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LI bayman returns to the trappings of home

Frank Sloup, one of Long Island's last baymen,

Frank Sloup, one of Long Island's last baymen, traps conch in the Great South Bay. (Nov. 10, 2009) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Frank Sloup, like so many baymen before him, moved on.

Forced out of business by the Town of Islip, which banned his crab and eel pots in 2004, he lost his home and bait shop to foreclosure, sold his gear for a song and headed south, leaving Long Island's dwindling cadre of commercial fishermen one man shorter.

Now, victorious in a lawsuit against the town but still struggling to get by, he's back.

A federal jury has awarded Sloup $2.1 million in damages, but because the town plans to appeal, he may never see the money. So, after the loss of his life's savings and a failed attempt to make a new living in Maryland, Sloup, 63, of Bay Shore, is in nearly the same boat he was in at age 17: a 20-foot Chincoteague garvey.

He had hoped to retire soon, or at least to scale back from fishing, expand his Bay Shore bait and tackle shop, maybe open a dockside cafe.

Instead, with borrowed traps, he's on the dock before dawn, buzzing off in a boat so small he has to make two, sometimes three trips a day.

"If you start when the sun comes out of the water and you go home when the sun goes back in the water, it's unlimited what you can do," he says, a smile flashing on his weathered face as he pulls in a trap laden with whelks. "They call it the Great Dead Bay, and I'm coming in with boatloads."

Relying again on the bounty of the bay, he is starting over.

>>PHOTOS: Click here to see photos of Frank Sloup at work

It started with a ticket

Sloup's struggle with the Town of Islip began in June 2004, with a ticket issued by a town harbor officer. The town claimed his 41 crab pots in Champlin Creek were a hazard to navigation. Sloup insisted he had set his pots in the same spots he and others had used for decades - on the shallow edges of creeks, far from the channels in the middle where boats pass.

Sloup fought back, arguing in court that the state, not the town, had jurisdiction over commercial fishing. He won.

Four months later, he again dropped pots in the creeks and harbor areas of the town. This time, according to his subsequent federal lawsuit, the town banned his gear completely.

Sloup then filed the civil rights lawsuit, arguing that the town was persecuting him - and none of the other baymen - because he had been a vocal advocate for fishermen's rights, having successfully sued three decades earlier to stop the town from restricting the placement of his nets.

He testified that his loss of revenue in 2004 tipped him into the red, causing a cascade of financial troubles that led to foreclosure of his home and business.

On Nov. 3, the jury agreed.

But the town has not given up. Assistant Town Attorney Erin Sidaras said the town had the right to protect the safety of boaters. She insisted Sloup's financial troubles began before the 2004 ticket and denied that the town had singled him out.

"We were surprised by the verdict," she said, noting that his plight had resonated with the jury. "People are suffering financially. It's a difficult time for everyone."

Sidaras said the town - which has been billed more than $303,000 in legal costs so far - has asked the judge to set aside or reduce the jury's verdict; if he doesn't, she said, the town will appeal.

 

Working the water since '53 Sloup has been on the water for as long as he can remember.

Born and raised in Islip Terrace, he began clamming professionally in 1953. He was 7 years old and on summer days made as much as $8.

By 11, he was trapping crabs, eels and whelks. He crabbed through high school and college, earning a bachelor's in education from Dowling College and a master's in special education from the University of South Florida.

He soon found, however, that he could make more on the bay than in the classroom.

Each year, from March to November, he would pull in eels, menhaden, bluefish, blowfish, killifish, whelks and blue claw crabs. During the winter, he would build new traps and repair old ones.

He earned grudging respect from his competitors, some of whom side with the town in the dispute but admit that no one puts in longer days.

"Frank Sloup is a very, very hard worker," said John Buczak, a bayman from Bay Shore. "In my opinion, Sloup was wrong. It's insane to put traps in that creek. You have novice boaters, they get tangled up."

Sloup dismissed the criticism, saying his competitors are jealous of his large catches.

Sloup grew to know the bay like few others - "the cycles, changes in season, where to find certain species at certain times of year," said Capt. Timothy Huss, chief conservation officer on Long Island for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "He has a feel for that bottom: hills and valleys, channels, eelgrass."

Huss, who has enforced state fishing regulations on the bay for three decades, said he has never seen Sloup break the law or place a trap in a way that poses a navigation hazard. And Chris Clapp, an estuary specialist for the Nature Conservancy, said Sloup has worked with the group to study and cull whelks, a predator of clams.

"We really learned a lot from him," Clapp said.

After fishing full time for nearly three decades, Sloup in 1998 decided to expand his business. He and his wife, Tracey, bought an old bus station and army barracks backing onto Orowoc Creek in Bay Shore. There, with industrial refrigerators to hold the day's catch and freezers to store a season's worth of bait, they opened a bait and tackle shop called Crabs Unlimited. They lost it to foreclosure in 2007.

They moved to Maryland, where plans for a crab restaurant with a friend fell through. A year later, scrambling to find work, Sloup returned to Long Island and, with borrowed gear, started over. He fished, slept in his truck and scraped together enough to rent an apartment.

 

Running on empty

The Sloups are now back in their former home - because, they say, the bank made a mistake in the foreclosure proceedings. The case is in litigation.

The building that housed their bait shop and storage space is largely empty. Gone are the coolers, freezers, ice machine and seafood display cases.

Without refrigeration, Tracey Sloup each day sorts her husband's catch on a deck outside their building, then calls buyers to find one who can pick it up by nightfall.

They're selling at wholesale rather than retail prices, their income a sixth of what it was. They worry about making it through the winter.

On a recent morning, Frank Sloup steered his boat along a line of buoys bobbing like empty soda bottles. The water, cool and still, was as gray as the overcast sky. His trim frame dipped back and forth, hauling in, dumping out, and swinging freshly prepared traps behind him.

"It's a labor of love," he said. "I'm happy every day I get up and come out. I get to see the sun come out of the water. I'm watching the ducks coming in from Canada."

As it has his whole life, the bay provides.

For dinner with his wife: blowfish. And for his son, visiting from Arizona: an afternoon of raking clams, destined for a pot of white sauce and a pile of linguine.

>>PHOTOS: Click here to see photos of Frank Sloup at work

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