Work and Sails are Balanced

Some people are mountain people. Some are water people. And for the latter, to which I belong, there is a peacefulness that comes with being near the seas. (Lakes and rivers are for mountain people. I once lived in Atlanta for a few years, and it was horrible. And not just because of the traffic. I felt divorced from the oceans, and it pained me every day.)

For the last ten years, I have lived in New York and spent most of that time sleeping on sailboats that, when not sailing, were tied up just off the Hudson River. When not sailing (or fixing) my latest boat, a 53-foot two-masted cutter ketch, I work as editor and reporter on the Reuters investigative team. My specialty has been using data to build the empirical spine of stories ranging from the 2008 financial crisis to Medicare fraud and abuse.

S/V Zennora
This is Zennora, my latest boat. Thanks to Oleg Popov for this shot.

About four years ago, I was sailing through the Raritan Bay, just off the Brooklyn and Staten Island coastlines and north of New Jersey’s Sandy Hook, in my old 36-foot S2 sailboat, when something caught my eye. I saw a dolphin fish (sometimes called a dorado or mahi-mahi) slash past me, heading north. Then a larger bull dolphin fish darted by, heading south, on the starboard side. I had never seen a fish like this so far north, and certainly never this close to shore, away from the warmth of the Gulf Stream current.

Around that time, one of my colleagues, Ryan McNeil, had been working on a project documenting how climate change was causing an unprecedented rise in sea levels. It got me thinking about how the dolphin fish I saw could be a harbinger of another shift caused by climate change. At that time I was running the data journalism team at Reuters as well as the political polling. I was not writing or reporting but managing.

I downloaded the federal recreational fishing survey to see if anyone had caught these fish in New Jersey and New York. I was surprised to see they had and it was becoming increasingly common. This got me paying attention. Soon after, I sailed up through Long Island Sound to Buzzards Bay. On my way back, I sailed from Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts, to Newport, Rhode Island, and along the way dodged what looked like crab traps to me.

I came to find out many were actually lobster traps but where being used to catch black sea bass. I am not a fisherman. I am a sailor who accidentally catches a fish about once a year if I am lucky. But I did know that black sea bass is a species of fish typically found well south of Block Island Sound. It turns out there are few, if any, lobsters living in the waters of Southern New England anymore and plenty of black sea bass.

Maine lobster cooked on Zennora after one of my reporting trips to Stonington, ME

All the while, at the dock, I saw huge swirling balls of menhaden, a schooling forage fish, being chased by juvenile striped bass. And while striped bass and menhaden have always found a home in the waters around New York, the abundance surprised me. I learned that striped bass had largely disappeared from the waters around North Carolina’s Outer Banks and menhaden could be caught as far north as Maine.

In the autumn of 2016, two healthy humpback whales visited the New York harbor, feeding on the abundance of menhaden as far north as the George Washington Bridge. It seemed magical but also made me focus on the itch of a story I had been scratching for a couple of years. And the time was right. A few months earlier, I had decided to step back from managing the data team at Reuters, though I stayed involved in polling through the November 2016 election.

Humpback whale dive in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge
Thanks to Bjoern for this shot of a humpback whale diving in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. NY Media Boat

Truth is, the whales’ visit likely had nothing to do with climate change, but everything else I was seeing pointed to a sub-surface shift that probably did.

Starting in early 2017, I gathered hundreds of gigabytes of data on fish and sea temperatures. I read hundreds of academic papers and talked to scores of researchers and scientists from every continent. I also spent a week brushing up on the state of oceanography and fisheries science after being selected to attend the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute annual science immersion fellowship for journos.

Along with my Reuters colleagues, we went on to document this shift in fisheries and its profound effect on economies, cultures, ecosystems, and even food security. This is not a theoretical problem. It is a problem we face today, and it is growing. This week we published our series, Ocean Shock.

Strangely, almost the entire time that I have been working on this project in earnest, I have been unable to sail. In February 2017, I began repairing  Zennora’s teak deck. What started as a job I hoped would take a few weeks turned into a massive rebuilding job to repair water damage to the balsa core.

In fact, I ended up replacing most of the deck, and I missed the entire 2017 sailing season and most of the 2018 season. I have become quite adept at working with epoxy and fiberglass. I would have preferred to be sailing.

In late September, I finally looked at my fresh new deck and decided I could sail again. That loosely coincided with finishing the fisheries project.

Somehow, it all seems symmetrical. I am a sailor again. I am a writer again.

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