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Striped Bass War, 20 Years On

In East Hampton 20 years ago, it was nearly impossible not to see and hear that a significant part of our local heritage was going by the board – not without a fight, and not without great pain.

Hostility between baymen and sportfishermen had been building up … beginning in 1985, when striped bass were banned from the marketplace after bass spawned in the Hudson River were found to contain dangerous levels of polychlorinated biphenyls. Stripers were declared safe to eat again in 1990, but that same year the haul seine, a semi-circle of net paid off the transom of a dory launched from the ocean beaches, was banned.

To baymen, the old haul seine, which in early days was hauled back to shore by horses, was the most efficient method of catching striped bass, the “money fish.” But to the ever-growing number of sportfishermen, it had become the engine of anti-conservation, although “conservation” by then was really a code word for getting a larger slice of the state’s striped bass quota.

Against this backdrop, the East Hampton Town Baymen’s Association organized a civil disobedience protest, with the enthusiastic support of the town supervisor, Tony Bullock, Councilwoman Cathy Lester, East Hampton Village Administrator Larry Cantwell, and State Assemblyman John Behan of Montauk. Billy Joel, whose 1989 hit “Downeaster Alexa” told the story of a bayman regulated out of his inshore bass fishery, raised the profile of the protest.

On July 28, 1992, supporters and reporters gathered at Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett to watch Dan King launch his red, white, and blue flag dory into the surf and return with a haul seine containing a number of striped bass. As the protesters, including the participating officials and Mr. Joel, picked bass from the net, state police arrested them.

Read more at The East Hampton Star.