History of the NY Bight“Some of the best fishing is done not in water but in print.” – Sparse Grey Hackle from The Quotable Fisherman by Nick Lyons
THE ICE CAP
Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey
Approximately fourteen to eighteen thousand years ago, much of what are now the earth’s oceans existed as polar ice caps. The coast of the Atlantic Ocean was approximately sixty miles south east of what is now Lower New York Harbor.
The Wisconsin Glacier, the northern ice cap, extended as far south as Staten Island. The ice cap deposited the terminal moraine that is now the white, flat, sandy south shore of Long Island and New Jersey.
This was, essentially, the end of the Ice Age. The glacier receded and the resulting recessional moraine created Long Island’s rocky north shore.
Long Island Sound was originally a depression left by the receding ice that gradually filled with salt water as the sea level rose.
The boulders and earth that traveled in and upon the glacier settled to earth forming Long Island Sound and the strange islands, reefs and other natural structures that today attract and hold a large variety of game fish.
Around twenty-five hundred years ago, things began melting. Raritan Bay, once a green, fertile valley, began to be covered with advancing seawater. By the time Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, the water level was about 4 feet lower than it is today.
The result was a uniquely fertile eco-system known as the New York Bight.
The New York Bight has been a major source of food for centuries because of its geographic characteristics. A bight is a general term for a natural bend or curve in the shoreline of an open coast. In the New York region it refers to the great expanse of shallow ocean water between Long Island (to the north and east) and the New Jersey Coast (to the south and west).
Long Island reaches east to west in relation to mainland of New Jersey and it creates a right angle in the geometry of the Atlantic coastline. The Hudson River’s outer harbor and the Raritan Bay constitute only a fraction of the greater New York Bight region.
Out through the Narrows is Raritan Bay, one of the most productive fishing areas in North America. Raritan Bay is part of the New York Bight, which includes New York Harbor’s Lower Bay, the south shore of Long Island, Jamaica Bay and Sandy Hook Bay.
The Raritan Bay sits at the doorstep to the Hudson River estuary system, home to the second largest spawning stock of striped bass on the Atlantic Coast (only Chesapeake Bay holds more).
THE EARLY SETTLERS
Courtesy of The New York History Blog.
The Lenape Indians arrived on the east coast seven to ten thousand years ago and began to gather oysters and other shellfish from the edges of the water. They developed seines to catch the many species of fish that inhabited the ocean. Clamshells were used as money or “wampum”.Lenape Indian shad camp.
The natives that rowed out to meet the Verrazano and Hudson expeditions were different generations Lenape Indians. They roamed as nomads between the islands of New York City, to various seasonal camps and shelters where food would be available.
Contained in the fertile and water abundant lands were rich mineral sources that could grow all required nourishment and the Lenapes were expert not only at farming, but modern necessities as well, including cultivation, soil rejuvenation, and knowing where to plant oysters.
Oysters and clams were once plentiful in New York Harbor. The Indians returned the used Oyster shells to the beds as a base for future oyster spawn. This is called “culch”. The oysters attaching themselves to the culch are called “spat”.
Species that were present in the waters include Shad, Atlantic Herring, Spot, Tautog (Blackfish), Atlantic Sturgeon, Bluefish, Mackerel, Flounder, Fluke, Menhaden (Bunker), Porgy, Tommy Cod, Weakfish, Whitefish, Cod, Ling, Skate, and a variety of Shark. Lobster, Blue claw crab, Stone crab, clam, oyster, and a host of other marine species are found in Raritan Bay. Offshore are species of Shark, Tuna, Marlin, Mahi-Mahi and Swordfish.
Fish figure strongly in the history of the New World. Cod oil and flesh brought the westward moving European fishing fleets to our rich waters in the 1600’s. Boats loaded with salt cod sailed back across the Atlantic to feed a hungry Europe of increasingly depleted resources.
The early Dutch and English colonists found inlets and bays full of shellfish and local waters teeming with striped bass, bluefish, sturgeon, Atlantic salmon, cod, pollock, and flounder. They saw the supply as inexhaustible. They were wrong.
Ever since Dutchman Peter Minuit cut his deal with the Manhattan Indians just north of what would become the George Washington Bridge, the powerful life force of New York Harbor began to be depleted.
