The Hard Life of Hamptons Commercial Fishermen

Although the Hamptons are the summer getaway and playland for the mega-rich, this was not always so. Before high-end boutiques and estates dominated the landscape, there was a rough seafaring community running the economy.

Commercial fishing was a trade passed down through generations. It was the backbone of the town. The stronghold of fishermen working out of the Shinnecock Inlet today provide a necessary product to the area—fresh, local fish. Through they are reluctant to let go of the old way of life, the trade is no longer being passed from generation to generation. And an important part of the Hamptons’ history, culture and identity is at risk.

Captain Mike Bauhs may be the only member of the next generation of local commercial fishermen. Bauhs is 32 years old, a Hampton Bays native, and the youngest boat owner fishing out of Shinnecock. He owns and captains the vessel Windsong and fishes mostly for sea scallops and squid.

“It’s not a promising future,” Bauhs said. “It’s a tough job and people don’t want to do it.” Bauhs started his career as the captain of the charter boat the Reel Action, which was owned by and ran out of Oakland’s Marina. After fuel prices went up, the charter fishing business was crushed and work was hard to come by. Bauhs found a commercial vessel for sale named the Vincenzo. It was the right boat at the right time and, most importantly, with the right permits.

Bauhs took the opportunity and bought the boat from Sandy Mason, a man who had been fishing all of his life. Mason helped Bauhs make his transition. He showed him the ropes, and Bauhs had a ballpark figure of what could be done financially, so he took the risk. Bauhs ran the Vincenzo for a few years, until January 2012 when tragedy struck.

“We noticed the back of the boat was sitting low,” Bauhs said. “We just pulled our third tow in but it wasn’t that heavy for how low the boat was sitting.” Bauhs and the crew began to dump the catch and head home. Bauhs went to the lazarette (the rear section of the boat where the rudder and steering is), and it was full of water.

“We were scared,” Bauhs said, “I lifted the hatch to pump out the water, but water had gotten into the fuel and that was it.” They were 12 miles offshore when the engine seized. The crew donned their survival suits and radioed the Coast Guard. Luckily another fishing vessel was five miles away and responded to the call for help. No one was hurt. Even with all of the technology available today, fishing is still a dangerous profession. Ironically, that is not what is deterring potential future fishermen.

Ray Lofstad is 54 years old, and has been fishing out of Shinnecock since 1977. “There is no future here for commercial fishing. There are half the boats down here then there used to be,” Lofstad said. “In the future there will be less.” There are approximately 20 boats fishing out of Shinnecock currently. Skyrocketing fuel prices and tough government regulations are strangling the local commercial industry.

As the latter half of the 20th century approached, a shift in the industry began to take place. Government regulations and catch laws enforced by agencies like the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to protect stocks from overfishing hurt the industry. It is a bitter relationship between fishermen and conservationists. The families who had been working in the trade for generations were facing the loss of their livelihood if regulations were too strict. However, if regulations were not put in place, fish stocks would have been depleted. The industry would perish anyway, and there would be a world of ecological problems.

According to Lofstad, when the quotas were divided up for the Atlantic seaboard from the Carolinas to New England, New York got the smallest piece of the pie. In the South, there are lobbyists fighting for bigger quotas, but in New York there aren’t. The fleets and their boats in the surrounding areas are much larger than the boats operating out of Shinnecock. Carolina fishermen have larger quotas and can come up North, catch fluke according to their less stringent regulations and land the fish back down South.

“The fish are here in numbers,” Lofstad said. “They won’t let us catch them. If we don’t, someone will.” The evidence that someone else is catching fish is apparent at the local supermarket, where a majority, if not all, of the fish comes from Japan, China and other foreign countries. According to Lofstad, Stop & Shop does buy some of their seafood from local fishermen.

Many fishermen don’t want their kids to enter the industry, and many of the kids don’t want to be fishermen anyway. The restaurant business, construction and landscaping have all overtaken fishing as leading industries for employment, mostly catering to the rich who visit just a few times a year.

Jason Hobson is another Hampton Bays native who fishes on a boat out of Shinnecock. Hobson is 35 years old and has been fishing since he was 12. Gas prices, according to Hobson, are also suffocating the industry. “Everything is going up except the price of fish,” Hobson said. “It’s sad. If I have kids, I don’t want to give them a taste of fishing because I can’t leave them the business. My kids wouldn’t be able to take after me.”

Lofstad sold his federal license because to fish with it he had to travel 10–12 hours offshore, with fuel costing well over $4 a gallon. It cost $600 out and $600 back, and that doesn’t include the cost of actually fishing once offshore. “I am trying to process the fish on board,” Lofstad said, “because the end product brings in more money.” According to Lofstad, selling squid to bait companies has become more profitable than selling it for calamari.

After the Vincenzo sank, it took Bauhs about three months to find his new boat, Windsong. “Thank God I saved enough money to get by,” Bauhs said. “To find a nice boat in my range is hard. I have a small boat compared to some of the big boats in the New England operations.” The consensus among the fishermen in Shinnecock is that the government is pushing out the smaller boats because it is easier to regulate fewer large boats.

Hobson said a fisherman practically needs a college degree to be able to understand all of the regulations, to run the computer for packing out and to fill out the enormous amount of paperwork that comes with the job. Bauhs agrees—he said fishing is the fun part; the hard work comes with maintaining the boat and keeping up with the paperwork.

The future is brighter for Bauhs because scallops and squid are his two main sources of income. “Scallop prices are on the rise because everyone eats them now,” Bauhs said. “They’re popular and delicious.” But fewer and fewer people are getting into the commercial fishing industry today. We could be seeing the last generation of an industry that gave our local landscape its identity.

The Hamptons prides itself on fresh local ingredients in restaurants, farm stands and at the fishmongers. More and more of the fish available to us are being imported or farm-raised. Regulations are important, and protecting the sea is the first priority. But we should look closer at the fairness of the regulations and where a majority of our fish is coming from. With a few tweaks to the system, the fish served on the East End could once again be overwhelmingly local, and an industry that once dominated could at least endure.

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