Another flounder season is well under way and you would be hard-pressed to find someone with a box of bloodworms and a bag of mussel chum on the South Fork. A sunny Easter Sunday meant there were a few diehards drifting the Quogue Canal and a few hopeless optimists warming the concrete at the Shinnecock Canal—maybe even one or two boats in Lake Montauk, but only one or two—but mostly flounder fishing has died on the South Fork.
Of course, it’s not that the hundreds of fishermen who used to line up before dawn to get bait on the March 15 opener aren’t interested in flounder anymore, it’s just that the flounder are gone. There’s a lot of talk about why the flounder have disappeared. Striped bass are eating them! Its all the damn seals! Sea gulls, spider crabs, over-fishing, blah, blah, blah!
Want to know why the flounder are gone? Take a drive down Meadow Lane in Southampton Village and see the giant, wretchedly hideous, new houses on the bay side near Road D—with swimming pools and bright green grass a few feet from the high tide mark. Or drive through Springville or Tiana or anywhere in southern East Quogue and Westhampton or along East Lake Drive in Montauk. Look at the houses, the swimming pools, the lawns. Imagine all those toilets going into the ground beneath—their solid wastes caught in septic rings, but the real filth of their contents trickling into the bay water just down the street.
Last year some Stony Brook University scientists presented an overview of results from their first few years of a long-term study of our local flounder populations. Because they’re scientists, they wouldn’t draw any rash conclusions but their results had some clear implications: predators are not killing the flounder; and overfishing is not killing the flounder. They may not be helping the situation but they are not the root problem. Poor water quality and loss of habitat are the problem.
It was a simple test. They radio-tagged a bunch of flounder and put a bunch more in cages on the bottom of the bays. The ones in the cages died at a higher rate than the free-swimming ones—so it wasn’t a matter of predators or fishermen killing them. And the ones in cages near the inlets, where clean water washed over them on a regular basis, died at a much lower rate than those deeper in the bays. That, my friends, is a water quality problem and it comes from one source: humans.
I wrote a story in the news section this week about a different group of Stony Brook scientists who have found that pretty much all of western Shinnecock Bay is basically devoid of any larval marine life at all. No baby shellfish, no baby flounder, no baby crabs, no baby shrimp. That, folks, is what you call a smoking gun when it comes to trying to figure out why a particular marine species is dwindling.
Sure, some adult flounder are in the bays, they can migrate away from the toxic areas and stay alive and we can catch a few of them once waters warm up a bit. But we are never going to see the lines of people along the Shinnecock Canal walls like we used to until something is done about our ancient septic systems basically dumping tons of poop and pee into our local waters. As fishermen we should be the front line, the ones screaming to the county and town lawmakers that something needs to be done immediately.
Catch ‘em up, if you can find ‘em. See you out there.