At 3:15 in the morning, Jamie Powers and Kevin Thomas, environmental conservation officers for New York state, ease their 31-foot boat into the inky waters of Jamaica Bay, which bisects the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. The city's lights project ethereally across the starry, cloudless sky. There isn't a hint of wind in the air. "Can't ask for a better night," says Powers. "They'll be out there I bet."
"Out there" is Breezy Point, the westernmost part of the Rockaway peninsula in Queens, a fish-rich stretch of water that's the unofficial separation of the Atlantic from the harbor of New York. "They" are the poachers who haunt those waters, men who catch more than the legal limit of fish--striped bass, sea bass, fluke and blackfish (tautog)--then sell them on the black market.
The illegal fish eventually end up in Chinatown, the Fulton Fish Market, various city mom-and-pop seafood stores and even on the plates of high-end Manhattan restaurants. Worse still, some of those fish are full of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which at worst, cause cancer and at best wreck humans' immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems.
The lobster rig, owned by Louis Benitto, the man at the helm, docks in a marina in Brooklyn's Gerritsen Creek. As the boats pull up to the dock, an Asian man wearing a yellow-and-white rain coat crouches on a knoll, staring out at the boats. "That's the buyer," says Thomas. The DEC officers know him only as Sammy. He's the conduit to the legitimate and illegitimate markets, Thomas believes. If Sammy is surprised to see the police boat, he hides it well--he doesn't move a muscle. Perhaps he knows that Powers and Thomas have nothing on him this morning. Sammy can just claim he was there to buy the 24 legal fish.