POINT LOOKOUT, N.Y. (AP) – The journey starts at the dock here, on Long Island, about an hour’s drive east of Manhattan. And it all comes back to Point Lookout, too.

The worn wooden dock is home to a fleet of three commercial trawlers, plus dozens of scallop and hook-and-line boats that go out into the cold Atlantic Ocean and return with the fruits of the wild, salty waters. The catch goes to seafood dealers near and far – or, delicately garnished, to the tables of swank New York restaurants.

For Mike Mihale, co-owner of the dock, it means more. He has been fishing here since he could walk, carrying on a tradition going back to his grandfather and going forward to his three young daughters, to whom he’s passing on his passion.

Fish or die could be the motto of those, like Mihale, who accept the challenges of weather and what they see as over-regulation, to keep the tradition going.

“I’m doing what I was born to do,” the 40-year-old Mihale says. “If you told me I couldn’t fish, I’d jump off that dock!”

Capt. Anthony Joseph’s rusty steel trawler, the Stirs One, pulls away from Mihale’s dock at 10:30 p.m., its smokestack spewing steam as it cuts through the dark waters. The 119-ton Stirs One is headed about 100 miles out into the open ocean for a fishing trip expected to last three days, aiming to return with a catch of 30,000 pounds or more.

As one of Mihale’s main suppliers, Joseph, with a crew of up to four deckhands, prowls these waters year round.

It’s not always a bonanza: Sometimes Joseph catches too little even to cover his costs -about $4,000 each time he goes out, including 25 gallons of diesel fuel per hour, food for the crew, and 10 tons of ice. Fuel costs have risen sharply in recent years, as has the price of a commercial license.

“It’s a struggle to make a living, and I have four daughters,” says the 43-year-old captain, who’s been in commercial fishing for 17 years. “But I love it.”

As the mammoth green net dragging off the back of the boat rises from the depths of the sea, he pulls on his rubber boots and strides across the slippery deck – ready for the catch.

And here it is: a torrent of wriggling sea life spills from the bulging net into a container on the deck. Hands go to work, pitching back overboard seafood – from sand sharks, for which there’s little demand, to fish not allowed to be caught by regulations.

Commercial fishing is the deadliest job in America, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 140 fishermen die for every 100,000 working.

They hit fast-rising storms that can’t be outrun or rogue waves that wash men overboard. On board, fishermen work with power winches and hoists that can catch a limb and drag a man into the ocean, or heavy nets and cages that turn lethal on a slippery deck.

The average pay is about $40,000 a year for a deckhand, and close to $100,000 for a captain.

The catch stored in the trawler’s belly isn’t as big as expected, but it’s still plentiful: more than 10,000 pounds of fish, plus bushels of porgies and other delicacies like Dungeness crab and lobsters. The monkfish, along with mackerel, fluke and squid, will go to a Manhattan restaurant.

A lineup of trucks drives away the catch – but only after Mihale takes what’s needed for the business he owns with two brothers, Bruce and Rolf Larson: the fish market and clam bar by the dock, plus the Fisherman’s Catch restaurant.

The walls of Fisherman’s Catch are lined with black-and-white photos of men who have worked at the dock since the 1930s. In one old image, Mike Mihale’s late grandfather, George, stands proudly, a snow-white Greek cap gleaming on his head.

As a young man, he sailed the Mediterranean “with just a compass, the wind, the sun and the stars,” says his son John, Mike’s father – who at 65 still brings fish to the dock.

The bulk of the Point Lookout catch goes to the New Fulton Fish Market, America’s largest seafood market.

At 3 a.m. on a typical day, Roberto Nunez is wide awake. A regular buyer for top-of-the-line New York restaurants who purchases up to $15,000 worth of wholesale fish per night, he has a hawk’s eye for assessing freshness.

“For that, there’s nothing like touching a fish,” he says.

When stopping to check out some scallops, his hands go to work, feeling the texture – which should be smooth and firm, “like a baby’s bottom” – then he wrinkles his nose. He moves on to a batch that looks translucent and feels firm, biting into a raw one and smiling. Fresh.

Commercial fishing and related businesses like this employ more than 20,000 people on Long Island alone. As the industry has evolved, regulation has become more complex, a subject that prompts grousing along the docks. Whatever the quotas are, most commercial fishermen say they obey – and yet they seethe at the notion that decisions about their livelihood may be made without good information.

“They just keep taking more and more away from us,” Mihale complains.

In Mike Mihale’s office, where windows look down on the dock, the phone rings. It’s his father, calling to say he’s coming in with a batch of bass.

The son immediately follows up with another call. On the line is David Pasternack, one of America’s top seafood chefs.

Pasternack presides over the stoves of Esca, meaning “bait” in Italian. The draw is “crudo” – a kind of Italian sushi made from raw seafood, livened up with simple ingredients. The key, he says, is freshness – nothing more than a day out of the ocean.

“It’s a passion: It’s knowing when something needs a little something,” the chef says.

The indispensible “something” starts along the docks, with the fishermen.

The bass, $3.50 a pound wholesale, ended up as a $27 Esca entree, “Roasted local wild striped bass with hubbard squash, caramelized apple and wild mushrooms.”

The monkfish the Stirs One caught 50 miles out in the Atlantic, and sold wholesale for $3 a pound, became a $32 Esca entree with roasted beets, fiddlehead ferns and sorrel mushrooms.

As for mackerel, the cheapest of seafood, Pasternack has been known to serve it raw, slicing it very thin and pouring hot oil and fresh ginger on it. And that’s the art of a master chef, turning into a meal what comes from the ocean that very morning.

Billy Joel, himself a Long Islander who says he shucked clams as a kid and once was arrested during a protest over fishing limits, reflects in his song “Downeaster Alexa” on the fiercely independent breed who “go where the ocean is deep. …

“They say these waters aren’t what they used to be,

“But I’ve got people back on land who count on me.”

AP-ES-11-17-07 1153EST

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