Phil Karlin, a Riverhead fisherman who works Long Island Sound...

Phil Karlin, a Riverhead fisherman who works Long Island Sound from Mattituck, checks a lobster pot that turned out to be empty.

Credit: Newsday/Mark Harrington

On a gray Saturday morning last month on Long Island Sound, Riverhead fisherman Phil Karlin swings his commercial  trawler toward a single orange-and-white buoy to haul in his first set of lobster pots of the year. He sets the 100-foot line on winches that lift the series of pots from the 90-foot depths.

The first heavy cage emerges with a foreboding sign: not a single lobster.

The other four come up without lobsters as well, filled instead with spider crabs, which get thrown back. “I was hoping I’d see some lobsters this year,” said Karlin, 82, who has been fishing the Sound for lobsters since the 1960s.

Karlin is among a handful of remaining Long Island Sound lobstermen who held out hope that waters from Northport to Mattituck might someday see a resurgence after a decadeslong decline. No such luck. 


  • Long Island Sound lobstermen have held out hope that waters from Northport to Mattituck might see a resurgence after a decadeslong decline. But the numbers aren't materializing. 
  • New York state reported record-low landings of lobsters in 2022, the first year in which the dwindling number of lobstermen reported a catch that fell under 100,000 pounds.
  • The 82,987 pounds reported last year was a drop of 23,000 pounds from 2021, and continued a steady decline that has beset the fishery from a late 1990s die-off. 

Last month, in response to Newsday's questions, New York State reported record-low landings of lobsters in 2022, the first year in which the dwindling number of lobstermen reported a catch that fell under 100,000 pounds. The 82,987 pounds reported last year was a drop of 23,000 pounds from 2021, and continued a steady decline that has beset the fishery from a late 1990s die-off. 

In the decades since, most Long Island lobstermen have diversified into more sustainable fisheries, including whelk and finfish such as black sea bass, fluke, scup and blackfish, or left the fishery altogether, locals say. 

Fishermen like Karlin have worked in a state of hope that the middle and western Long Island Sound could see a lobster resurgence after sharp declines for more than a decade, even as the eastern waters of the Sound closer to Fishers Island, where the water is deeper and cooler, constitute the bulk of the state's harvest. Instead, the reverse seems to be happening. Karlin, who once worked more than 1,200 pots, said this trawl line produced more than a dozen lobsters last year, a sign that things might be on the mend.

"I expected to see something, and it was nothing," he said. "I really was very disappointed."

The decline comes even after state and federal regulators instituted a series of measures to try to prolong the life of the fishery, including increasing the size of legally allowable lobsters and even closing the season starting in 2013 in the Sound. The few fishermen still harvesting lobsters had to begin hauling out their gear starting Friday, and must stay out of the state fishery through Nov. 28 in the area that encompasses the Sound.

Tor Vincent, a fisherman who works the waters off Northport, said his trawls have shown only “a few small ones now and then.”

Instead, he said, the sea bottom is now dominated by black sea bass, which prey on small lobsters.

“My joke is we have just enough lobster to keep them coming back,” Vincent said of black sea bass. “They spit them up after shed starts and seem to follow the old lobster maps in my head. The spider crabs are in decline as well.”

The state figures for the lobster fishery show that while the total figure is down, the number for Long Island Sound is up by around 10,000 pounds for the prior year. Lobstermen say nearly all the active fishing in the Sound has moved markedly to the east, where a handful of fishermen continue to set pots in far deeper waters that maintain the cool temperatures lobsters prefer.

Jim King, who fished out of Mattituck, said he continued fishing the Sound well after the 1999 die-off and, “I didn’t see a huge change until 2006, 2008 — then it really dropped off.”

In 2016, he said, he thought he’d seen the beginnings of a comeback, but the landings dropped by half in 2017, and in half again in 2018.

“I didn’t set anything this year, I was so disgusted,” he said. “It’s a shame. It was just a wonder fishery.”

King is one of the few lobstermen who put the blame squarely on one human-made factor.

“In my opinion, it was terribly overfished,” he said. “I tried tooth and nail to get limits.”

The limits came too late, said King, 81, who has been fishing the waters since 1964. He hasn’t given up hope completely. “I might put a few pots out next year,” he said.

Al Schaffer, a longtime lobsterman who fishes out of Montauk, said he’s seen steady lobster fishing in the waters off Fishers Island and some closer to Long Island, with recent highs around the time COVID struck in 2020. This year has been a little slower, he said.

"We have our own body of lobsters in the race," he said, referring to waters around Plum and Fishers Islands. He said he doubts the theory that lobsters from the western Sound simply migrated east to cooler waters. "I don’t think there’s any lobsters in western Long Island Sound to walk east."

Some lobstermen have moved to even deeper waters. Anthony Sosinski, who fishes for lobsters and Jonah crabs out of Montauk, does most of his fishing 50 miles from shore — a fishery so distant that his exploits of heading to fishing grounds at night became the subject of a book. 

"When I left the inshore lobster fishery in 2003, it was because we couldn’t make a living anymore inshore," Sosinski said. He said he suspects many of the lobsters that once inhabited the western Sound migrated east, while poor water quality makes it impossible for new eggs to hatch and grow.

"The eggs don’t survive because the water quality isn’t there for them," Sosinski said of the Sound. "That’s what’s killing our seafood."

It's also leading to a decline in active fishermen. 

New York State issued a total of 298 lobster fishing licenses last year, down from the 393 issued in 2013, and a sharp decrease from the 1,265 issued at the height of the fishery in 1994. The lobster catch in the Sound peaked in 1996 at 8.8 million pounds. By 2009, it had dropped to just under 1 million.

“The assessment is [that] it’s pretty much done,” said John German, president of Long Island Sound Lobstermen’s Association, a  trade group.

German, who turns 77 this month, said he knew a lobsterman in Northport who had been taking tour groups out to show them how lobstering was traditionally done. It became a problem when the pots kept coming up empty, he said, so the man “had to buy lobsters to put them in the pots.”

In a prepared statement to Newsday, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which regulates the lobster fishery, noted that prolonged exposure to water above 68 degrees is “stressful to American lobsters.” German noted that water temperatures in the Sound hit 80 degrees this year and recently have settled around 75 degrees.

The DEC said higher water temperatures, ocean acidification and shifting fishery populations, and changes in productivity have become "significant stressors on the state’s marine environment" overall, and to lobsters in particular.

Like many Long Island lobstermen, German has turned his attention to other species, notably whelk, known locally as conch. “It just keeps me going,” he said. “It’s nothing compared to lobsters. It will never ever even come close to what lobstering was.”

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