Long Island Fisherman in Dire Straits

Eliza Shapiro on how Sandy screwed the fishing industry.

Kathy Kmonicek / AP Photo

Usually at this time of year, Cpt. Mike Barnett of Freeport, Long Island is busy catching striped bass and blackfish. Frank Rizzo is taking families out on boat cruises. And Cpt. Ryan Cooke is making close to half of his business’s yearly revenue on chartered fishing trips.

Not this year.

Long Island’s fishing and boating industry, like so many other industries across the east coast, has been devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Boats and docks are destroyed, bait and fuel supplies are depleted, and fish have found safer waters—leaving Long Island’s fishermen in dire straits.

“I prepared for the worst, and this was much worse than the worst,” says Barnett, who runs fishing charters from his boat, The Codfather.

“It’s destroyed my business,” says Rizzo, whose mother, Elsie Rizzo, is the owner of Miss Freeport V, which for the past 12 years has chartered fishing trips and party cruises. “Sandy ruined two boats, ruined the office, and ruined all our storage,” he says. “We were counting on winter business, but I don’t think we’ll have any business now. The way Long Island has been destroyed, I don’t know who’s going to be doing parties.”

Rizzo has applied for FEMA relief, but he isn’t sure it’ll be enough to help his town, which has been badly battered. “There are piles and piles of clothing and furniture in the street. No heat, no hot water, and no gas. It’s living like a caveman,” he says.

Barnett, of the Codfather, says he’s lucky that his boat survived Sandy at all. He left it in the water, where it weathered the storm, but his neighbors were not so fortunate. Many fishermen had put their boats on cinderblocks in preparation. But “the water came up so high,” Barnett says. “It was like nothing we’d ever seen before. It knocked boats off the blocks and they traveled and ended up on people’s front lawns. It was one big collision in the boatyard with no one there.”

Barnett was counting on this week and the one before it. It’s traditionally the busiest period for his business. “This is usually a time where you see a full run of fish.”

Cooke, who owns Dragonfly Charters in Freeport, says he typically makes more than 40 percent of his yearly business during this time of year. He says the usually-bountiful crop of striped bass, blackfish and cod he expects in November is nowhere to be found due to debris and oil in the water. “We had fuel leaking out of boats that came down on their sides,” he says, “and oil tanks exploding for home heating washing into the canals. In addition to all the debris that washed out, that takes a pretty big toll on the fish.

Freeport is just one fishing town of many that have been decimated in the aftermath of Sandy. Businesses from Maine to New Jersey have been affected, and there are reports of seafood shortages in restaurants along the East Coast.

All along coastal Long Island, fishermen and boaters are suffering in Sandy’s wake. In Montauk, which is packed in the summer months with wealthy vacationers, business has slowed to a crawl for Capt. Gene Kelly, the owner of Tropical Fishing Adventures. “There’s no way to contact anyone,” he says, “we can go down to the boats and wait for someone to show up for a fishing trip, but no one shows up.”

Now, fishermen across the East Coast are preparing for a long winter without much business—and without the usual cushion of a flush fall.

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“We might do seal watch cruises or move the boat to Montauk for the winter so we can fish for cod,” says Cooke, “instead of closing up shop we have to work through the winter and think of new ways to make money.”