I grew up in the farmhouse where I now live, and the place that always gave me solace and comfort was the Long Island Sound. Every time I went, there was something more to discover and see — animals, birds and fish in huge numbers, everywhere.
My maternal grandparents owned a bungalow (camp) that overlooked the Sound and was reached by driving up a long dirt road between farm fields and I spent hours sitting on a picnic bench on the patio watching pods of porpoise jumping out of the water and fish jumping, birds working, life everywhere – huge schools and astounding numbers of varieties as far as the water could be seen… for miles.
Back then every kid could go fishing for blowfish (swellbellies) and could fill up a bucket for dinner in about 15 minutes. If you waded in the water and stood still, your toes would get nipped, so we learned not to stand still in the water. Bait was big mussels or anything else that might attract them (including bare shiny hooks) and if Mom was with us, Dad would start a fire to steam open the mussels we’d picked from the mussel banks along the shore and toughen them so they would stay on the hook better. And when we got hungry, we’d eat the delicious mussels and catch fish at the same time.
On frosty nights around the full moon, we’d take bushel baskets and flashlights, walk the beaches and pick up beached whiting, and it didn’t take very long to get enough for a few meals for the four of us.
Under the big rocks at low tide were all kinds of crabs, lobster, baitfish, sea creatures… and eel grass was plentiful all around the shallow shores of the Sound, supplying shelter and food for the baby fish that hatched in the natural nursery where the big fish spawned.
Back in the 1950s and early ’60s it was common to see and catch really big fish — stripers regularly 50+ pounds and lobster by the thousands everywhere — it was paradise. The fishing, clamming and seafood industries and all the businesses connected to them flourished and had a great influence on the development of eastern Suffolk County.
As a teenager, I would beg my father to wake me up before school and take me fishing, and we’d get down to the beach before dawn and wait for the sun to rise. October and November was the best time because the fish we were targeting – bluefish and striped bass – would school.
As the sun rose, the sky would get really red and when the light would get to the point where you could just about see the difference between the water surface and the sky, the water would erupt for as far as you could see with stripers and bluefish, around one to five pounds each, all feeding on the acres of moss bunker (the potato chip of the sea) that kept the food chain healthy and productive.
Fast forward to now. Most of the species of fish, birds, lobster, oyster, clams and mussels are gone – rarely seen or heard of any more.
The mussel banks that held the sand and helped against erosion and 95 percent of the eelgrass are gone.
What’s left is a sewer of huge dead zones all summer and filth washed out of rivers and streams in Connecticut, chemicals washed off of yards, out of boats, down roads and flushed directly into the Sound when it rains, seeped into the water through old septic systems still being used — and overflow when the sewers in the western end of the Sound get a lot of rain or a pipe breaks. Add to the loss of habitat and pollution overfishing, over-clamming and not enough consideration by the humans who live and work around the Sound and this once-thriving body of water is no longer able to sustain the animals we depend on for our income, our food and our health.
We older locals call the Sound “the Dead Sea” and talk about the great clouds of working birds we used to see and how we almost never see that now. Restaurants, bait and tackle shops, commercial fishing boats, clammers …. almost all gone. Now all there is is garbage and plastic and pollution. And an occasional fish or other animal.
Help stop this downward slide. Recycle, reuse and clean up. Don’t release plastic helium balloons. Don’t use plastic straws. Refuse disposable plates, cups and utensils.
We have succeeded in starting to drown ourselves in our own filth – and we are wholly responsible for it.
We are better than this – we have to be. It’s already almost too late
Susan Reeve lives in Riverhead.
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