Being able to go surfcasting is one of the highlights of life on the East End — it’s something that residents here have treasured and fought for since colonial times, and many of our oldest laws, particularly on the South Fork, pertain to public access to the beaches in order to fish for food.

Since the first Covid spring, anglers have been flocking to beaches throughout the East End, following the fish as they move throughout the bays and along the shore of the Long Island Sound. 

At first driven by hunger, as work shut down the entire human world and the fish began running, fishermen and their families in need of food became an overwhelming presence on local beaches, drawing notice from neighbors and a whole new set of historically unthought-of restrictions on who can use the beach. 

Citing emergency social distancing orders, local governments tried to crack down on who could go to the beach here, flying in the face of centuries of long-cherished precedent protecting public access to the shore below the high tide line.

These new policies had the effect of alienating primarily Latino fishermen and immigrants without proof of residency in the municipality where they hoped to fish.

There were, and continue to be, issues with people fishing here. Most of our beaches do not have access to restrooms at night, have limited garbage pickup and were not intended for overnight visitors, but tents along the waterside are now a not-uncommon sight. This is not sustainable.

And the dramatic increase in numbers of fishermen has had an impact on fish populations, particularly the striped bass fishery, where an unprecedented catch last year lead to an emergency limit on the size of striped bass that can be caught (see page 8) this year.

How we as a community respond to the issue of who can fish on our beaches is bound to define who we are in the years ahead.

Already, parking restrictions at road ends and in beach parking lots have led fishermen to park elsewhere and walk long distances with their gear to set up for the night, actually making it far more likely that they’ll stay put until they catch enough fish to sustain their families. It’s a lot of work to carry fishing gear, perhaps for miles, to set up for the night, but many people do just that.

Every spring, when the fish begin running, we receive complaints from people who live near beaches of the garbage, fishing line, discarded fish heads  and human waste left on the beaches, or of people using headlamps that shine far down the beach or setting up camp in tents.

Local Marine Patrols begin checking in on the beaches at night, while DEC Environmental Conservation Officers ticket people for violating catch limits or not having a state-issued (and free) fishing permit. 

And then, the fish move on elsewhere and the fishermen disappear and the issue ends up on the back burner until it suddenly becomes a crisis again the following year. The fish have a schedule to keep, and we are all at their mercy. 

But fish are not the only migrants through our world, and the fishermen and their families on our beaches are part of an international human migratory trend that will only intensify as our climate changes and we all learn to adapt.

Internal migration in a rich country like the U.S. is more difficult to see than in other parts of the world, but migrants from uninsurable properties in hurricane-prone Florida or fire-ravaged California are already a part of American life. We may all end up migrating against our will within our lifetimes.

People of European descent were strangers here once, hungry and unable to fend for themselves through the bone-chilling winters in the new world. The indigenous people here took  them in and showed them their ways, and perhaps it’s knowing this cautionary tale of the marginalization of the first people here that has left today’s shorefront property owners wary of newcomers now.

Access to the beach to fish for food has long been a fundamental right here, particularly in East Hampton, where it’s been the bedrock of recent local demands for pickup truck access to what’s known as “Truck Beach.” Camping in RVs on the barrier beaches in Southampton is a tradition many local people cherish.

We need to find a better way to ensure the new fishermen who are using the beaches are good neighbors. Providing bathrooms and garbage pails might be the answer in some locations — they were a big help when Cedar Beach County Park in Southold installed them in that first Covid spring, but some small park districts just don’t have the budget to clean up after fishermen.

Hikers in other areas of the country have long bought into the ethos of “pack in, pack out,” leaving no trace in the unspoiled wilderness where they explore. If we can all work, through an educational campaign, to instill that ethos on our beaches, we’ll be working together to preserve a place we love for everyone to enjoy, and to preserve the dignity of people willing to work this hard for a simple meal.

East End Beacon
The East End Beacon is your guide to social and environmental issues, arts & culture on the East End of Long Island.

One thought on “Editorial: Fishing as a Human Right

  1. People who can’t take care of precious resources should not have direct access to them, to prevent them from damaging or polluting them.
    1: No vehicles should be on beaches. They destroy littoral environments and harm wild species dependent upon them.
    2: Accessible beaches should be placed under video surveillance, and people seen to abuse the privileges of beach usage should be denied access to them.
    3: People who leave their discarded fishing line and tackle, leave garbage around, or who use beaches as toilets, should be arrested. I’ve seen too many innocent creatures entangled in such trash, and it’s disgusting. The issues of garbage left about and especially of human waste are horrifying.
    4: Consider banning fishing entirely. “Custom,” aka “tradition,” is one of the “Four Stumbling Blocks to Truth.” That fishing has been traditionally tolerated by the community does not mean that it should continue to be tolerated or allowed. If a traditional practice no longer serves the community, or as in this case, harms it, then it should logically be discontinued.
    5: Related: if you really want to protect local waters, boats should be prevented from dumping waste.

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