Back Later, Gone Fishing


It’s 11:30 in the evening of Nov. 21, 2016. The smell of day-old bait marries with whiffs of marijuana. A man in baggy pants, an oversized jacket and a grey toboggan smokes a thick self-rolled joint in the low-forties weather. 

Light gusts of wind ripple his black hoodie, loose around his head, as he sits on a stone bench on the boardwalk of Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan, overlooking the New York Harbor. Three deep sea poles hang over the black railing above the waterline. As small silver bells on the poles clang together, a pole jerks downward, bending into a semi-circle. Within a split second, the man, Jackson springs from his bench and begins reeling in his catch.

Judging from the pressure the fish’s weight exerts on the pole, he notes, “It’s not going to be big enough to keep.” He reels the line in a few feet, pauses for a few seconds, and continues reeling. Five minutes later, he pulls a flopping blur out of the water: “Got ‘em. Yep, look… he’s a little one.”
It’s a baby Bluefish, not large enough to legally keep. Jackson flings it back into the water. He carries his pole to a wooden cutting board a few steps from the railing and whips out a pocketknife attached to his belt. His knife slits through the head of another fish, which he chops up for bait. Then, in one flowing motion, he moves his arm backward, then forward, and releases the line forty feet back into the water.

Jackson, a twenty-three-year-old graphic designer from Spanish Harlem, rides the 2/3 train down from Spanish Harlem four nights a week. When he was 18, he began studying radiology at Hostos Community College, a CUNY school, but dropped out four months later. He’s been fishing since he was 13, first with his brother and dad and now on his own. By day, he works from home as a freelance graphic designer. By night, he drops several heavy duty fishing lines, $800 each with $200 reels, into the water and smokes weed to relax. 
He always fishes high. “It’s a f—ing release,” Jackson says.

Directly across the river, Staten Island stands out against the smog of the city. Hundreds of apartment buildings and commercial spaces filled with thousands of people fill both sides of the harbor. The lights bounce off the waves, the brackish waters making up part of the Hudson River, creating a sensation of dizziness when one looks out across the water.

Around 2 in the morning on Dec. 3, 2016 Jackson and his cousin Barry doze on the stone benches by the Battery Park City boardwalk in the frigid winter temperatures. The silver bells on the end of the lines act as an alarm clock. 

“Wake up, it’s yours!” Barry says. 

Jackson’s reflexes are quick. He reels in a beautiful, 35 pound Striped Bass. The next morning, he will sell it for $205 to the owner of Wo Hop, a restaurant on Mott Street in the heart of Chinatown.
“Sometimes you don’t catch nothing, sometimes you get seven or eight in an hour,” he says. “I sell the fish for $5-$7 per pound, and generally the decent ones are between 12 and 30 pounds.” 
Chinatown is Jackson’s main customer, although sometimes passersby on the boardwalk notice one of his fish and pay cash for it on the spot. More often than not, if he catches a doozy, he sells it to Wo Hop. The average market price for a decent sized Striped Bass or Bluefish, the two most commonly caught fish, is $150-$200 per pop. If he lands three decent sized fish, Jackson makes over $500 in one night.

“One of my buddies, he used to do construction, but he lives offah fishin’ now,” Jackson says. “He has a jeep and he just drives up and down hitting up all the spots and he sells them in Chinatown.”

The next morning, the Wo Hop manager alleges he doesn’t know where the fish they sell come from. Wo Hop’s owner also refuses to confirm that Jackson sells them fish regularly.
There is a reason Wo Hop and other restaurants in Chinatown don’t own up to buying their fish from local fishermen on the Hudson River.  In 1976, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation banned commercial fishing in upper Hudson, specifically of Striped Bass, for health reasons. The Hudson proved to be full of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), a hazardous waste which General Electric manufactured and dumped into the river between 1946 and 1976. The 1.3 million lbs. of PCB’s unloaded over those thirty years have accumulated in high concentrations in the Hudson’s fish. In 1984, Battery Park City made the list of America’s most hazardous waste sites.