The European settlers neglected to return oyster shells to the beds rendering the New York Harbor oyster beds no longer self-sustaining. They soon were reseeded regularly with oysters imported other locations on Long Island.
By the War of 1812, because the harvesting industry over fished and did not understand the life cycle of its resource, beds had begun to dwindle.
Since there was no longer an economic need to reseed the oyster beds (Long Island Bays provided plenty) they were allowed to die out. Only scattered small populations remained of what was once one of the most productive shellfish grounds in the world.
Nevertheless local oysters remained a favorite. In 1900 per capita oyster consumption was around 600 per year per person. During the 1920’s health concerns caused by increased pollution effectively brought an end to local oystering.
The development of more advanced commercial fishing equipment and techniques led to over fishing of the area. Core species began to decline in alarming numbers.
Courtesy of The New York History Blog.
If over-fishing and carelessness started the decline of the fishery, unchecked pollution gave it a near deathblow. Many factors worked against the health of the fishery. Tons of PCB’s spilled freely from two General Electric plant upriver on the Hudson from 1930 through 1977 (For more info- “G.E. Spent Years Cleaning Up the Hudson. Was It Enough?” By JESSE McKINLEY, SEPT. 8, 2016).
In 1930, more than 1.3 billion gallons of raw sewage spilled into New York Harbor every day. Although the problem of growing pollution in the Harbor had been recognized as far back as the turn of the century, it was not until the 1930’s that the public began to pay closer attention to the City’s increasingly polluted waters. It would be a while before there was any real change.
After World War II sport fishing around New York grew in popularity. People had more leisure time and they wanted to be on the water. Advances in equipment made sport fishing more accessible- aluminum and fiberglass replaced wood as a material for making boats, fishing reels were made of more lightweight material, wooden rods were replaced by fiberglass and cotton and linen lines were replaced by synthetics.
Courtesy of Mike’s Maritime Memorabilia NY Daily News 1948
By the 1950’s, many newspapers began to carry columns on sport fishing for their avid readers. Head boats or party boats began to appear throughout the area.
But as the interest in recreational fishing was on the rise, the opportunity was being taken away. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, oils spills were a common occurrence. Species of fish and other life form had completely left the waters of New York Harbor and the surrounding areas. Inland waterways and local beaches were clogged with waste. Closings became a regular occurrence each summer.
People who use and love the waterways around our cities took notice and acted.
The result, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972. As amended in 1977, this law became commonly known as the Clean Water Act. The Act established the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States. It gave EPA the authority to implement pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry.
In the past thirty years, something of a miracle has occurred in our waters.
Between legislature requiring huge industrial clean-ups and the hard results of the conservation movement, the waters around New York are dramatically cleaner. Recreational fishermen have been at the forefront of these grassroots conservation efforts.
By working through the New York New/Jersey Harbor Estuary Program, D.E.C. is helping to reverse long-standing degradation of the harbor environment. Together with the state of New Jersey, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the City of New York, the scientific community, and the citizens of both states, the New York state agencies, D.E.C. and Department of State, have prepared a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) for the harbor, which was finalized in 1996. More information is available on the New York/New Jersey Harbor estuary program at the EPA’s Harbor Estuary Program web page.
The DEP now monitors water at 53 different points around New York Harbor and performs routine tests of numerous water quality indicators. Research clearly indicates that today, the waters around the City are healthier than they have been since the beginning of the 20th Century. Beach closings are minimal, public health advisories virtually nonexistent, and waterfowl and aquatic life are returning and flourishing.
Today, the City’s 14 water pollution control plants treat more than 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater daily. It has taken decades to construct and upgrade these facilities but their impact on the water quality in New York Harbor and Long Island Sound is remarkable and irrefutable.
Species not seen in years have returned. Striped bass, placed under a moratorium through much of the ‘80’s, have returned in strong numbers. Bluefish stocks have swelled dramatically. Size limits have protected the number of breeding age fluke and as a result doormat sized fish have become more prevalent.
I have recently sighted of seals off Staten Island and a dolphin near the Gowanus Canal. Humpback whales are again a regular sight. Seeing our local waterways once again develop into beautiful, natural places has been very rewarding.
