Nature Notes: Disturbance in the Seas

Hunter-gathering, fishing, and agriculture are the oldest ways of making a living
Last summer and into the fall, whales and dolphins could often be seen from the ocean beaches here. Dell Cullum

According to the Holy Bible, fishermen have been using weighted nets to catch fish since Christ’s time 2,000 years ago. My Bible is from my grandfather’s brother, Laurence Penny, who died while fighting in Europe’s Great War in 1918. In the New Testament’s John 21, there is a passage about fishermen, Simon, Peter, Thomas, and others trying to catch fish after a night of catching none. Jesus called to them from the shore and asked them how many fish they had caught. When they answered none, Jesus told them to cast the net on the right side of the boat. When they did and tried to pull it up, there were so many fish in it that they couldn’t. They enlisted help to haul the net and its contents to shore.

This is just one of several allusions to fishermen and fishing nets in the Bible. Weighted-bobber nets came into use long before Christ was born. Nets were used because a fisherman couldn’t make a living using a hook and line. Nets are still used today in purse seining, trawling, and fish trapping. Local Montauketts, Shinnecocks, Corchogues, and Poospatucks taught our colonial fishermen how to make fish traps. They used a line of reeds to make the trailway to the “box.” Early colonists used poles cut from sapling trees. Again, a fisherman could not make a decent living, or even a living, fishing without nets, unless, say, you became a whaler or a swordfisherman. For very big prey, you needed a harpoon.

Hunter-gathering, fishing, and agriculture are the oldest ways of making a living and came into being when humans began fashioning and using tools. They are as old as the arts, at least as old as the drawing and musical arts, and as old as language. Today, in an age when there are more lawyers, realtors, and salespeople than farmers and fishermen, these two ancient ways of making a living persist, some would say barely. Farmers don’t work out of comfortable offices; they are outdoorsmen subject to the rigors of weather, while fishermen are subject to the rigors of both the weather and the seas.

It takes many, many years to become a good fisherman and a productive one. In the old days you cast your net, hauled in the fish, and sold most of them, keeping a few to eat or give to your neighbors. There were very few regulations. When one fish stock became scarce, you turned to another one. If that one petered out, you fished for a third. Each type of fish demanded a slightly different method of attack. Some live in schools, some are bottom fish, some come to the surface at night, some are loners. Some are spring fish, some come in summer, some appear in the fall, and a few are found only in the winter. If you stayed at it and fished each season, making adjustments from one to the next, chances are you would become successful. You didn’t need to know an algorithm or a second language, but you had to know the art of fishing.

You could become a successful fisherman, but then one day you could be wiped out by a storm, say the “perfect storm” of Halloween in 1991. If you survived, you had to start over again from scratch. All the while you are hounded by record keeping, by law enforcers, whether they be local bay marine control officers, Coast Guard members, State Department of Environmental Conservation personnel, or bureaucrats from the National Marine Fisheries Service, now under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. You have to write down everything you catch, even though you may have to throw most of it back because of limits imposed by the D.E.C. or fisheries service. Everything comes with a price.

Now comes a new threat to our Atlantic coastal fishery in the form of huge steel monuments reaching up 600 feet and moored in the seabed. They are oil rigs and wind turbines. Until very recently, both have been absent from our side of the North Atlantic, and while the latter have just made their presence known here, the former have been around since the 1960s, but only in certain California waters and the Gulf of Mexico as far as the United States is concerned.

In our rush to develop the oceans, we are forgetting about the 2,000-year-old fishing tradition, a tradition which is based on tedious observations and hard work. If any of you readers ever worked in a haulseine crew, you know how hard it can be. In the past 70 years or so, following a time when whale species saw their numbers approach single digits, and some fish species almost disappeared, we learned some very startling facts.

Whales, dolphins, and many fish species have evolved very sophisticated patterns of behavior based on sound, vision, touch, smell, and other sensory apparatus. All cetaceans have elaborate sound and echolocation systems. Most of our local marine fish species also use sound or other waves, say, via their lateral lines and swim bladders, to get by.

Sitting in a University of California Santa Barbara laboratory back in 1965, my research partner, Richard Ibara, and I were absolutely flabbergasted when a low drone started in an outside fish tank that contained a male of a fish species called a midshipman and a hydrophone. The buzz lasted for over an hour, same volume, same pitch. It turned out that it was a species-specific phenomenon, found in all midshipman males. (We had been marveling over the way their photophores lighted up in the dark, which was long known, but had never heard of the steady sound produced by a swim bladder. 

At about the same time, we learned that marine fish migrate using sound, their lateral lines, and visual cues as accurately as whales. Whales surface to fill their lungs with air from time to time, but also to look around and see where they are. The gray whale that migrates each year from Alaskan waters to the Gulf of California off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula is one such species that migrates close to the Washington, Oregon, and California shores, eyeing the coastal headlands as it goes. Gray whales know both the bottom and the sea surface by heart. 

The more we study whales, dolphins, and fish, the more we are stupefied by their composite natural abilities to orient as they make their long semiannual migratory trips in and out, up and down. If they don’t end up in the right place at the right time, they will lose out, sometimes completely.

Ocean disturbances such as the booms and bangs produced by Navy practices, the installation and long-term maintenance of oil rigs and wind turbines, the passages of big ships, whether they be cruise ships, tankers, freighters, or naval undersea and surface vessels, produce a cacophony of disturbances that would drive you and me crazy if we lived in the sea. The so-called unbiased scientists who make the environmental prognoses about how much industry can be safely sited off our coast and others but get most of their money from big business are hardly to be trusted. Their scientific bents are skewed to the curve of the dollar sign.

Why is it that so many whales have died at sea or stranded themselves on the shore? One species, the North Atlantic right whale, which migrates along our coast, is critically endangered. Orcas have not been seen in the English Channel or the North Sea, which are home to both hundreds of wind turbines and oil rigs, for several years running, and have been spotted only around a few fjords of Norway that are free from ocean obstructions. On our side of the Atlantic we have been spared such towering obstructions until recently. The new administration is anxious to rent United States territorial bottomlands, including those off our Long Island shore and those under the Arctic seas, home to polar bears, walruses, and beluga whales, for such uses.

Meanwhile, the governor of New York, the Suffolk County executive, and East Hampton Town Board members seem equally anxious to site such obstructions off East Hampton’s ocean coast in the name of “sustainability.” Fortunately some of the town’s trustees, a group that dates to the founding of East Hampton in the 1600s, when fishing and agriculture were the chief ways of making a living, are questioning such a large-scale mucking up of the seabed to accommodate big money interests based on the import of European technology, equipment, and expertise. If these wind turbines come, can oil rigs and a slew of other large-scale marine apparatuses be far behind?

What do you think?