Stuart Vorpahl, a colorful and dogged fighter for East End fishermen and a central figure in East Hampton’s maritime heritage, died Thursday at Southampton Hospital after a battle with cancer. He was 76.
Vorpahl, a resident of Amagansett, used encyclopedic knowledge of East End history to wage a decadeslong battle against laws he considered an infringement on his lawful right to fish the waters of East Hampton.
“He was fighting for the rights of fishermen way before it was fashionable, and he was doing it all on his own,” said his attorney, Daniel Rodgers. “He never, ever gave up.”
Vorpahl fished without permits or licenses as a matter of principle, even after arrests by officials with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. He said the only permit he needed was the Dongan Patent, a Colonial-era decree granting the people of East Hampton access to the water for “fishing hawking hunting and fowling and all other profits.”
“The first time he got arrested, he went to the East Hampton library, the historical section, and planned his own case and fought for himself,” said Christine Vorpahl, a daughter who lives in Bridgehampton.
Vorpahl was a fixture at Town Hall meetings, arriving in a ramshackle Jeep to lecture or regale officials with lessons from East Hampton’s past. His favorite topics were the public’s rights to access the town’s beaches and waters.
“He very definitely was a gifted performer in making his points,” said Arnold Leo, secretary of the East Hampton Baymen’s Association. “He would cite examples and crack witticisms that were really quite unique.”
In November, then gravely ill, he appeared at the podium wearing a medical mask to make a point about a proposed rental law, Supervisor Larry Cantwell said.
“There has never been a greater defender of the traditions and rights of the common people of East Hampton than Stuart Vorpahl,” Cantwell said Thursday.
Vorpahl’s battle against fishing regulators was personal, and fought to the end. Months ago, his attorney, Rodgers, won Vorpahl $1,000 in a case against the DEC that he had been battling since 1998.
“He fought for almost 20 years as a matter of principle,” Rodgers said. “It meant so much to him to finally get that.”
In an interview last February after his release from a hospital, Vorpahl bemoaned the state of fishing on Long Island and, more bitterly, the role of regulators in the fishery.
“I was taught the meaning of the word conservation after World War II, on the ocean beach,” he said. “I was 7 years old, my brothers and I. They were still pulling the ocean haul seine by hand as they did 300 years ago. Our job was to make sure those 16-inch size fish got back in the ocean, but unharmed. Our fathers would tell us, ‘Those are the fish you can catch next year, so you have to take care of them.’ ”
Vorpahl criticized what he said was the government’s overregulation of the fishery, saying that it worsened conditions for fishermen and the fish. He recalled with considerable regret regulators’ institution of a 24-inch size limit on striped bass, after he quit ocean fishing and turned his efforts to the East End bays in 1968.
That November, he said, he lifted his net to find 2,500 pounds of striped bass, worth about $3,500, “enough to get through the winter and the whole nine yards,” he said.
But he realized — too late — that most of the fish were 20 to 22 inches. The undersized fish had to go back in the water.
“I did not know that a dead striped bass floats like a buoy,” he recalled, his voice breaking. “I had one line of striped bass floating toward Rhode Island. It was just a shameful waste. It bothers me to this day.”
Vorpahl is also survived by his wife, Mary Vorpahl, and another daughter, Susan Vorpahl, both of East Hampton, as well as five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Christine Vorpahl said dates have yet to be set for a wake at Yardley & Pino Funeral Home in East Hampton and a funeral at First Presbyterian Church of Amagansett.