Inside Montauk's commercial fishing industry

When Gosman’s Dock, 14 acres of restaurants and shops at Montauk Harbor, went on the market for $52.5 million in 2015, it signaled the latest evolution in a "discovered" coastal town that used to be all about surfing, fishing and dive bars. But walk past the dumpster and ice machine onto the dock that stretches into the harbor, and you’re in another world. You will typically see a forklift operator removing boxes of fish from a boat’s hold, or two guys hefting lobsters into the back of a pickup truck. Welcome to Montauk—past its heyday, perhaps, but alive and still bringing fresh local seafood to people who know enough to buy it up while they still can.

Montauk is not only the biggest commercial fishing hub in New York, it’s one of the largest in the Northeast. But that’s not saying much. In the United States, about 80 percent of the seafood we eat is imported, and most of it has been frozen, thawed and refrozen multiple times while being shipped and processed. Prices for local wild seafood, the stuff landed at the town dock or a dock on the east side of the harbor, hit a high of $21.2 million in 2012. By 2017, this figure had slid to $14.8 million.  

Unlike Gurneys’ or the iconic Shagwong Tavern, Montauk’s commercial fishing boats don’t attract investors eager to keep their businesses afloat, and their property (boats, gear and permits) is not easily transferable from one person to another. Fishers are foragers of wild food in an industry that is heavily regulated, with quotas, licenses and practices dictated by state and federal governments. And unlike farmers, they have no federally subsidized crop insurance to tide them over when their harvest is threatened by wild weather.

John Nolan, his wife, Laurie, and their son John Nolan III are owner-operators of the F/V Seacapture (“F/V” stands for “ fishing vessel”), a boat that hauls in 25 percent of the tilefish caught in the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s region, which stretches from New York to North Carolina. John Nolan III, 32, has been captaining the boat since he was 21, fishing 100 miles off Montauk year-round with a crew of five. They are at sea for 6 to 10 days at a stretch.

Robert Aaronson, John Nolan, Tom Eshenfelder, Armaan Gretarsson, Marty Senkus...

Robert Aaronson, John Nolan, Tom Eshenfelder, Armaan Gretarsson, Marty Senkus and Steven Doyles on the Seacapture in Montauk with a load of Golden Tilefish. Credit: David Handschuh

On a brilliant October day last fall, the 82-foot Seacapture arrived in Montauk Harbor with 20,000 pounds of tilefish in the hold. It had been a longer trip than usual: While a nor’easter pounded the coast, Seacapture had stayed far offshore, out of harm’s way. The entire crew was on deck in a celebratory state, including one young salt wearing a bunny outfit (Halloween was a few days away), who helped secure the boat as Nolan III stepped onto the dock to an emotional welcome from his mom, his sister Molly and his sister Jean’s baby, a cherub named Bodie. His father was picking up a large order of bacon-and-cheese sandwiches to feed everyone. Cousin and former crewmate Robert Aaronson, who had gone out to the jetty to take in Seacapture’s safe return, was on hand to help unload. Nolan III pointed proudly to the hold, packed full of cleaned, iced fish, and said, “Oh yeah.”

The crew—Tom Eshenfelder, Stephen Doyle, Al Ellis, Mark Semkus and Armann Grettarsson—were ebullient. “We had a little bit of weather,” Nolan III said. “But we fished every day. We have a good boat for it. We were getting beaten up pretty good, good-sized waves one day. Stuck it out and caught some fish.”

Extreme weather, the sprawling thicket of regulations and quotas, and reproduction and migration changes in fish species are existential threats to today’s commercial fishing business. The key to survival is to grow and maintain a sustainable fishery, and the story of how the Nolan family developed the market for Atlantic golden tilefish out of Montauk is worthy of a Harvard Business School case study.

The Nolans catch tilefish on a longline, a 40-mile length of wire rope with 4,000 baited hooks that snap on, an innovation John Nolan introduced to the Montauk fishery in the 1980s, after he and Laurie saw it used to catch tilefish during a fishing sojourn in Florida. Prior to that, most Montauk fishers used nets for tilefish, but the Nolans’ new gear began to outperform the traditional method.

Left: Unloading Golden Tilefish from the Seacapture on the dock in Montauk. Top: Captain John Nolan III on the Seacapture. Bottom: Steven Doyles sorts Golden Tilefish by size in the hold of the Seacapture. Photo credit: David Handschuh

Although it takes a skilled crew to bait and then remove fish from the line without being gouged by the business end of a hook, line-caught fish are never damaged by a net, and the method, when properly managed, results in less bycatch.

It was Laurie Nolan, who shed for five years alongside her husband, that spearheaded another important change in the Atlantic golden tilefish industry in 2004, when she decided the fish was getting a bad rap. Since the 1970s, the FDA had put tilefish in the same category as swordfish, tuna and king mackerel—fish that contain elevated mercury levels and should not be consumed by pregnant women or small children.

Knowing that the warning was based on samples taken in 1976 from the Gulf of Mexico in the vicinity of oil drilling (which can produce mercury pollution), she wanted to see if the local tilefish, which live in deep, clean water and do not migrate, had elevated mercury levels as well. She followed testing protocols and sent samples of fish caught by her family to a lab for analysis. The results showed no danger from elevated mercury levels, the FDA amended the warning and Atlantic golden tilefish became recognized as one of the most sustainable and healthy fish around.

