20 AUGUST 1988, Page 28

Fishing for more than complements

Patrick Skene Catling

MEN'S LIVES by Peter Matthiessen

Collins Harvill, £15, pp.335

Peter Matthiessen, a New York author of admirable virility and sensitivity (The Snow Goose, In The Spirit of Crazy Horse etc), has written a macho lament for communal disinheritance in a damaged ecosystem. Fishing just ain't what it used to be.

An elegiac reminder that this planet is being plundered and poisoned, the book is specifically about the decline of commer- cial seine-fishing (using nets) in the Atlan- tic off the eastern end of Long Island, because of too may rod-waving sportsmen and other summer visitors, and because of pollution of the estuaries where the fish spawn.

Mr Matthiessen has lived for 28 years in Sagaponack, Long Island, and spent three of those years, between books, as a work- ing fisherman and as the captain of a boat he chartered to visitors. He knows the place and its history, the fishermen whose families have been making an arduous living fishing there for generations and the recently intrusive, self-styled sportsmen.

In this sadly, inevitably defeatist account, the traditional commercial fisher- men are his doomed heroes. The newcom- ers, the greatly increasing, apparently irresistible, majority, are his villains. They take most of the fish and sell many of them, while complaining that seine-fishing reduces their possible catch. They have been agitating in Albany, the State capital, to have the nets outlawed.

As the author points out, the threatened traditionalists are descendants of invaders who displaced long-established owners of this fertile island and its surrounding fisheries. New England colonists arrived on Long Island in 1633 and soon contrived to take it over from the Algonkian Indians. In Southampton, Long Island, local Indi- ans rampaged in 1649 in protest against `the coerced sale of their lands for rum and trinkets'. But in the same year 'the bewil- dered sachems of the Montauk, Shinne- cock and Shelter Island bands had deeded East Hampton to the settlers for 20 coats, 24 knives, hoes, hatchets and mirrors, and 100 muxes, or steel wampum drills'.

In East Hampton nowadays you couldn't get an overnight room at that price, even if you happened to have it with you. Since the turn of the present century South- ampton and East Hampton have become Long Island's most fashionable summer resorts. Inflation of local prices has tempt- ed or forced many farmers and fishermen to move away.

Mr Matthiessen bought his property at Sagaponack at a time that was advan- tageous for himself but not for some of the


In 1960 the sudden rise in local land values had not started, and the whole property six acres, a large decrepit house, an outlying stable and a small cottage — cost much less than just one of those overgrown acres would be worth today. The value of the property increased three times in the very first year that I owned it; since then, the selling off of the South Fork has become so frenzied that children of many local families, and the fishermen especially, can no longer afford to live where they were born.

He doesn't gloat at length over his good fortune, though well he might. He men- tions it evidently to exemplify a general trend. He seems genuinely concerned with the difficulties of old friends unable to adapt to a changing economy in a changing environment.

He describes in detail the natural and technical problems of deep-sea fishing and uses the fishermen's own words to express their feeling about the rigours of their occupation — and the unreasonable hand- icaps imposed by distant bureaucracy. He tells of new conservation restrictions which are intended to prevent over-fishing but fail to deal with the more basic hazard of the industrial pollution of spawning water- ways, such as the Chesapeake Bay.

He quotes a fisherman's scathing com- ment on how elaborately chefs prepare fish for the patrons of New York Restaurants: `Them people don't want something that tastes like a fish, they want something that tastes like a recipe.'

Mr Matthiessen sympathises with a fisherman who complains that the market outrageously underpays for fish. On one typical occasion, the fisherman's profit on 309 pounds of bluefish was only $11.50. `I shook my head, feeling outraged myself,' the author says. 'In a local res- taurant that week, a friend had ordered bluefish, paying precisely $11.50 for less than a half pound, or more than 700 times as much as the men who caught it were receiving.'

He is nostalgic for the days when sea- manship was appreciated. 'The handling of a loaded dory in the Atlantic surf is a stirring sight, and one not likely to be seen many years longer.' Even readers who do not care what happens to the striped-bass harvest off Long Island will surely recognise the uni- versal, perennial tragedy of obsolescence. Men's Lives conveys the terrible chill of a northern sea in winter twilight.