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Hazardous fishing off Long Island's coast

Boat owner Mark Phillips sits in front of

Boat owner Mark Phillips sits in front of his fishing vessel called "Illusion" on the Greenport docks. Photo Credit: Newsday/Mario Gonzalez

The Amanda-Tara was dredging for clams 10 to 20 miles off the South Shore of Long Island in April when it hauled up a hair-raising catch: 126 hand grenades, some still in wooden crates, their detonators intact.

In May, another commercial clammer, the ESS Pursuit, was 45 miles due south of Moriches when it hauled up eight containers of deadly mustard agent, injuring one seaman. And through a storied fishing career, Greenport captain Mark Phillips said his haul has included a torpedo, a depth charge and numerous unexploded shells.

Each incident enters the log book of potentially deadly encounters with munitions at sea. From 1919 to 1970 - Congress banned the practice in 1972 - the U.S. Army dumped more than 60 million pounds of unexploded ordnance and deadly chemical agents in the waters off both coasts and throughout the rest of the world, leaving a hazardous legacy for sea-bottom fishermen. Some 17,000 tons of chemical agents are located off the Atlantic coast alone.

The most lethal materiel, nerve and mustard agents, some in 1-ton containers, is supposed to be in deep waters beyond the continental shelf around 90 miles from shore, but the encounter in May indicates some is much closer.

The recent events point to an increasing frequency of encounters. Fishermen say warming southern waters mean more fishermen are migrating north, away from mid-Atlantic waters, forcing some to test old boundaries near known munitions dumps. Clammers encounter the materiel more frequently than do net or hook fishermen because clam dredges dig 6-8 inches into the seabed.

"It's not that we're fishing in virgin territory, but there's more activity in northern territory than ever before," said Tom Slaughter, a fisherman who owns Fair Tide Shellfish, a clam processor in New Bedford, Mass.

Catch and release

The facility was processing clams from the Amada-Tara when the hand grenades from the Long Island waters were discovered. Within minutes of notifying police, Slaughter was told to vacate his building. The hand grenades were later detonated by the Navy.

Phillips said the challenges of fishing lead some to try their luck in and around the "unexploded ordnance" areas clearly marked on navigation charts.

"You go where the fish are," Phillips said, noting that tightened fishing regulations force fishermen to maximize trips despite potential dangers.

"We drag right through the dumps," he said. "You don't worry about it."

When he has encountered shells and even a torpedo, Phillips said, he follows simple rules: "You don't bring it in, you just drop it over the side." It is not illegal to return the munitions to the water, though federal regulators request fishermen report their finds. Most don't because of excessive red tape, Phillips said.

There's worry that underwater munitions are shifting with sea currents and that some may have been dumped much nearer to shore than recent government inventories show.

"That stuff moves around out there - it don't stay in one place," said legendary Point Lookout clammer Bob Doxsee, who has hauled up everything from a cannon to "a big bomb" in his clam dredges. What's more, said Doxsee, as sea clam boats get larger, they are venturing out into deeper waters, increasing the likelihood of encounters with chemical agents. "That's scary stuff," he said.

One expert said the long history of munitions dumping leaves him with concerns that those responsible may have taken shortcuts. "There's a lot of looseness in my mind not only about where it was dumped but how much," said Craig Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a munitions-disposal watchdog group in Berea, Ky.

He pointed to munitions discovered 10 miles off the Hawaii coast that he said were listed as being 150 miles out. "Just the fact that [the Army] was dumping in the ocean and thought it was state of the art tells you something."

Army spokesman Jimmie Cummings said the Department of Defense has studied migration of undersea munitions and found that even near shore the material moves minimally, "only tens of feet."

He said the containers recovered by the ESS Pursuit have been tentatively identified as 75mm chemical (mustard) projectiles and called it "highly unlikely" that they shifted from a known munitions dump more than 60 miles in 9,000 feet of water.

Cause for concern

Local fishermen say finding munitions in waters off the New York coast is far from an everyday occurrence but the frequency is enough to cause concern. Stories about the finds abound in local lore.

The most well-known involved the Shinnecock I, a 75-foot trawler from Hampton Bays owned by captain Daniel Hand, who is now deceased. The ship was fishing in 270 feet of water 45 miles due south of the Shinnecock Inlet in March 1991 when it brought up a torpedo, according to fisherman and tugboat captain J.J. Hand, Daniel Hand's nephew.

"He was coming into Shinnecock and the Coast Guard stopped him at the buoy" about one mile from port, J.J. Hand said. The captain and his crew were ordered off the ship, which was inspected by munitions experts and, ultimately, sunk. J.J. Hand said the torpedo turned out to be a dud. It took Daniel Hand years to recover part of his losses with a payment from the government.

Most fishermen don't bother reporting the finds to the authorities, he said.

But less common - and more troubling - are events like the ESS Pursuit's recent encounter with containers of mustard agent 45 miles south of Long Island. The event has shed new light on the millions of pounds of chemical and explosive ordnance dumped in U.S. waters.

A 2009 inventory prepared by the U.S. Department of Defense for Congress says before the ban, 4,577 containers of mustard agent, each containing 1 ton of the deadly agent, were dumped 90 nautical miles off the coast of New York in 5,500 feet of water. In all, more than 5,390 tons of mustard agent have been dumped along the Atlantic coast, along with 253 tons of the nerve agent Sarin and 9.907 tons of the blistering agent Lewisite.

Hall, the Coast Guard spokesman, said there are no restrictions for fishermen in areas marked on maps as munitions dumps. The recent mustard agent incident was the only one he said he was aware of in recent history in which a civilian was injured in a munitions encounter.

Encounters with munitions by fishermen were concern enough that the Defense Department published a brochure to teach fishermen how to respond when they encounter munitions, including an incident that serves as a cautionary tale.

In July 1965, the ship Snoopy was scalloping off the coast of North Carolina when it hauled up a large cylindrical object. The device exploded - it's unclear how - killing all eight crew members and destroying the ship.

Coast Guard spokesman Hall said it's unlikely the materiel ever will be removed from the seafloor.

"I don't think there's going to be much done to recover any of the ordnance," he said. "We just have to deal with it as best we can."

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