the Peconics last summer. He said the russet-red striations of Cochlodinium blooms were clearly visible. and schools of menhaden could be seen in the areas of clean water between the blooms.
In Shinnecock, the elder Mr. Warner, who fishes gill nets from a small skiff in the bay in spring and summer, said the arrival of the red tide is like a switch.
“I had 30 pounds of Spanish macks the day before the red tide showed up and haven’t seen one since,” he said. “In the past, by the second week of August, the bunker would come back into the bay, and the [striped] bass would follow them in. But now they don’t come, and the last three years I’ve had to go out to the ocean to fill my bass tags.”
So this summer, Mr. Warner and his son decided that the ocean would be an integral component to earning their living for the foreseeable future. They purchased a 40-foot dragger that they will use to fish for flounder, porgies, fluke and other fish in the ocean from summer through late fall.
“My son wants to continue his commercial fishing career, and I think that’s the only way to go forward at this point,” Mr. Warner said. “We’ll do summer and fall, then go back to digging clams, skimmers, razors, whatever God will give us to take out of the water.”
For Mr. Mades, who is 75, the option of going to sea to make up for the losses in the bay is not there.
“I’m going to put a fish trap in right after Labor Day,” he said, “and it sickens me to think what it will amount to. I could cry sometimes.”