Threats still exist that must be monitored. During the past winter, more than 500 million gallons of raw sewage flowed freely into Raritan Bay. The Raritan clamming industry, one of the proud badges of the recent successes for the past 15 years, has been hard hit. Seedling clams were lost in the millions, destroying the current crop.
Beaches once closed by medical waste are now open for fishing and producing catches not seen in decades. During the seventies and early eighties, it was a regular occurrence to see all kinds of nasty junk washed along our shores. From Staten Island to the Jersey Shore, Montauk to Fire Island there has been a rebirth in our waters.
This has resulted has been millions of fishing trips by local fishermen (there are no fisherwomen, we are all one). Each summer day, thousands of them set out to our local waterways with fishing rods and dreams. If you are one of us, you already have your favorite spot picked out.
Year by year, the water has continued to improve to a level not seen in decades.
The on-going transformation has turned the New York Harbor area into a world-class saltwater sport fishery.
The I FISH NY program started in the spring of 2002 in New York City, southern Westchester County and on Long Island and will eventually be expanded to other metropolitan areas of the state. The program is funded by $122,240 in State funding and a $372,000 grant from the federal Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program.
“Fishing creates a social, conservation and economic base in our communities,” said Howard Cushing, president of the New York State Conservation Council, Inc. “By bringing new anglers on board with basic start-up education and information, the I FISH NY program will go a long way toward securing that base for future generations.”
John Mantione, president of the New York Fishing Tackle Trade Association, said, “Sport fishing in New York is a $3.6 billion a year industry, providing more than 36,000 jobs. We’re pleased that Commissioner Crotty and the DEC recognize the importance of our industry by implementing this new program that will increase participation among the state’s urban and suburban residents in fishing. As an organization that is actively involved in angler education, especially youth programs, we are particularly interested in working with the I FISH NY program to involve more young people in the sport of fishing.” (Courtesy of NYTimes.com- Hook, Line And Sinker By COREY KILGANNON JUNE 6, 1999).
Since then, new generations have taken to the water in ever growing numbers. Easy, affordable access to these fertile waters has brought forward a new breed of fisherman- the urban angler.
No doubt, many New York City fishermen opt for the three to four hour drive east or south when they could have been on fish within minutes of leaving their apartments – simply because they still see our waters as polluted and barren. Not anymore.
New York City is a hard place with scruffy urban landscapes where nature often seems lost. But, like New York, nature is resilient. When you see a true moment of natural beauty set against the gray metropolis of New York City, it becomes that much more memorable.
For centuries, locals have discovered the sea near their city home, and now, again.
The Local Ocean
“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
The Atlantic Ocean coastal waters reach out to the continental shelf, and are full of well-known deep water fishing areas with romantic, peculiar names such as: “Cholera Bank”, Middle Ground” “Three Sisters, “Mud Hole”, “Yankee Wreck”, ” HA Buoy” “17 Fathoms”, and, further offshore, the Block, Wilmington, and Hudson Canyons known as the Hudson Shelf Valley. On this trip we will stay closer to our shores.
Here is a closer look at a few of the bodies of water that make up the New York Bight:
Courtesy of CUNY
Raritan Bay is a unique geographic as well as economic region. The natural diversity of this area is caused in part by the fact that it is nestled in the landward corner of the area known as the New York Bight. Prevailing ocean currents carry fish and other sea creatures northward from Florida and the Carolinas parallel to the coast. The shape of the New York and New Jersey coastlines “funnel” these currents into the harbor before they make a sharp eastward turn along the coast of Long Island. In addition, the harbor sits at the mouth of the Hudson River, which provides a conduit for more northerly interior species, like stripers and protected sturgeon, to move southward toward the coast.
The bay’s proximity to the huge market of New York City has made it an important economic force for the region. Its growth as a sport fishery over the past few decades continues to support the ports that dot New Jersey and Staten Island.
In recent years, Raritan Bay has been reestablished as a prime clamming location. Clammers harvested nearly 80,000 bushels of clams here in 2002, almost half the clams produced in the state. The state lets clammers harvest here if they “transplant” the clams to cleaner waters before bringing them to market. Begun in 1987, the program is a surprising success; clams harvested in local waters are worth about $5 million a year on the wholesale market.
