Larry Seaman

Eel Fisherman

FOLLOW Rockaway Boulevard as it curves around the seemingly endless northern boundary of JFK airport until you reach the very edge of the city. It’s a low-lying world of scrub and marshland and chain link fencing, with the occasional strip mall or radar tower offering what little elevation there is. Planes swoop in to land, fat-bellied and frighteningly un-aerodynamic at this close vantage point. Less than a hundred yards before Queens peters out into Nassau County is a small hand-lettered sign tacked to a telegraph pole that says simply “BAIT.” Turn off here and suddenly one is in a world that would not seem out of place in Florida or the deep South, except for the cold wind blowing off Jamaica Bay. Small shingle houses cluster around a loop of unmarked road, their backs facing a creek with a long wooden dock running along its edge. There are pick-up trucks and boats in the driveways, and a few dogs bark half-heartedly. This is where Larry Seaman and his son, Larry Jr., the last two full-time eel fishermen in New York City, pursue their lonely occupation.

Mr. Seaman Sr. is slim, in his mid-sixties, and wears a blue check shirt and waders that come up half way to his chest. His face is suitably rugged for such a profession, buffed by a lifetime of exposure to sun and wind, and his Queens accent has a touch of something ancient in it that’s hard to pin down. “I love it out here,” he says simply. “It’s beautiful. Any time of year, any weather.” The sentiment is echoed by his son, a powerfully-built 30 year-old in a hunting jacket standing next to him on the dock beside a pile of handmade wire-mesh traps. “I wouldn’t give it up for anything,” he says. “I love it and I love working with him, you know? There’s not too many people get to work with their fathers.”

It’s not an easy life. Father and son are usually both up by 5 a.m. seven days a week to prepare the traps, and on the water by 7 or 8, depending on whether they have eel deliveries to make first. Their flat-bottomed wooden boat is small, offering no shelter, and is loaded with traps and the large plastic barrels into which they dump the captured eels. Powered by a 150-horsepower outboard motor, they glide out each morning into the vast 9000-acre mosaic of water and yellow-green marshland that falls away to the city’s southern edge. The charmingly archaic names of this environment—Big Egg Marsh, Pumpkin Patch Marsh, Yellow Bar Hassock—seem a gentle rebuke to Manhattan’s modernity, shimmering in the distance. It takes about five hours to yank up, empty out, and re-bait their seventy or so pots with a section of Horseshoe crab (“It’s like lobster to us, Horseshoe crab to an eel,” Mr. Seaman says.) If a pot is empty or contains only a few eels, they might move its location elsewhere. It’s hard work on the back and arms, though not as tough as what local clammers have to endure, Mr. Seaman is quick to point out, who wrench their prize from thirty feet of water off Staten Island or Sandy Hook in New Jersey­—about three times the average depth of Jamaica Bay.

For Mr. Seaman, this world is as familiar as Midtown’s streets are to a cab driver, and probably more so. Not only does he know the contours of every marsh and inlet in Jamaica Bay from Hook Creek, the tiny inlet his house is on, to the Marine Parkway Bridge nearly nine miles to the west, he also knows the contours that lie beneath the water. “I know every bump and dip,” he says. “I could draw a map of it as good as the Geodesic survey they do.” In winter in particular, when the eels take refuge in the thick mud at the bottom of the bay and the Seamans switch from pots to eel combs, dragging their catch from out of their hideaways with specially made devices, this is invaluable information.

The Seamans catch two types of eels, “bait eels,” sixteen inches long or less, which they sell mostly to charter boats for fishing, and the larger eels for eating, weighing up to about four pounds and two to two-and-a-half feet-long, which they sell to local fish markets. When Mr. Seaman first started out in the late 1950s, 25 cents a pound was the going price, though now they fetch between $3.50 and $4.00 a pound. At Christmas, when demand peaks, especially from New York’s Asian community, the price goes up to $5 a pound. Mr. Seaman fondly recalls his first big customer, a smoked-eel joint on Cross Bay Boulevard called The Kettle of Fish, now a swimming pool and spa store, which used to take all he could catch. “That’s how I fed my family,” he says. “That’s how I bought my first house.”

During the warmer months, up till about the first week of January, the Seaman’s keep their captured eels in large wooden bins hung over the edge of their dock (all eels caught in the winter have to be sold the same day as ice or snow will kill them.) Each storage bin weighs about five hundred pounds, and with a fierce effort father and son drag one up out of the water. Mr. Seaman Sr. pulls open the lid with a flourish and suddenly there they are in all their collective fury, a seething mess of black and silver bodies churning up a glutinous foam. He inserts an enormous fist and plucks one out, holding it in a pincer grip between thumb and index finger just below the head. The vehemence with which the eel thrashes is disturbing, as though it is more affronted by such human liberty than fearful of its fate. Mr. Seaman smiles. “They don’t say slippery as an eel for nothing,” he says. “Go on, stick your hand in.”

Eels, it turns out, unlike snakes, are covered in slime, though the real unpleasantness in holding them lies less in their texture than their primeval otherness—the sense they don’t belong to the world of living things we are familiar with. Mr. Seaman says their slime has naturally antibiotic properties, and as proof holds out his hands for inspection, which are devoid of any nick or infection even after a lifetime of outdoors work. The larger eels are silver in color, the smaller ones black or green. The “silvers” are the older ones preparing to head back out to the Mediterranean to spawn, he explains. He points out the increased eye size of the specimen he is holding. “See how big his eyes are? The eyes get bigger for traveling the ocean with safety, to watch out for the predators.” Mr. Seaman slaps him into a scale like a bunch of fruit and notes with satisfaction that he’s close to being three pounds.

