An Inch That Meant A Lot

January 1, 1998

When Carl Safina of Islip was fined $50 after pleading guilty in East Hampton Town Justice Court to being in possession of an undersized striped bass back in September, it was reported as a matter of course in this newspaper - a minor infraction.

The fish measured 27 inches long. The law says it must be 28 inches. Perhaps the angler was too quick with the tape measure.

That one inch, however, was packed with great symbolic meaning to commercial tuna fishermen in these parts. News of the illegal inch got around the Montauk docks quickly.

Outspoken Critic

That's because Mr. Safina is the director of the Living Oceans Program of the Audubon Society, and in that capacity has been outspoken in his criticism of the commercial tuna fishing industry.

He is a scientist, and a student of bluefin tuna and its management, both domestic and under the aegis of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.

In this respect he has been seen as a worthy, if troublesome, opponent in the arcane dialogue over tuna, its quotas, and minimum size limits.

Coast Guard Visit

"I'm sure there's people out there who would like to think I'm a total hypocrite, that this is not the first time. Such is not the case," Mr. Safina said on Tuesday.

A letter to the editor appears in this issue written by David Nemerson, a friend of Mr. Safina and a Ph.D. candidate in the field of ecology and evolution, who claims responsibility for the one-inch-short fish.

"We were trolling on a Sunday afternoon," Mr. Safina said. "It was rough and crowded. I had two guys on the deck - one is a Ph.D., one is going to be - and a ruler, and a fish. I said to myself, 'Do I need to leave the wheel to check the fish?' We were pulled over by the Coast Guard. They found the short fish. I turned to David and said, 'How could this happen?'"

Embarrassed

Once on land, the boat was visited by Joseph Billotto, a State Department of Environmental Conservation officer, who had his summons book out. Mr. Nemerson fessed up, but when Officer Billotto asked for his I.D., the angler realized he'd left his wallet home. Mr. Safina accepted the ticket.

"This is very embarrassing," the Audubon director said, and noted that the incident had taken a bit of the flower off the recent publication of his book, "Song for the Blue Ocean" (Henry Holt Company).

Mr. Safina described his book as a travel and adventure narrative of coastal trips in the North Atlantic, Asia, Micronesia, with chapters on the annual ICCAT meetings in Madrid, and a watershed meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Japan.