The Mast-Head: Whale in a Net

Above a certain size fish — or marine mammal or sea turtle — the nets are indiscriminate

There was no reason to doubt the caller, even though he would give only his first name. I had heard a story second-hand on Tuesday that a whale had become tangled in a gill net off the Atlantic Avenue Beach in Amagansett and hoped to get someone on the record who had seen what happened. 

Instead, the eyewitness phoned and told me the story, saying he did not want to be identified in the paper but that I could go to the beach and see for myself. The whales were still there, he said, coming up every couple of minutes to breathe. 

He had gazed out from his deck onto the ocean at about 9 that morning and noticed a splashing commotion. A whale about the length of a small car, gray in color, was unable to get away, he said. It took about half an hour struggle by the gill net crew to free it, he said.

Gill nets can be nearly invisible in the water. Fish, like striped bass, do not see them as they cruise along the shore and become stuck. The size of the openings between the cord of the net, the mesh, is set by law and allows smaller fish to swim through. But above a certain size fish — or marine mammal or sea turtle — the nets are indiscriminate. Authorities who inspected several dolphins found dead on the beach between East Hampton and Napeague last week suspected that gill nets were responsible.

After talking to the caller for a while, I headed out to Atlantic Avenue for a look. Down the beach in both directions I could see the black flags of maybe three or four gill nets. Within seconds, I saw a pair of whales blow some distance from shore. Not much later, a humpback rose from the water, nose first, presumably gathering a huge mouthful of baitfish, before dropping nearly as swiftly out of sight. Four women on the beach near me yelled with joy. A pod of dolphins went by, headed west. 

I stood for some time watching, before a gill net boat that had idled off to the east came in to lift a net. Through my binoculars I could see the crew pull striped bass over the stern and work them out of the mesh.

Fishing is a hard way to make a living, and it is not made any easier by state regulators. In New York, commercial harvesters are allowed to keep a pre-set number of bass between 28 and 38 inches long. Before the boat turned to run out its long net again, I saw a crewman measure two huge and beautiful stripers over the slot limit and then roll them, dead, into the water. A lone gull picked at one of the carcasses for a short time before it sank out of view.

It makes no difference to a fish whether it is served and on a plate or drifts to the bottom for the crabs to eat, but it seemed a waste. It would have been good money for the gill net crew, had they been able to keep it. And, for a recreational surfcaster like me, had I caught it on a line, just one fish like that would have made my entire season. 

For whales like the one freed from the net on Tuesday morning, the stakes are much higher. Extinction looms for some species, and there are concerns that the unusual appearance of humpbacks here this year is a sign of a marine environment out of balance. 

As hesitant as I am to urge it out of sympathy for commercial harvesters, it might be time for regulators to take a hard look at gill nets and ask if the harm they do to marine mammals means their era and the toll they take on nontarget species should come to an end.