For 14 generations, members of the Bennett family have set sail from Montauk on an ancient chase for flounder, fluke, weakfish, mackerel, porgies, cod, mako sharks, black sea bass, long-finned albacore tuna, yellowfin tuna and giant bluefin tuna and, closer to shore, clams, scallops and
Clint Bennett first got his own feet wet in the family business in the late 1980s, when the Great South Bay was teeming with clams and the local fishing industry was strong.
He was 3 years old. Maybe 5.
“He would say to his mother, ‘I want to go chamming. I want to go chamming,’ says Bennett’s partner, Kim Esperian. “So they made him a [clamming] rake his own size at that young age. Right?” she says to him, holding up an old black-and-white picture of Bennett as a boy digging around in the water for clams.
“No,” Bennett interjects, “I think I was about 5 there.” Esperian won’t have it.
“No, [your mother] said you were 2 or 3 and they made you your own rake,” she insists. “Their dad and their grandfather rigged up something that was light enough that he could actually pull and get clams and sell them.”
Bennett, now 38, says that commercial fishing is “in my blood,” and it’s hard to argue. His 17th-century ancestors learned fish trapping techniques from members of the Montaukett nation. Bennett wouldn’t want to live any other way, he says.
“It’s an industry that feeds the world,” he says.
Putting fish on the table
At the end of each trip, the haul of fish “comes off the boat, and goes in a truck to the [Bronx-based] Fulton Fish Market. From there it gets distributed all over the world — countries, continents … and that’s why we do it,” Bennett says, “because it’s in our blood. And we love to provide. That’s how we were brought up.”
For years before getting his own boat, Bennett studied the ways of Montauk fishermen. “We listened to the old-time guys — fishermen that knew what they were doing. And we observed it and put it deep in our heads. And we kept it,” he says. “Whenever I get on the deck of a commercial fishing boat, I know that my life could be gone any second. We take that risk, and we pay attention, and we listen, and we try to work together and get the job done.”
Commercial fishing is one of America’s most dangerous jobs. In 2019, commercial fishermen suffered work-related deaths at a rate more than 40 times the average worker, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Regionally, the East Coast has a full third of all commercial fishing fatalities in the United States, more than any other region in the nation. Only logging work kills more Americans than commercial fishing annually.
It’s why Peter Matthiessen’s classic nonfiction account of the history of East End fishermen is called “Men’s Lives” — a nod to a piercing insight from 19th-century Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott, who gravely wrote: “It’s no fish ye’re buying — it’s men’s lives.”
Still, the tempestuous North Atlantic, ripe with some of the world’s richest fisheries, beckons one generation of South Forkers after the next out into its waters.
“Fish aren’t dispersed in equal numbers throughout the ocean,” Matthiessen observes in the book. “The act of catching them is both an art and a science, requiring that fishermen be acutely attuned to the present moment. A quarter degree in water temperature can shift their migratory patterns — as can shifting tides, wind, the time of day, and a whole host of unpredictable factors.”
While a small percentage of the sailors are women, the term “fishermen” broadly describes the entire industry, says Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association.
“Anybody that does it? They’re fishermen,” she says. “There are very few women I know that fish [professionally], but those that do, don’t want to be referred to as a fisherwoman or a fisher or anything but fishermen.”
A history on the water
On the South Fork, commercial fishing — America’s oldest industry and one of the nation’s last bastions of the man-versus-nature, hunter-gatherer tradition of our ancestors — is drying up.
In the 1800s, the East End had been a whaling hub, where local fishermen primarily fished for sustenance — to feed their families and their communities. But in 1895, the South Fork’s commercial fishing industry began a rapid expansion after railroad tracks first reached Montauk and fish hauls could be packed in ice and shipped straight to New York City. (The railroad reached Greenport on the North Fork a full half-century earlier.)
But in recent decades Montauk’s commercial fishing industry has been slowly, steadily decimated — by regulation, by politics and by summer people, according to interviews with fishermen in East Hampton and Montauk.
The federal government began regulating the fishing industry in 1976, with the passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the federal law that governs marine fisheries management in federal waters. The law was intended to phase out foreign fishing fleets and combat overfishing to maintain sustainable stocks of fish.
Then, in 1990, haul seining was banned in response to pressure from, among others, the Department of Environmental Conservation in New York and the sport fishing lobby. Sports fishermen surfcasting on the beach for striped bass, it seems, got tired of watching commercial fishermen dragging nets full of stripers onto the beach while their lines weren’t even tugging. The sports fishing lobby also tried without success to take make striped bass a game fish only, Brady says.
A haul seine is a semicircle of mesh webbing nets that are dragged beneath the water and pulled to the shore, encircling stripers and dragging them en masse to the shore.