Their presence here signifies a surprising environmental resurgence. Oil pollution, disease and sewage outflows closed the area to shell fishing for much of the 20th century.
They don’t hit your plate until they go through the purification process. The water is still too polluted to produce market-ready shellfish; the clams must spend 21 days in Little Peconic Bay and Southold Bay, Long Island, before they are ready to eat. This operation, called a relay, depends on water temperature. The relay lasts only from April to October, when the clams are actively pumping.
All harvesting equipment is manual. Many clammers complain of back trouble and chronic pains.
Courtesy of NYPL Digital Collection
Across the shipping lane of the Verrazano Narrows, there is a quaint fishing village called Sheepshead Bay. Signs of nautical life are visible through the early morning fog — fisherman tying their boats to the dock, mates preparing the rods for arriving fares, the captain bellowing his orders and colorful characters abound. No this is not Melville’s Nantucket, but the New York of the modern urban angler!
Sheepshead Bay is where the Brooklyn fishing fleet docks. There are restaurants, fishing charters and party boats for Brooklyn’s seafarers lining Emmons Avenue.
Whereas the natural land-locked harbor brought the first settlers to the southern tip of Manhattan and then laid claim to much of the shape of New York’s story, the waters around Sheepshead Bay were impassable during the Dutch era, colonial times, and her treasures safely locked away during the American Revolution.
At that time Coney Island ran west from Gravesend Bay to its easternmost point bordering Plumb Inlet, where creeks such as Shell Bank, Cedar and Broad ran across another island, this one called Plum. Manhattan Beach is directly to the south of Sheepshead Bay, with Brighton Beach in the middle and Coney Island to the west.
In the 19th century the waters around Sheepshead Bay was so loaded with oysters and clams, both in the sand and among the rocks, that they became the signature food of the region. Clams cooked in butter cost a penny apiece, and an entire meal of them got you a free bowl of chowder.
Sheepshead Bay is the gateway to the Atlantic, only a few bocks off the subway. There are great fishing fleets on parts of Long Island and New Jersey, but Sheep head Bay is in New York City. If the sport reaches into your soul and life is more fun when you cast your rod, if the sight of land far out from sea moves something deep inside you, Sheep head Bay delivers on this promise close to the city.
While in many restaurants shellfish lust has turned to raw oysters gathered from around the world, Randazzo’s in Sheep head Bay still celebrates the humble quahog. Two varieties are shucked and served raw: big and mild cherrystones, and smaller and sweeter littlenecks. They shuck them fast here!
Courtesy of New York City Department of Parks & Recreation
Nearby, is the nature preserve of Jamaica Bay. The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a unit of Gateway National Recreation Area, is one of the most important urban wildlife refuges in the United States. Encompassing 9,155 acres, it is comprised of diverse habitats, including salt marsh, upland field and woods, several fresh and brackish water ponds and an open expanse of bay and islands- all located within the limits of New York City. The Wildlife refuge is renowned as a prime fishing spot.
Good fisheries management and the cleanup of the environment have caused many species to rebound in this area. The east coast from Montauk Point in New York to Barnegat Bay in New Jersey now offer the angler almost unparalleled fishing opportunities, which range from shallow flats fishing in Peconic Bay on Long Island’s east end and Great South Bay on the south shore to rocky structure filled reefs and sheltered bays all along the north shore. No other area on the east coast has such a large diversity of fishable water available to the recreational angler.
To reach a great collection of maps that cover all of the Gateway Park fishing spots- CLICK HERE
City Island Courtesy of east-usa.com
City Island is like a small New England fishing village. The commercial fisherman and party boats work the west end of Long Island Sound. City Island is a small community at the edge of New York City located just beyond Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx and surrounded by the waters of the Long Island Sound and Eastchester Bay. With Execution Light to the northeast and Stepping Stones Lighthouse to the south, City Island has a rich nautical history, much of it preserved by the Historical Society and Museum.
Originally inhabited by the Siwanoy Indians, who lived during the summer on the plentiful clams, oysters, and fish they found here, City Island was first established as an English settlement in 1685. Ideally situated to supply schooners traveling between Manhattan and points north, the island became an important shipping building and yachting center during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Today it is the gateway to the fertile fishing grounds of Long Island Sound and a great destination for seafood.