In late July, I received a special note from Dock to Dish, the just-launched community-supported fishery. Our weekly seafood share would be an unplanned grab bag of local species — flounder, cod, blackfish — since the boat that was scheduled to catch our fish had instead become part of the heroic search party that rescued a Montauk lobsterman who had gone overboard in the middle of the night and floated in open water for the better part of a day. The details I got were murky — he had made a raft from buoys, he was sunburnt and hypothermic when they found him — but that didn’t dampen the sense of celebration.
So it was particularly riveting to read Paul Tough’s meticulously researched, nail-biting account of the rescue in today’s New York Times Magazine. My heart leapt, chills ran down my spine, and tears welled up more than once: when the fisherman, John Aldridge, uses his oversize insulated boots as pontoons and then harnesses his knowledge of the sea (“to most people, the Atlantic Ocean 40 miles south of Montauk is just a big, undifferentiated expanse of waves”) to find a string of lobster traps and fashion a flotation device from two lobster buoys; at the fisherman’s promise to his sister (“If I ever get into trouble out there, just know that I’m going to do everything I can to get back home.”); at the 21 commercial boats (including the singer Jimmy Buffet’s boat, The Last Mango) who formed a grassroots, volunteer search party; at the Sherlock Holmes–like perseverance of a Coast Guard veteran who ultimately pointed the search in the right direction (“Talk to me, Captain. Fisherman to fisherman. Help me reduce this search area. We need to narrow it down so we can find John.”)
From slaughterhouse workers and strawberry pickers to deep-sea fishermen, raising food is one of the most dangerous professions in the world. This past fall, another Montauk fisherman died when a cable snapped and stuck him while working on deck. Peter Matthiessen’s essential history of South Fork fishing families, Men’s Lives, recounts several deaths from haul-seining boats that capsized in frigid, rough seas. And several years ago our community lost a young farmer in a tractor accident.
There’s no question being a food producer — feeding people — is intensely satisfying work. Just ask any farmer or winemaker or chef. It might also be the only occupation the world can’t do without. But, as the Times story notes, when Montauk fisherman get together, they also talk about “the vanishingly small margins for doing the dangerous work they do.” Which is all the more reason to seek out, support and celebrate our local fishers. And to thank them every time we put a bite in our mouth.