Such a life, hard as it is, may seem positively carefree compared to the cubicle-ridden wretchedness of many a New Yorker, but the Seamans are under a considerable degree of stress, as they are quick to point out. Not only is theirs a dying profession—there are probably no more than a hundred full-time eelers left between Florida and Maine when there used to be hundreds in New York Harbor and Long Island alone, Mr. Seaman estimates—but father and son are the subject of ever-increasing antipathy from officialdom. The Wildlife Conservation Society, or “Constipation Society” as Mr. Seaman and his son have dubbed it, have deemed both the eel and Horseshoe crab population of the Bay threatened, a position Mr. Seaman bluntly claims is “bullshit, pure bullshit.” “There’s only us and about three or four part-timers—and I know the names of each one of them—who are catching eels,” he says angrily. “And we’re catching more now than we’ve caught in the last five years. More small ones, and more big ones. So I mean, where the hell’s the shortage?”

The same plenitude applies to Horseshoe crabs. “You go down to Barren Island”—a part of Floyd Bennett Field on Brooklyn’s shoreline—“or back behind the Statue of Liberty on a full moon and look along them beaches there and there’s more crabs than you can imagine. Twenty thousand or more piled on top of each other. It’s unbelievable.” Mr. Seaman suspects that apart from “bad science” in calculating the numbers, the real reason lies with the increased value of Horseshoe crabs now that their proteins have been shown to have potential medical applications. “But we don’t have no voice,” he says. “We don’t have a college education, we didn’t study marine biology, so what do we know?” A direct consequence of all this been that he is forced to head out to Freeport in Long Island to purchase crabs at three dollars apiece to ensure he does not fall foul of the law, and where once he halved them for bait traps he now parsimoniously quarters them. But perhaps what most upsets the Seamans is the idea that they have been branded as uninformed and destructive of the environment they love. As Mr. Seaman points out, nobody knows the Bay better than himself and his son, “We see its tiniest change from day to day, depending on the weather. And both of us are conservationists—after all, we have to keep ourselves in check, otherwise we’d put ourselves out of business.”

9/11 has also not been kind to the Seamans, resulting in “a paranoia,” as Mr. Seaman puts it, that has had serious consequences for them. Buoys have been established around the edge of the airport, helicopters regularly fly overhead, and the Coast Guard in particular keeps a suspicious eye on everyone. All of which is fine, the Seamans say, except for the fact that they are now in the absurd position of been treated as suspects by people with whom they have often been on a first name basis with for years. “It’s not the regular guys,” says Mr. Seaman Jr., “it’s the command structure, they’re just so gun-shy about everything.” Mr. Seaman Sr. recalls with a grimace of amusement a recent event when he was out with a New York Times reporter and photographer who were doing a story on him. “All of a sudden a Port Authority boat comes up to me and goes, ‘Larry, they want to talk to you,’” he says. Mr. Seaman and the reporters were taken ashore to the waiting police and told they had “breached a security zone.” Mr. Seaman was indignant. “I got my first piece of ass on that beach when I was sixteen, so don’t tell me about breaching no security zone!” The Coast Guard was unamused and proceeded to arrest him, threaten him with a $50,000 fine, and hold him overnight; finding nothing else on the Times reporter, they charged him with failing to pay an old ticket for cycling on the sidewalk. “I mean, if that ain’t bullshit, what is?” Mr. Seaman laughs bleakly.

The Seamans’ kitchen is large and gloomy with dark faux-wooden paneling and a yellow plastic tablecloth. The place is not untidy but a woman’s touch is clearly absent. Mr. Seaman’s wife, Louis, died of liver cancer seven years ago, and although he has a girlfriend in Virginia, his sadness is still palpable when he talks about her. “I remember when I came out of the hospital after identifying her,” he says. “I couldn’t believe people were still walking around, cars and buses and everything. I felt everything should all be still because she had died….” For a while Mr. Seaman didn’t know what to do and languished at home, until a fellow fisherman advised him that he should simply get up and go eeling again, which is what he did. The advice was “absolutely right,” he said. There’s another female absence in the household, too, as Mr. Seaman Jr.’s wife left him recently, taking their two-year old son, Michael, with her back to Connecticut. An album of family photos lies on the table, containing pictures of Mr. Seaman Sr. and his wife on their wedding day and of Mr. Seaman Jr. playing with his son.

Do they eat eels themselves? The question makes them laugh. “Anything that can wriggle when it’s dead isn’t going in my stomach,” says Mr. Seaman Jr. “But my Dad, he loves them.” This reminds Mr. Seaman Sr. about his wife’s squeamishness when it came to eels. She hated the way they squirmed, even after they were dead and skinned, and she wouldn’t touch them until the muscular contractions had stopped. As a joke, Mr. Seaman would wait until her back was turned and then sprinkle salt onto the sliced-up pieces which would cause them to contract frantically. “Oh God! It used to absolutely freak her out!” he says. Both father and son crack up. For now, they will continue to do what they have done all their lives, but both are aware they might soon become just another part of New York’s maritime past, especially with recent talk about a complete moratorium on all eeling and crabbing in the Bay. “I told my Dad the other day, I’ll eel until they put me in jail,” says Mr. Seaman Jr. defiantly. His father pauses then says quietly, “Yeah, but they will. That’s the problem.”

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