Reel life: Times tough for Long Island fishermen

November 3, 2008 at 4:58 pm Leave a comment

Starting around the age of 9,Ken Swaine was initiated into the art and amateur science of digging for sand worms. Among the first aspects of this fundamental preparation for fishing, a lesson imparted by his father, was that sand worms are to be gleaned when the salty waters of an ocean tide are receding.

“You have to be something of an environmentalist to spot the right ground where the worms will be,” Swaine said. When he was a boy, he’d plunge a tool roughly akin to a garden pitchfork into that loam, confidently withdraw it and watch those worms squirm.

“It was fantastic to be raised on the water,” said Swaine, 65, proprietor of Swaine’s Bait & Tackle inSt. James. Opened by his maternal grandfather as Wanser Bait & Tackle in 1926, taken over by Swaine’s father, then, upon his father’s death in 1988, by Ken Swaine himself, the business has operated nonstop in the basement of a historic building.

A 1953 edition of the Fishing Long Island Waters newsletter spotlights George Wanser in an article on the harvesting of sand worms. This archive Swaine stores at his bait shop, which also showcases his renderings of mermaids, boats, fish and other imagined and actual seafaring things. Crafted of fragmented skimmer crab shells adhered to carved wood, these, in part, are Swaine’s tribute to the regional marine world, which will be assessed and championed during Sunday’s first Maritime Film Festival at Stony Brook University.

“Tradition at the Crossroads” is the theme. The screening of 15 documentary films is slated, along with panel discussions involving filmmakers, decoy carvers, and the male and female bearers of mariner traditions who, to Swaine’s sorrow, are a disappearing lot.

This is due to new regulations aimed at stemming overfishing but, more desperately, environmental havoc. Stony Brook Harbor was dredged to make room for a recreational boat basin. “The flounder used to winter there,” Swaine said of that all-but-disappeared Long Island species.

Raw cesspool sewage spilled into the selfsame harbor from houses built, ill-advisedly, he added, on a site where they should never be. Tainted water disrupts the life-cycling of fish.

“Fisheries are absolutely being destroyed right now,” said Swaine, featured in “Baymen,” one of the festival documentaries. “In the old days, there was an abundance of everything.”

And yet there are thriving regional fisheries, even in places the uninitiated might never suspect. Waterfront sites in Queens and Brooklyn and other New York City waterscapes form a confluence of fishable sites – and draw a bevy of fishers in their off hours and even during their lunch breaks from work.

“The East River is actually a tidal stream that feeds into the Long Island Sound and then into the Atlantic Ocean,” said Rob Maass, producer and director of “Gotham Fish Tales,” also to be screened at the festival. “Striped bass from Montauk … migrate through the Hudson River and up the coast.”

The Clean Water Act, he continued, did a lot to help purify what had been some nasty urban waterways. “It reawakened the waterfront,” Maass said. “Some of these urban fishermen … just want to make a connection to the natural world. They catch and release their fish. By their activity, they are being very good stewards of the environment.”

Maass will speak at the festival, as will Swaine.

And, for his part, Swaine will bear witness to the comings and goings of people and fish along streams, estuaries, rivers and the ocean from his boyhood to today. Clammers who once were his customers have, on account of a vanishing edible clam stock, turned to carpentry to pay their mortgages. Natural resources need protection, and that demands long-range vision and planning.

“I don’t think a lot of people realized what was going on back then,” Swaine said, referring to the ill-advised boat basins and such. “I would hope that, had they known what was going to happen, they would have thought about it more carefully.”

In brief:

Information about the daylong Maritime Film Festival at Stony Brook University is at The $15 full-day pass can be purchased on that site or by calling Long Island Traditions, the event’s co-sponsor, at 516-767-8803.

New York Sea Grant, the other co-sponsor, does coastal research on fisheries, habitat restoration, water quality, seafood science and technology. Its Web address is

Other festival films include “Jones Beach: An American Riviera”; “Crash: A Tale of Two Species,” which explores the now tenuous future of horseshoe and red knot crabs; “In the Barnegat Bay Tradition,” which is about duck boat and decoy carvers; “The Deadliest Catch”; “Fisher Poets”; and “Let’s Go Lobstering.”

By Katti Gray

Entry filed under: Get Wet, Maritime, Region. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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