NEW YORK — Frank Sabatino, one of the last commercial fishermen left in Brooklyn, is generally acknowledged to be a tough customer.
He has survived two sinkings in chilly Atlantic waters, one of which put him in the hospital for three days, battling hypothermia. Two years ago, while he was out fishing alone about two hours from shore, he accidentally gouged one of his eyes with a fish pick, blinding himself. Instead of calling the Coast Guard, he sopped up the blood with a rag and steamed home.
So it was notable that Sabatino, 54, was trembling during a recent appearance in Queens Criminal Court. He was wearing a tweedy sport coat -- his wife had insisted -- but still looked every inch the sea captain. He was thin as a whip, with powerfully muscled arms, a full beard and a straining, sinewy neck.
At issue were striped bass, which slide along the coastline in the fall and spring, moving in underwater clouds past New York City. They are a favorite of sport fishermen; when caught on a line, they dive and buck with uncommon force. They are also appreciated because, not so long ago, their populations were near collapse. Their return to New York waters is a success story in fisheries management, and it is based in part on limiting what commercial fishermen catch.
When Sabatino was found last month in possession of 872 pounds of striped bass, he felt -- with a gloomy finality -- that his life on the water might be ending.
"Oh, it's the end of the line. It's the real end of the line now," he said during an interview at his Brooklyn home, which is decorated with all manner of seascapes. Sabatino admitted catching the bass without a license, but was outraged at the allegation that he caught them in waters contaminated with PCBs.
"When you're doing something that you've been doing all your life, just trying to make a couple dollars and catch up on some bills, and just -- " He trailed off. "That's the way it's been. Now for me it's over."
Brooklyn was a different place when Sabatino first went to sea. He was 9, and the captain asked his mother for permission. Dozens of small fishing boats were working out of Sheepshead Bay, which separates the east end of Coney Island from mainland Brooklyn. The baymen went by nicknames -- Flounder Foot, Bushel Mike, Cow High Charlie. They called Sabatino "Frankie Boy." When he got his report card, he would bring it down to the marina to show them.
Back then, fishermen were known for making money. Sabatino recalls passing through water so crowded with squid that it looked like Jell-O, and returning to a dock teeming with "old-time Italian people, Polish people, really old-time Jewish people." A man looking for work couldn't just walk onto a fishing boat; he needed a sponsor. These fishermen were from the old school. You wouldn't want to make them mad.
"These guys," Sabatino said. "All they knew about was work."
It's impossible to say what killed fishing in this city; too many things killed it at once. The pollution got so bad that lobstermen would pull up traps filled with dead lobsters. Foreign factory trawlers would sit in the harbor, scraping up every living thing. In 1976, Congress extended U.S. control out to 200 nautical miles, but by then American boats had the same voracious technology. The striped bass fishery collapsed, then the fluke, the flounder and the whiting. The government cracked down.
Sabatino hung on, but he learned to see himself as a bit of a relic. A few years ago, he was asked to leave a marina because it had been bought by United Artists for a cinema multiplex and they wanted the commercial boats out. Now he ties up the Tammy Gale, his 45-foot wooden shrimper, in a narrow inlet called Shell Bank Creek. But even there, change is coming: In the spring, construction will begin on a luxury condominium complex, the Riviera at Gerritsen Beach, whose publicity materials promote "the truly relaxing lifestyle of waterfront living."
By that time, Sabatino's fishing career could be over. His is a marquee case, said Lawrence Festa, the chief investigator for the district attorney's office in Queens, which is handling the case. It is nearly impossible to catch fishermen red-handed while they are at sea, Festa said. Once on land, they feed into a vaporous market for illegally caught fish, and there is, as he puts it, "a tremendous reluctancy to report people who poach." But a felony charge, punishable by up to four years in prison -- well, that gets attention. In the weeks after Sabatino's arrest, he said, the price of illegal striped bass doubled because poachers were so nervous.
Jerry Riccio, 70, who works at Bernie's Bait & Tackle in Sheepshead Bay, shook his head regretfully when asked about Sabatino.
"A guy like Frank, he's the dinosaur. He's the last of the old-timers, and all of a sudden they make a monster out of the guy," he said. But that, he added, is the way of things. "My father used to go hunting. I went hunting. My son won't shoot an animal," Riccio said. "It goes out."
Sabatino, who is due in court again at the end of January, sounds resigned to his fate. If there is one thing that gives him comfort, it's that his son Mike -- who for years seemed ready to follow him into fishing -- has taken his advice and gotten a job on the Staten Island Ferry. Seeing both his boys out of the fish business, Sabatino said, "my mission has been accomplished." Not to complain, but he hasn't taken a vacation since his honeymoon, in 1978.
"There's a whole other world," he said wistfully. "A world where you get paid by the hour."