In Montauk, Bonnie Brady is Queen of the Docks

Meet Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercical Fishing Association.

Bonnie Brady is as serious as a heart attack about her job as executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, but walking alongside her through the docks of Montauk is undeniably fun. Like the mayor, she knows everyone.

“Some race like flies when they see me,” she half jokes.

While her stature is small, and she might get into a little tiff here and there, the 59-year-old woman has earned big respect from a rough and tumble crowd, where the sea and its fish rule.

She won the National Fisherman’s Lifetime Achievement award in 2020, for her years of service with the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, as well as the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance.

Standing in front of the Dock restaurant, owner George Watson, known for being unapologetically curmudgeonly, sweeps the entryway and adds daffodils to the outdoor tables. “He’s not always like that,” Brady comments on the scene.

“No man buns, at any time,” declares a nearby parking sign.

“How about standing in front of this crap,” the photographer asks, pointing to a small mountain of green nylon nets, yellowed rope and orange buoys, taking up real estate by the dock.

“This crap is expensive,” Brady responds, posing. Her long curly hair is topped by a baseball cap, and she’s dressed for the spring chill in a wind jacket and two pairs of leggings. The smell of diesel and fish hangs heavy in the damp air.

Brady flags down Captain Chuck Wheat of the F/V Act 1 as his truck is pulling out of the parking lot on West Lake Drive. She unfolds an ocean map. Red dots denote the areas where the New England Aquarium wants to install passive acoustic monitors to tag highly migratory species of fish like swordfish, bluefin tuna, and shark in the Rhode Island/Massachusetts Wind Energy Area.

“They then use the monitors to see if the fish swim in the area which is slated for offshore wind construction,” says Brady, who is asking the fishermen for their input regarding the areas. “It’s a project with wind developers.”

Brady walks the docks.

It seems like progress that the wind developers are considering input from the fishermen. “Obviously the South Fork Wind Farm is the poster child for the way not to conduct business,” Brady says.

The fishermen have been united against the industrialization of the ocean since the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) started leasing the ocean to energy corporations such as the Danish Ørsted.

The first offshore wind farm in the United States was Block Island Wind. Those five turbines have been fraught with problems since they began “operating” in December 2016. Last summer, the blades barely turned at all, due to “maintenance” issues.

Currently, Ørsted Is working on their second offshore wind farm, South Fork Wind, off Montauk, New York, with cables coming ashore in Wainscott to the Cove Hollow Road substation. Let’s hope the buried cables don’t start to rise and show through the sand, on the bathing beach, like they did in Rhode Island.

Fishermen did not have the luxury of knowing that dozens of similar monitors, more cumbersome concrete blocks, were placed in the middle of busy fishing grounds. Several fishermen, including Brady’s husband, learned the hard way.

His 64.5-foot otter trawl snagged a net on “a 500-pound block-of-science” while fishing off Wainscott.

“Cut through stainless steel wire like butter,” Brady says of the moorings. “Lucky no one got killed. No one told us they put them in.”

The underwater monitoring devices are a minefield for trawl fishermen that have been sustainably fishing that area for close to a century. “Approximately 40 are still there,” she says. “It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

Offshore wind has been enemy number one for the fishermen who see the industrialization of the ocean as the nail in their coffin. Throughout it all, their call for better communication has fallen on deaf ears.

“It all could have been avoided if the developers and scientists treated us with professional courtesy and respect,” she says. “Their ignorance and negligence could have grave consequences that could have all been avoided with proper planning.”

Before fighting for the rights of commercial fishermen, Brady worked as a journalist and waitress, was a Peace Corp volunteer and Montauk Fire Department’s first paramedic for 16 years.

Recent rulings have made it clear: Montauk’s commercial fishermen need a champion. Bonnie Brady is up for the job.

As Captain Wheat drives away from the Montauk Fish Dock, Brady jokes, “It’s like being married to 100 different men. Kill me now.”

She only has one husband, Captain Dave Aripotch of the F/V Caitlin and Mairead, named after their daughters. “Dave came out after high school in 1974. I moved out in 1989,” she says of Montauk’s lure.

The couple met through one of Aripotch’s crewmen. “Apparently Dave wanted to be introduced,” she says. The fishermen lived across the street from the ball field in town and Brady caught his eye while coaching little league softball.  “We got married in 1998,” she says.

The story is legend now, but two years later, at one of the early LICFA meetings, Brady was acting as her husband’s proxy. “Several guys were talking over each other and I grabbed a piece of chalk so that I could try to organize the group slots into what were the top five issues they were dealing with at the time,” she says. “Should’ve never picked up the chalk.”

Today, many of those issues are still at play but the rush to develop a million acres of ocean, from Massachusetts to the Delaware-Maryland border, with thousands of industrial wind turbines, has topped the list of what Brady deals with on a day-to-day basis.

LICFA is involved with several lawsuits, two against Vineyard Wind, 65 turbines slated off Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, specifically focused on how the industrial park will affect the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale population, which is less than 400 to start.

“Because Right Whales just love pile driving, just ask them,” she says. “Hammer the ocean floor at 220 to 250 decibels.”

