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Captain Mark Phillips on board the Illusion. (Credit: David Benthal)

‘It’s not fish you’re buying – it’s men’s lives.’’

— Sir Walter Scott

The Predator sits dockside in Greenport, behind Alice’s Fish Market, a rusting hulk of a fishing trawler, 75 feet long and with no certain future to speak of. It is Mark Phillips’ boat, but he is away most days trolling offshore for squid in his other trawler, the Illusion.

“It is not going to sea anytime soon,” Phillips said by cellphone, an edge of weary disgust in his voice. “The Predator’s days have come and gone.” 

The Illusion was dragging for squid near Nantucket on a hot day in mid-July. Phillips had started that week near Jones Inlet on western Long Island, but the ocean had heated up and the squid, which don’t like warm water, were scarce, so he moved the Illusion farther east in pursuit of success.

He said he hoped to get a decent harvest trolling for squid, offload at a facility in Point Judith, R.I., refuel and get the Illusion back to Greenport to replace a generator and, with his wife, Mary Bess, attend their son Nate’s wedding at Brecknock Hall in early August.

There are few, if any, industries anywhere in America that compare to commercial fishing. It might compare to farming, sort of, but you can’t drown while farming, or break down miles offshore, or get caught in a “perfect” storm or get your foot wrapped in a chain and be dragged overboard.

Captain Mark Phillips on board the Illusion. (Credit: David Benthal)

As there are few industries like fishing, there are few places anywhere on Long Island quite like Greenport, which in the recent past was home to more than two dozen federally permitted trawlers. Today, there is one such vessel: the Illusion. The Greenport of the past, the Greenport of the working waterfront, the Greenport of the imagination, is no more.

“The industry was crushed by the state and by regulations,” said Phillips, offering sentiments echoed by his wife and son, who run the fish market. Mary Bess is also a Greenport Village trustee.

“We were put out of business. That’s the simple truth,” Mark Phillips continued. “The people in Albany didn’t think about what they were doing to us, and they didn’t seem to care, either.”

Commercial fishing is among the most heavily regulated industries in the country, layered with state and federal rules that, to a newcomer trying to understand them, sound too complex ever to be fully understood. And the rules change frequently. What’s legal one month is banned the next.

Adding to the misery of anyone trying to make a living as a commercial fisherman are, of course, the ups and downs of fishing itself. It is not exactly an easy, get up in the morning, go to work, come home in time for dinner way to earn a living. Think of the fishermen in the book and movie “The Perfect Storm” to get a slight understanding of the challenges and dangers. There are a million variables, as anyone who watches “Deadliest Catch” on the Discovery Channel surely knows.

Phillips fishes for more than 230 days a year, away from his family, trying to stay afloat financially in an industry he’s worked in since his teenage years. Topping the list of industry-killing measures, Phillips and others say, is New York State’s so-called fuel tax, which adds more than 40 cents to each gallon of gas.

For a boat like the Illusion, which can burn 150,000 gallons of fuel a year, the tax is an up-front payment to the state, which the Phillipses compare to an interest-free loan that’s eventually returned to them when they pay their tax bill. It’s murder on cash flow.

Mary Bess and Nate Phillips with the Predator. (Credit: David Benthal)

On a midsummer day, Mary Bess and Nate Phillips, standing behind the counter of the fish market, ticked off the names of other fishing trawlers that once called Greenport home. Most are out of business; others moved to states like Rhode Island that don’t have the fuel tax; others moved to harbors closer to the fishing grounds, like Montauk or Shinnecock, for the simple reason that it reduces distances traveled and, thus, fuel use and expenses.

“There was the Debbie and Judy, the Miss Nancy, the Bay of Isles, the Miss Heather, the Bearded Clam, Katie and Meg, Susan Rose, Evening Prayer, Prince of Peace, John Boy and the White Water,” Nate said. “They are no longer here.”

The two walked outside into the bright, hot summer sun and stood by the dock, the Predator tied up behind them like an exhibit in a museum. Looking at it reminds a visitor of seeing a dinosaur reconstructed from found bones in a natural history museum. The ship, its edges stained with rust, its riggings hanging off the stern, is a metaphor for an industry, a village and, on a personal level, a disappearing way of life. What made Greenport distinctive for so long has faded away.

“We can list all the families in Greenport that were once in fishing,” Ms. Phillips said. “And the support systems, too — the ice houses, the marine services, hardware stores, the packout houses, all of it. Even Claudio’s at one time had a packout house where commercial boats could tie up and offload their catch.”

Now, those places are trendy restaurants, galleries and other tourist attractions. A popular merry-go-round sits by the harbor on Front Street near the center of the village. Children’s entertainment has replaced the past.

Mark Phillips, 61, was born in Sag Harbor and raised in Cutchogue. He says he began fishing as an 8-year-old. He worked on a lobster boat out of Mattituck Inlet and by the age of 10, he was working on a trawler dragging for scup. What was caught was trucked to the Fulton Fish Market in New York City. He graduated from Mattituck High School in 1975 and, as he remembers so clearly today, there was one future for him: fishing.

Illusion is the only remaining federally permitted trawler still operating out of Greenport. (Credit: David Benthal)

“That’s all I wanted,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in the water … By 1977, I started building my own boat, the John F. Phillips, at 60 feet. I fished in Long Island Sound and later started going out to the Georges Bank for yellowtail flounder.

“Joe Rose helped me a lot. His boat was the Susan Rose. He is now out of Cape May and North Carolina,” Phillips said. “We had boats from North Carolina and Virginia docking in Greenport. You probably had two dozen offshore boats here and that many small draggers. The marina across from my fish market, where Porto Bello is, was all draggers. It wasn’t a marina for yachts.”

Former Greenport mayor David Kapell said, “What attracted me to Greenport in 1978 was the working waterfront and the ability for my young family to afford a home. At the time, there were several fishing trawlers and a fleet of baymen home — ported in the village in addition to offshore trawlers … There were two fish processing plants that employed over 100 people.

“The impact on the local economy was big,” Kapell continued. “A common sight was crewmen rolling overflowing shopping carts to their boats with provisions for a 10-day trip. Ice trucks made constant trips down Main Street to and from Greenport Ice Company on First Street. Greenport Shipyard was busy hauling and servicing the fleet with support from a network of local tradesmen.”

To Nate Phillips, the hope is that he will have a future in fishing once his dad retires. “I’d like to think I can work in porgies, butterfish, squid, bluefish, but I doubt it will work out that way,” he said. “But that’s what I want to do.”

Mark Phillips is not sanguine about the future.

“We’ve completely destroyed the working waterfront so we can have a tourist economy,” he said. “We’ve decided we don’t want fishermen.”