Generations of East Hampton and Montauk fishermen used horses to drag the nets onto the beach, and later trucks. Haul seining is the most efficient way to catch striped bass — a key “money fish” for Montauk’s commercial fishing industry.
So, in 1992, East Hampton’s baymen staged a protest, with several of them dragging a haul seine full of stripers onto the beach in front of the media, state DEC officials and federal marine officers. Local officials in support of the protest and Billy Joel — who had released his hit song “Downeaster Alexa” about the plight of the local baymen just three years earlier — were arrested alongside baymen and fishermen.
“I was on the beach that day,” Bennett recalls. “My grandfather wasn’t feeling well and wasn’t able to make it, so I went down for him. I was like 7 years old and my mom brought us down. I went down and grabbed a fish out of the [haul seine], I dragged it up the beach myself, and I sat on line to get arrested … to make the point that ‘you’re going to ruin my industry. As a young, young bayman, you’re going to destroy this by the time I’m older.’ ”
When a young Bennett presented himself to be arrested, officers declined.
“Instead, they arrested my mom, for my actions,” he says, still incredulous decades later.
The sea in his skin
Brady’s husband, Dave Aripotch, has been a Montauk-based commercial fisherman for so long, he believes that he literally can’t stop.
The weather-worn captain of the 73-foot trawler F/V Caitlin & Mairead, named for two of his daughters, isn’t sentimental about the future of the East End’s commercial fishing industry. He’s old enough to remember when a local fishing boat captain could support his family with a reliable living, and even more in good years. Before so many fishermen were priced out of homes their families had lived in for decades by wealthy summer visitors.
Aripotch, 67, says commercial fishing put his five kids through college. He figures it’s going to take another decade on the seas before he can retire. “I’ve got millions of dollars invested in this boat.”
Back in the late 1980s, Aripotch pooled his resources with eight other commercial fishermen and bought a packing dock in Montauk. A number of the men have pulled their money out in recent years.
“I’m the last one of these guys [commercial fishing full time]… We all fished together for years. … One guy quit fishing and opened a pool business,” he says. “Another guy moved up to Maine with his longliner and another partner got out and moved to Florida and became a real estate agent. We had to buy them all out.”
Now he’s one of just a few dozen commercial fishermen left in the Montauk area.
In the early 1970s, baymen and offshore fishermen had the local seas to themselves.
“When I started fishing, the government wanted nothing to do with it … Nobody wanted anything to do with the ocean but the shippers and the fishermen. And now we’ve got every person in the world — that doesn’t know s— about the ocean — telling us what we can and we can’t do.”
Aripotch says commercial fishing provides him and his family with independence that you can’t find in many American industries these days. It’s also the only life he’s ever known.
“I like fishing,” he says matter-of-factly. “I don’t like all the [BS], but I like fishing. I’m my own boss, and I can make my own choices. If I make mistakes, I don’t make money. If I make the right choices, I make money. I just enjoy it. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at.”
Commercial fishing is a more egalitarian system than most other industries. Still, there are no salaries or 401(k)s or paid sick days and the fishermen have to get their own insurance. On Aripotch’s boat, like most commercial fishing boats, the profit from a trip minus expenses is split 50/50 between the boat captain and the crew — meaning Aripotch takes half and the other half is split evenly among the crew members.
A future on the water
Despite the bleak outlook, there’s hope that another generation of East End commercial fishermen will carry on the tradition.
Rocco Raspa, 25, has been crewing on Dave Aripotch’s boat for only a couple years now, but he sees the value and appreciates the tradition.
A former steamfitter from King’s Park, Raspa has shifted his focus to commercial fishing.
“It’s the first job where I’ve gotten paid for working hard,” he says. “Everywhere else I’ve been, they’ll promise you the world. But you don’t get taken care of … They want Rome built in a day and they don’t want to pay for it. Here,” he says, gesturing to the trawlers docked in Montauk, “Rome will get built in a day, and we’re going to get paid for it. So why would you not love it? If you like to work hard, this is a good job for you.
The good days make the job worth it for now. “I’ve never gotten paid like this before,” he continues. “We get paid pretty good, but it depends. If the prices are right and you’re bringing in a lot of fish and everything works out and you don’t use a lot of fuel or buy a lot of food for the trip, you can make some good money. Right now, in the past year, we’ve been getting pretty hammered on the fishing prices. Hopefully this winter it’ll turn around and get better.”
Commercial fishermen move with the seasons. On any given year, you might find Bennett clamming, oystering, pound-trapping, gill-netting, lobstering or trawling offshore. He says he spends more time in or on the water than on land.
“When I’m home — or going home — I’m on vacation,” he says, standing in Bennett Shellfish, the tiny outlet on South Debusy Road where he and Esperian sell fresh seafood and baked goods.
“But this isn’t my home,” he says, his outstretched arm pointing to the water.
“My home’s out there.”