It’s also one of the most delicious. Most of the Nolans’ catch goes to Hunts Point, the vast wholesale market in the Bronx, where restaurants and seafood shops from all over the Northeast go to buy fish. A few thousand pounds is distributed through Dock to Dish, a community-supported fishery program that supplies Montauk seafood to restaurants and consumers, and another 1,000 pounds of whole tilefish from every load goes to Gosman’s to be filleted and sold to East End restaurants. With a firm texture, white flesh and flavor similar to lobster (because of their habit of eating crustaceans), tilefish is a favorite of chef Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills and makes a regular appearance on the menu at Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton. The Nolans’ tilefish is a mainstay at the New York Google cafeteria, where 5,000 employees not only enjoy eating it, they know who caught it.

The same goes for the Jonah crab claws from Montauk’s John Aldridge and Anthony Sosinki. They are fishing partners who have been instrumental in establishing the viability of this meaty- clawed creature, usually considered a bycatch of lobstering. Sean Bennett of Dock to Dish said the Google employees are particularly enthusiastic when steamed Jonah crab claws are on the menu at the company cafeteria.

Googlers may not realize, however, that they’re eating the catch of bonafide media figures, ones who can tell you in harrowing detail about the dangers of the job. Aldridge and Sosinski, longtime partners on the F/V Anna Mary, fish for lobster, and in the middle of one July night in 2013, Aldridge, alone on deck, fell off the boat. He spent 12 hours in the ocean without a flotation device or GPS personal locator beacon before he was pulled out by the Coast Guard. The story of the resourcefulness and resilience he called on to survive long enough to be rescued became a book and movie, “A Speck in the Sea.”

“It’s a job for somebody who has something to prove.”

John Nolan III

Even if you don’t fall overboard, fishing is not for the faint of heart. “It’s a job for somebody who has something to prove,” said Nolan III. “For me, it was my dad, I guess. You got to dig deep some days. You wonder, ‘What am I doing?’ And you just do it anyway.”

Family plays a part even for someone like Dave Aripotch, who happens to be one of the few commercial fishers in Montauk who did not grow up in the business. At 63, Aripotch is “the oldest full-time offshore guy” in the area, and he’s been at it for enough years to prove he’s not just being rebellious. “I’ve been doing this since I was 18,” he said. “Some nights I wake up in a mad panic thinking, ‘I’m going to have to get a real job someday.’ ” Like so many baby boomers born on Long Island, Aripotch went clamming in the Great South Bay as a child, but unlike most, he graduated quickly to working on a commercial trawler, going for swordfish, tuna and tilefish on trips that would have him at sea for weeks. Today he works from the 73-foot FV Caitlin & Mairead.

Aripotch’s wife, Bonnie Brady, is his advocate and shore-side support, as well as a vital voice for commercial fishers at sea, who can’t attend the endless rounds of hearings around issues of licensing, fishing regulations and quotas. “It requires 15 plates spinning,” she said. “If you do it right, you have this great harvest of fish and you get to feed people.”

So far, none of Aripotch’s children has shown an interest in following him into commercial fishing. His first mate, Jackson Urgilez, has been working with Aripotch for more than a decade. Aripotch hopes to work out a deal to pass the boat and his fishing permits to Urgilez when he retires in a few years. “I would like to see him do it. I would like to see fishing stay in this town.”

Montauk’s fishing families have mixed feelings about government regulations and quotas, which can hurt their short-term bottom line but help keep species sustainable in the long run. A prime example is the sea scallop fishery. “Scallops made a big recovery,” Aripotch said. “You had to rotate the areas, which makes sense. They came back. So did fluke, sea bass, striped bass. They put all these regulations in place, and fishing got better.” That is not to say that Aripotch approves of government intervention in his business. A recent proposal, to allow a Danish company to build a wind farm in the middle of a prime fishing area 35 miles offshore, is one that Aripotch and most other commercial owner-operators out of Montauk consider a serious impediment to their business.

Hank Lackner, owner-operator of the trawler Jason and Danielle—at about 90 feet, the largest commercial fishing boat out of Montauk—thinks the threat the proposed wind farm poses can’t be fully appreciated by people who don’t understand how much space in the ocean fishers need to operate. When the nets of a trawler open up, they are like a huge sail moving through the water, herding schools of fish before them.

“Those windmills, you can’t tow a net around them,” Lackner said. “They become closed areas, even if they are a mile apart.”

Lackner’s main cash crop is squid, and for the past two years the cephalopods have been unusually plentiful. The handful of commercial fishers who have permits to take squid caught their quota so early, they had to stop fishing by midsummer. Lackner fishes with two of his children and is hopeful that they will continue the family business.

“We’re some of the last hunter-gatherers on Earth,” Aripotch said, as his crew unloaded 50,000 pounds of porgy—equal to the biomass of about five mastodons. The fish were iced, boxed and bound for Hunts Point. “It’s money, but I never lose sight of producing food. Like a farmer ... harvesting fish.”