But I grew up. Work and travel took me away. When I rediscovered spearfishing a few years ago, it had become a sleek and modern affair. Low-volume masks, carbon-fiber fins, and $500 teak guns are not uncommon on the beaches of Block Island. Free divers, as they are called these days, train their lungs for maximum breath-holding ability. Peter, now in his 80s, still dives, although he needs exceptionally clear water to make his shots true. To usher me into this new era, I rely on Chris Blansfield, a West Coast surfer who settled on Block Island in the 1980s. Chris competes in international spearfishing tournaments and can dive to 80 feet on one lungful of air to hunt for 40-to-50-pound fish. The image he cuts creates a bookend to Peter’s rustic generation. And every year, it seems, more and more “spearos” like him arrive on the island.
They are not the only tourists. Increasingly, warm-water fish are hitching a ride on the Gulf Stream, as larvae or juveniles, and ending up in our waters. Filefish and triggerfish are finding their way north from as far away as the subtropics. In 2006, Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay endured an alarming invasion of the voracious warm-water lizard fish. “It’s very much a one-way trip for them,” says Jeremy Collie, a professor at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. “In the fall, when the water cools, they won’t survive.”
I saw my first triggerfish in the 1980s, one of a few exotic visitors straggling in at the end of the summer when the water had warmed. We didn’t know then that they were a sign of a warming ocean. Today, they have a significant presence all summer long. This is to our benefit—since they are delicious. In fact, they’ve become a staple of our table now that the state has limited the summer season for blackfish in order to alleviate the pressure fishing puts on the population. Species wax and wane according to the complex variables that dictate their lives, not least of all a changing climate. But in my three decades of diving these coves, the island’s waters have never failed to provide.
But they continue to change. For the past two summers, I have not seen a bass during my beach dives. As ocean temperatures rise, the big ones, preferring cooler water, stay farther out to sea. And now I’m learning that one of their major foods, the menhaden, is pressured by overfishing. It makes me wonder how much longer I will be able to take fish from the wild in good conscience.
As vividly as I remember that first striper I ever took, I remember the last fish of that summer even more clearly. Again, I was drifting north on the island’s east side, when I chanced upon a big school. The sky was blue and the sun was high. The water was calm, allowing great visibility. As the school swam past me, I took aim at the biggest fish I saw and squeezed the trigger. Nothing. My gun, relentlessly used, had jammed. When the spear finally released, it sped harmlessly behind the tail. I still remember the sense of peace I felt as all the fish swam by with a thunderous drumming of their tails. It seemed fitting that the last striper of the summer should swim off healthy and very much alive.