The devastating effect wind turbines have on bird life is well known but not so much among sea life. Recent studies have shown that electromagnetic frequencies, or EMFs, such as those emitted from the cables, can cause physical deformities and life threatening behavioral changes in lobsters and crabs.

Brady reminds us to make sure to buy from commercial fishermen or baymen, directly or indirectly.

Permitting of ocean-based farmed aquaculture of finfish species is the number two threat to Long Island fishermen today. “It could not only pollute the areas around them with sea lice, etc., but also risk escapement of genetically modified species,” says Brady. “And also severely undercut the price of wild-caught sustainable finfish in New York.”

The number three threat is the rising cost of fuel, not just for the fishing vessels, but for getting the fish to market. Since there are no fish processing plants on Long Island (number four) the fishermen must get the fish to market themselves. In this case, the New Fulton Fish Market at Hunts Point in the Bronx.

Number five is the constantly changing regulations. Fishermen can’t keep up with the constantly changing gear restrictions, like net and mesh sizes, although Brady notes no entanglements have been attributed to US fisheries since 2007.

Gear changes are nothing compared to learning new computer skills, for some fishermen. Reporting paperwork has recently changed over to an online only format, forcing fishermen to spend hours on a computer after a 16- to 18-hour day on the water. Notoriously tight quotas have been the noose around fishermen’s necks for decades.

Brady reminds us to make sure to buy from commercial fishermen or baymen, directly or indirectly. “Foreign imports are not held to the same sustainability standards, can often use slaves as labor, and only ten percent of the imported fish into the United States is checked for freshness,” she says.

There’s another commercial fishing dock on the other side of town. Inlet Seafood is New York State’s largest packer of wild caught seafood in New York. It’s also a restaurant, owned by six fishermen, including Aripotch, who is mending his net.

As Brady heads across the parking lot on East Lake Drive, towards her husband, she points out a small “Pride of New York Seafood” sticker on an outbuilding. “That was a campaign grant in 2006, when Albany cared about food,” she says. “Now they’re just trying to get rid of us.”

“Tilapia is not seafood,” Captain Charlie Weimar interrupts. “It’s grown in a building in Hong Kong.” 

Using tilapia as an example, Brady explains that most seafood is now imported to the United States, having gone from a $55 million fishery to $1.3 billion since Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which she claims is based on theoretical formulas, not real time data.

“Tilapia is not seafood,” Captain Charlie Weimar interrupts. “It’s grown in a building in Hong Kong.”

“Let me finish,” she tells him, and they go back and forth like an old married couple.

In the end, they agree. ““Fishermen got the shaft,” she says. “And now foreign energy can come in and roll all over us, slit our throats and push us off docks.”

Imported seafood is not regulated as it is in the United States so it’s hard to know what you’re getting. “If we learned anything, didn’t we learn it’s really important to know where your food comes from?”

“Let’s see what Rick is doing,” Brady says, heading over to a fisherman mending a lobster pot.

“Someone else’s trash” he says of the hand-me-down gear.

“Are you conching now?” she asks..

“No, I can’t get a license,” he says. “I’ve been waiting ten years for a conch license.”

“They took back ten and gave out four,” Brady says of the lottery based licenses. “That’s not sustainable, unless you want to get rid of us all.”

“I should have listened to my grandmother,” says Rick. “She wanted me to go into shipping like my grandfather.”

Across the lot, Aripotch is standing at the edge of a net, strewn out on the pavement like a sea of its own.

“Hello, husband,” Brady says..

Aripotch, a large needle in hand, weaves the fibers back together. “This net had so many porgies, they pulled all the twine out of it,” he laughs.

“It’s like macrame,” she says. “Right?”

Captain Weimar announces his boat, the FV Rianda S is on her way to port. She docks and the crew wastes no time unloading their catch. Bushels containing 65 to 70 pounds, depending on the species, are passed from the boat to the pack house and finally into cardboard boxes and onto pallets. The truck takes them to Hunts Point, where it is distributed to the fish buyers and dealers.

There are no fish processing facilities in New York except for freshwater fish, so fishermen in Montauk are limited to how they can sell their catch.

There are no fish processing facilities in New York except for freshwater fish, so fishermen in Montauk are limited to how they can sell their catch. Unlike fishermen in Rhode Island who can sell squid to BJ’s in Riverhead, Montauk fishermen do not have that option, for lack of a way to process their catch, which would add value to their product.

“Dollars can’t grow,” says Brady, who has been trying to bring processing back to New York for the last 20 years. “The state refuses to do anything to support the commercial fishing industry.”

“They just spent this past year $500 million to promote the offshore wind industry, yet at no point have they ever donated so much as one dime to support sustainable commercial fishing, fishermen or the ports in New York on Long Island,” she says. “Their silence speaks volumes.”

New York brings in at least 30 species of fish year round, offshore in winter and inshore in summer, and it seems like FV Rianda S has a little bit of it all. Butterfish, skate wing, porgy, summer dogfish, mackerel, black sea bass, squid, winter and summer flounder. It’s all there and ready for someone’s dinner plate.

“Springtime.” Brady says. “Everything is moving in.”