Given the high level of PCB’s, it is dangerous to consume most species of fish caught in the waters surrounding NYC. According to the New York State Department of Health (NYDHO), men over 15 and women over 50 may only eat Bluefish caught in NYC for up to four meals a month. Women over 50 and children under 15 should eat Bluefish greater than 20 inches in no more than one meal a month and Bluefish smaller than 20 inches in no more than four meals per month because of the contamination, specifically found in the fish’s fat. PCB’s consumed in large portions at once, or in moderate portions over time, are linked to infertility in women, birth defects in children, and slowed mental development, putting women who eat fish caught in NYC at special risk,  according to the Fish Contamination Education Collaborative.

Tonight it’s Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. Alan Silva, an overweight, white 46-year-old Brooklyn native has come to fish in Battery Park City Monday through Thursday every week for twenty years. Silva doesn’t believe in fish pollution, the validity of the NYDOH, or the danger of selling and eating fish. “Do you eat tilapia?” he demands, “Tilapia has no nutritional value. The government telling you to not eat fish here is a scare tactic, like after 9/11, making people go to Iraq to fight some terrorists,” he rants, his voice rising. “You just take the red vein out and filet it up and it’s the tastiest fish you’ll eat.” Striped Bass and Bluefish are in season from mid-October to mid-December, according to Silva. After Dec. 15, the fish migrate and Silva moves his operation to Jamaica, Queens.

“Dude, turn it here,” Silva says to his fisherman buddy as he tries to steady an approximately 20-pound Bluefish he has just pulled out of the Hudson River near the Korean War Memorial in Battery Park City as it flops vigorously on his line. Fishermen rarely brave the night alone, and collude in groups of two or three to keep company. His friend snaps a picture of Silva with his cellphone’s camera. Silva uploads the caption-less picture to Facebook, sharing it with a group of 150 local fishermen. Over 100 Facebook groups with fisherman from all five boroughs of NYC exist to provide fisherman collaborative information about where fish are biting on a given evening. “When somebody posts a picture, you always can always tell where they at. We know all the fishing places in the city,” Silva says nodding at his buddy. The fishermen cover spots from Randall’s Island to Rockaway Beach. “Sometimes someone will post a picture and a couple hours later 200 people will come out and be putting in at the same spot,” Silva says.

Lower Manhattan alone contains 31 official fishing locations, from the Staten Island Ferry to 36th Street, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). These are the best spots. “I never get farther uptown in Manhattan,” Silva says as he picks up a halved Bluefish head with the eyeball still intact and pulls it over the metal, deep sea fishing hook with bait from Capitol Fishing Tackle in Midtown. “There are too many power plants up there.” 
It’s 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 2, 2016. Adrian, a dark-skinned, dark-haired man with a black toboggan and fingerless gloves boards the J and Z line at Delancey Street on the Lower East Side. Adrian sets his tackle box on one of the worn, plastic grey and beige seats of the train. In one hand, he holds a black, deep sea fishing rod and in the other hand a slightly shorter, thinner rod. Across his shoulder is a plastic-lined bait.  Every weeknight, he takes the J and Z from Marcy Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to Broad Street in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan to catch Striped Bass to sell in Chinatown. Tonight he heard the fish are biting from a friend reeling in 20-pounders near Chelsea Piers. 

Fishing in the New York Harbor is illegal without a license on one’s person. To obtain a fishing license in New York State, one must either have proof of residency and pay the $25 annual fee or pay the $50 non-resident fee. The cost of fishing illegally is high: a fine up to $250 and up to 15 days in jail, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. For preservation reasons, it is also illegal to keep more than one fish per night.

“The cops have busted us once before a couple years back,” Jackson says. “But nothing really happened. You’re only supposed to keep one fish per night. It doesn’t matter how good the night is, it’s only legal to keep one.” No wonder many of the men casting their rods into the New York Harbor at 2 a.m. under the cloak of darkness are not feeling chatty.  “If you come out in the middle of the night and stay out until sunrise, you can catch as many as you want and not get caught. Everyone does it,” he adds.

Come morning, legal or not, these fish will be fileted and put in a freezer, or prepared in dish at Wo Hop.  

Rachel Cline