Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Game Warden Files--Brooklyn, early cases, bunker

In Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay, we had a place that was a bait and tackle shop, gas dock, beer/soda/snack of those places that had evolved over generations in the same family, catering to the needs of sport and commercial fisherman. Years of ECOs had been customers of the place and there was a good relationship with the family that ran it.  Every game warden needs places like that to hang out--it's the best place to interact with those who use the resource.  However...these guys were outlaws of a sort.  In spite of the fact that several in the younger generation were professional firefighters and police officers, all of them engaged in illegally fishing for "bunker," as the fish menhaden was commonly called.  This is fish that is taken commercially on the ocean in very large quantities (hundreds of tons) and  processed for fish meal and oil.  On a more local level, it's taken in smaller quantities--up to a ton or so--by local fisherman using small boats in the bays and inlets and then sold for bait.  It is the bait for bluefish and stripped bass in the NY Harbor area.  The method of fishing was to locate a school of bunker, generally when a school of predators had driven them into shallow water, and then use a haul seine type of net to gather up all they could.  The nets used would be 200-300 feet in total length and the allowable length was only forty feet.  The net this operation used was well over 300 feet.

In the years before I arrived in NY, my supervisor Jim Molinelli, then an ECO himself, had been getting complaints that that this bait shop was engage in illegal fishing for bunker.  He'd gone to the brothers who ran the place and discussed the law with them, explaining that he was making no accusation, but he didn't want to spoil what had become a good working relationship.  The conversation went something like this:
Jim: "I'm not making any accusations, but if you're doing it, you're in violation of the law and someday we'll catch you."
Joe: "If we see you coming, we'll just run."
Jim: "If you run, we're going to chase you."
Both men laughed and, unless I miss my guess, poured a cup of coffee and talked about fishing, boats, and whatever else was on their minds that day.  It was that kind of relationship.
When I came on the scene, the younger generation was doing the actual fishing part of the business while the senior members of the family (Jim's friends) were staying at the store.
I had a nice conversation with the younger Joe--"Joey" one day and we pretty well came to the same agreement as had his dad and Jim.  I promised that I'd never specifically target him; but did warn him that if I got a complaint or stumbled upon him, it was going to cost him dearly.  He agreed that it was fair and we were friends.
One warm sunny morning in October of 1985, I got a call about two boats with a big net taking bunker in Marine Park, a piece of undeveloped City owned park land on Jamaica Bay with a small inlet.  The tide was out and the sand was such that I was able to drive right to the water's edge.  There was Joey and his crew,  just finishing loading their net into the boat.  When Joey saw me, I called out "What can I say...I had a complaint."  He and his crew motored to the Coast Guard Station and we called Captain O'Reilly to figure out how to settle it.
We didn't often use the criminal courts in New York City, and for this event we chose to settle up by a process called stipulation, a civil agreement between the violator and the state. It kept the incident from being a criminal issue, thought it cost the offender a lot of money.  In this case, the agreed settlement was a thousand dollars.  We got the paperwork done, the money was delivered and we parted company still friends.
A couple weeks later, as I was having a cup of coffee at the Dunkin' Donuts in Sheepshead Bay, Joey came in and sat down next to me.  Thinking that I was about to get an earful over our recent episode, I steeled myself.  Instead, he started complaining about another agency, in Nassau County, that had caught him doing the same thing.  He called them "a bunch of scumbags."  He'd gone to local court there and had paid a total of less than $150 in fines for him and his entire crew.  When I shook my head in confusion--I'd cost him a lot more than that--he said in quite a matter-of-fact manner, "...but for you it's business, for them it was personal."  We each drank our coffee--he bought--and we again parted friends.

I stayed friendly with that family until my departure from the region.  I was always welcome in the shop for coffee, even ate a meal or two there when they had something cooking on slow nasty days.  There came a time later in my time in NY City years that we caught them again, this time I'd just dummied into them in another inlet.  This time, the department seized the net and even after settling on a fine, decided to destroy it as a nuisance.  The company asked for a hearing before an administrative law judge and it was granted.  During the hearing, the history of the relationship came into question and Jim began to relate the story of his long-ago conversation with Joe.  As he started to tell the story, Joe started to chuckle and even laughed out loud--even filling in a couple gaps.  He apparently recalled it the same way as Jim had.  The judge did give them back their net.  It had been in the family for generations, hand-made by Joe's grandfather and kept in repair throughout the years--maybe the judge admired the tradition, because my memory of the logic for returning the net is that it was a pretty thin reason as a matter of law.

My understanding is that as the older generation passed, the relationship with that business changed.  A younger ECO from the area has told me that the new breed are "just plain criminals."  That deeply saddens me.   Though I recognize the fact that new laws regulating the commercialization of wildlife make the penalties stiffer, and therefor the stakes higher, I wonder just how much damage, if any, they were doing to the resource.  It was my experience that when the bunker were driven into the shallows, where this type of fishing was done, they often were held there long enough by the predators that they depleted the oxygen in the water and died in very large numbers.

No comments:

Post a Comment