A commercial fishing boat setting a gillnet off the beach in Bridgehampton. Credit: 27 East

Disappointment in the Hamptons: Entangled Whale Prompts Criticism Of Gill Nets

The small whale that was freed from a commercial fishing net after becoming entangled off Sagaponack last week has prompted community concern about the safety of the type of fishing nets it had encountered.

“Whales and dolphins get caught in these nets all the time,” said George Mittendorf, a Wainscott resident and amateur sporting fisherman.

Gill nets, as they are known, are traps designed to catch smaller fish by entangling them when they swim into the net. The nets are strung into a mesh, with holes wide enough for a fish’s head to fit through, but entrapping it when its gills slip through the webbing.

The nets are intended to catch mainly bluefish and striped bass, species in high demand at many Long Island restaurants, said Mr. Mittendorf. But, recently, other sea life has been trapped as bycatch in the nets—and opposition to gill netting as both an environmental and a safety hazard is growing.

The practice of gill netting is “indiscriminate,” said Aaron Warkov, one of the men who helped to rescue the whale caught in a net off Town Line Beach in Sagaponack on Monday, July 15. Though the recent encounter with the humpback was the latest incident, he said that other species—like sea turtles, dolphins and striped bass larger than what are legally allowed for catch—are also at significant risk of becoming entangled in the netting.

Mr. Mittendorf said he has seen dead bluefish and sharks, among other sea creatures, wash up on the shores of Town Line Beach and Beach Lane in recent years.

Gill netting is a fully legal practice in the State of New York, with few limitations beyond requirements on the size of the mesh intended to narrow the size of fish that can be caught, according to Stephanie Rekemeyer, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Environment Conservation.

Gill netting “is a selective way to fish—the little ones go through, and the big ones bounce off,” so only desired catch are trapped, said a local South Shore commercial fisherman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying that commenting on the event for attribution would be a “lose-lose” situation.

But matters of legality haven’t hampered local concern. The “idea of having nets close to beaches where juvenile whales are feeding, and have been recorded feeding, is just crazy to me,” said Mr. Warkov. The fishermen are “just playing the odds,” he said, adding, “Maybe they don’t have a choice financially, but they know the whales are there.”

The gill nets seen in Sagaponack and Wainscott are generally placed by commercial fisherman based out of the docks at Shinnecock or Montauk. The fisherman said that the gill nets target only bluefish and striped bass, two species whose populations have declined dramatically in recent years.

The idea that “we are catching everything in sight is not an accurate assumption,” the fisherman said. He added that gill netting is extremely selective, and a practice that has been common and legal off Long Island for decades. “We are fishing legally, and we get checked regularly,” he added.

The DEC has imposed several restrictions on gill netting in areas where encounters with whales are common. These restrictions include “requiring weak links and special gear markings in areas and seasons when endangered whale species are more likely to encounter the gear,” Ms. Rekemeyer said.

The state’s environmental conservation law does not carry any direct regulations to prevent entanglements of seals, dolphins, sea turtles or endangered Atlantic sturgeon. A seal was spotted on a Bridgehampton beach in the spring with the monofilament strings of a gill net wrapped tightly around its neck, cutting deeply into its flesh. And a small sturgeon was found dead on the beach in Bridgehampton last week, near where several gill nets were anchored.

Some local residents are concerned that the gill nets, which are often set near shore, are not at a safe distance from swimmers, surfers and everyday beachgoers.

“They put the nets so close to the beach,” said Hillary Doula, a Sagaponack resident. “I don’t understand why there’s commercial fishing at a swimming beach.”

Zak Gawroski, a local surf instructor who studied marine biology in college, expressed a similar sentiment. The nets are “too close to shore,” he said. “[The fishermen] know what’s out there, so why are they still setting them up?”

“It worries me that they are bringing these nets to heavily populated beaches,” said Mr. Warkov. He said that nets often drift with the current, and that there is a legitimate concern that a surfer or swimmer could get entangled in one.

What’s more, there is growing worry among residents that the nets might be attracting large predators to waters populated with swimmers. The nets are often left unattended for upward of six hours, the state limit according to Mr. Mittendorf.

While nets are unattended, dead, trapped fish accumulate and effectively serve as bait for whales and sharks alike, he contended. “Baiting large predators toward a swimming beach seems like an insane thing to do,” said Mr. Warkov.

According to the fisherman, however, sharks are drawn instead to the increased numbers of bunker off Long Island beaches and east of Montauk. “At times,” the fisherman said, “we have to fish close to shore because that’s the only place there are fish.”

“My guess,” Mr. Warkov added, “is that the shallower the nets are, the less chance the fish are going to swim around the net and the more chance they’ll swim into it.

“I have total sympathy for what the fishermen are going through, with the wind farms too,” he said, referring to a proposal off Montauk that has raised concerns in the fishing community. “But certain practices are too indiscriminate and too close to people.”

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