When reports came in of a massive storm heading for the East Coast last fall, Greg Nardiello knew the only place he could be when it hit was on the Ocean Eagle V. The captain made sure to secure his fishing boat to its pier on Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay. Whatever Superstorm Sandy was going to do to the boat he’s owned for the past 20 years, he was going to be right there with it. “The boat floats,” he thought. “What the hell.”
From his perch on his boat during the storm, he could see the smoke rising up from fires burning in the Rockaways, the lightening flashes of transformers exploding and cars floating on rivers of water where dry roads sat hours earlier.
Fortunately, Captain Greg and his Ocean Eagle V both came out relatively unscathed on the other side of the storm. His business wasn’t so lucky.
The fish aren’t the problem. They’re still biting. It’s just that the people aren’t. The recreational fishing season for winter flounder and striped bass in Sheepshead Bay started last month, but boat captains and bait shops in the neighborhood hit hard by Sandy have been seeing less business than usual.
“People don’t have the money now to go fishing,” said Captain Mike Ardolino of the Brooklyn VI. “They’re rebuilding. Fishing just isn’t a top priority right now. And I think it’s going to be that way for a few years.”
Barely a month into the season, it’s still too early to know for sure how recreational fishing will fare, local fishermen say. A winter that was colder than normal after the storm hit also complicates matters. No one knows whether they have Sandy or the cold winter to thank for the slow start to the season. Or whether it’s a combination of the two.
But one thing has been certain: it’s been roughly six months since Sandy swept through the neighborhood—and for the area’s residents and businessmen, it’s been a rough six months.
On a recent afternoon, a pile of straining black plastic bags and waterlogged wooden furniture sat on the sidewalk next to Bernie’s Bait and Tackle down the street from the pier where the boats rode out the storm. A handwritten banner hanging on a fence behind the trash heap implored the city to return the dumpsters formerly used to get rid of the household belongings Sandy turned into garbage.
“I’m lucky I only had three feet of water in my store. I was able to deal with it,” said Jim Giordano, the bait shop’s owner. “The problem is the neighborhood’s ruined. Our customer base is destroyed.”
Captain Nardiello isn’t faring any better. The number of people he took out on his boat one warm and sunny April weekend was “embarrassing,” he said. Customers numbered in the low teens that Saturday and Sunday. The figures should be at least two or three times that during this time in the season, he said. He can’t afford to go out every day. “It’s atrocious. It’s terrible,” Nardiello said of business now.
One morning, only four people came over to his boat at the pier. He had to send them away. Given the cost of fuel, he would have lost money. “I would be better off staying home,” he said. Even having a dozen customers would have been nice. “At least I’d cover my expenses,” he said.
Tony Santella, captain of the Marilyn Jean, also has seen fewer customers. He said the storm “magnified” the negative effect of a hard winter.
In November, the Department of Commerce classified the state of fishing affairs after Sandy as a “fishery resource disaster” in New York and New Jersey. This creates an opportunity for eligible charter fishing businesses hurt by Sandy to receive grant money and small business loans. Compared to boats at marinas in New Jersey and other parts of New York, the Marilyn Jean and its fellow recreational fishing boats were lucky. They were docked at the Sheepshead Bay pier, which did not suffer any major structural damage.
Still, Jim Hutchinson, president of the New York Sportfishing Federation and managing director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, said he is optimistic about the future, despite the $150 million in uninsurable damage, which includes lost freezers and bait, he said Sandy inflicted on area recreational and commercial fishers.
April is usually an important month, because it is the start of the season for striped bass, one of New York’s most popular fish, according to Hutchinson.
He recognizes the challenges faced by both the fishing industry and recreational fishers who found themselves in Sandy’s path and are rebuilding their livelihoods and their lives. “First and foremost, you need to fix your home,” Hutchinson said. But going fishing could provide a welcome escape for people weary from months of cleaning and rebuilding. “Fishing is more than fun. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a passion,” Hutchinson said. “For people who have gone fishing their entire lives, it’s something spiritual. It clears their minds.”
Captain Greg still has his doubts and is convinced that Sandy will have repercussions on the whole season. “It has to have an impact. Exactly what impact, we’ll see,” Nardiello said. “Hopefully it’s less than what I think it may be.”