In a story by Sir Walter Scott, a wealthy man asks a woman selling fish how much she wants for a couple of them, and expresses astonishment at the price. The woman responds, angrily, “That’s not fish you’re buyin,’ sir, it’s men’s lives.”
Peter Matthiessen used the quote as an epigram for his 1986 book, “Men’s Lives,” an extraordinary account of the diminishment of centuries of South Fork independent fishermen making a living from the bays and ocean.
Some cared then, some not. According to The New York Times, a state senator, responding to a 1983 bill before the New York State Legislature, which would cut into incomes of the commercial fishermen in favor of sport fishermen, said that fishermen put out of work could find employment “changing sheets in motel rooms.”
Shelter Island’s economy is now based largely on tourism and real estate, and the baymen are becoming few and far between. It’s not only fish that are not being caught and sold here, but a heritage sold off quickly and on the cheap.
One positive change to help the Islanders who make a living on the water and keep alive a tradition all Islanders can take pride in is a local bill that, as our story from last year notes, is aimed at protecting the livelihood of resident commercial shell fishermen. It would allow residents to take shellfish for their personal use from town waters, without outsiders competing for the same limited supply.
Shelter Island would join other East End towns that have enacted similar legislation.
This is, to put it mildly, a long time coming.
In March of last year, baymen went before the Board asking for protection from outside fishing interests. Bayman John Kotula summed it up, saying that if he were to try placing crab pots, eel pots, or went clamming in Shinnecock Bay, he’d be “ticketed or arrested” within half an hour. “We have no protections,” he said.
Commercial fishermen from other areas can come to Shelter Island waters and have the same access to bay bottoms as residents with no repercussions. There have been outsiders harvesting in commercial quantities, Mr. Kotula said. Bay constables in the summer of 2021 tried to take action, only to have the case tossed out because of the lack of protection in the Town Code.
The Board should act now, for men’s, women’s, and all Islanders’ lives.