NEW YORK -- "Right here, ladies, beautiful fresh fish," a crew member calls out as two elderly women squint at the day's haul along the slippery wooden deck of the Dorothy B.
The pungent smell of bluefish, blackfish and flounder fills the salty air as a few customers mill along the pier, cash in hand. A squadron of circling seagulls emit their high-pitched whine, the sound punctuated by an occasional foghorn. White sailboats bob along in the distance.
This is Sheepshead Bay, a gritty fishing village tucked away along the southern coast of Brooklyn, a world far removed from Manhattan's concrete jungle. Each day about 3 p.m., a dozen boats filled with sport fishermen return to the rundown piers along Emmons Avenue and the fishermen hawk their wares alongside a small collection of clam bars and bait-and-tackle shops.
"My grandfather started this business in 1914," said Kevin Bradshaw, 45, leaning against his captain's chair on the Dorothy B. "We've had seven boats since then. My grandfather retired, and my father took over. Then my father retired, and I took over."
But the livelihood that has sustained the Bradshaws for three generations, like the faded commercial strip along the bay, is threatened by overfishing, pollution fears, oil spills, real-estate inflation, scarce parking and decades of municipal neglect.
"You're writing about a business that's not going to be here in a few more years," Bradshaw said.
Sheepshead Bay's fleet has dwindled from 32 boats to 15 in the last three years as owners moved elsewhere or left the business. Some boats have abandoned fishing for dinner cruises. Vacant storefronts alternate with restaurants where men in baseball caps slice littleneck clams behind open-air counters. Lundy's, a cavernous landmark that once served thousands of seafood dinners nightly beneath its Mediterranean-style shingled roof, has been shuttered for a decade.
"The city has a gold mine right in their back yard," said George Richford, head of the Sheepshead Bay Fishing Fleet Association. "We could have another Quincy Market here, and they're letting it go," he added, referring to Boston's waterfront development.
The city's Public Development Corp. plans a $15 million face lift involving town houses, shops and food kiosks along a rebuilt pier, but the plan is on hold while the agency studies demands for a parking garage. As pricey condominiums have replaced all-day parking lots, residents, fishermen and restaurant patrons have had to compete for a dwindling number of spaces.
"We've been promised the parking lot is coming every election year," Richford said. "They keep wasting money on these studies."
An Indian fishing site in the 1600s when the catch included the sheepshead -- which no longer exists -- Sheepshead Bay remained largely farmland until the 1870s. Over the next 30 years, a racetrack and luxury hotels were constructed, turning the area into a major train stop. Millionaire brewers and liquor merchants built Victorian homes along the water.
But commercial fishing vanished in the late 1930s when the Works Progress Administration rebuilt the current docks, making them too narrow for trucks. Master builder Robert Moses's Belt Parkway sliced through the neighborhood, isolating the waterfront. Today, the last grand hotel is filled with welfare clients, and the few remaining wooden bungalows are crumbling, relics of an earlier era.
Still, each boat has hardy regulars who show up most mornings with bait and beer, paying $20 to $30 apiece for a fishing rod and an eight-hour ride into Long Island Sound or off the New Jersey coast. Crew members such as Mark Beckermeister, 21, bellowing about bluefish from a small boat called the Grace, make their living selling what they catch.
"I've been doing this since I was 11," said Beckermeister, a deeply tanned man in a purple sweatshirt and black galoshes. "I forgot about high school and dedicated my life to this. From April to October, I make enough so that I don't have to work all winter." But Beckermeister says the business "is dying. Yesterday, we only had two people go out."
To Richford, owner of the Pastime II, this is one of New York's last true melting pots. "People from all walks of life come down to the bay to go fishing -- Joe the blue-collar worker, lawyers, baseball stars," he said. "We even had Glenn Campbell once. You go onto any boat, and you'll see Chinese, Koreans, black people, white people, Spanish people, and there's nobody at each other's throats."
The area's fortunes plummeted in the summer of 1988, when syringes and other medical waste washed up along New York beaches, convincing hordes of consumers that local fish was unsafe to eat. Boat owners say the bad publicity was unfounded. "The news media sort of wiped us out," Bradshaw said. "The business just collapsed. It never bounced back."
On this hazy afternoon, two dozen men are disembarking from the 70-foot Dorothy B with large plastic tubs of fish while crew members slice fillets along the stern.
Bradshaw, clad in a white "Captain Kevin" shirt, says that the day's catch was unusually good but that dock fees, insurance and other expenses make it difficult to keep his $250,000 vessel afloat.
Overfishing, which Bradshaw blames on foreign fleets, also has taken its toll. "When I was a kid, there used to be tons of catfish here, tons of porgies," he said. "We used to go out and catch fish by the zillions, 100 pounds a day for one person. Now, you get one or two fish per person."
Others view Sheepshead Bay's decline in larger terms. "It's a vestige of what was once a great New York industry -- fishing," Elliot Willensky, the Brooklyn borough historian, said before his death recently. "The whole relationship of the city to the sea is largely gone. Seeing the boat docked, seeing the line thrown, seeing the old salts spinning the wheel, is a very special experience."
If the dire predictions come true and New York City's last fishing fleet goes the way of the stagecoach, it is not clear what will happen to the diehard practitioners along Emmons Avenue.
"I don't have any idea," Bradshaw said, shaking his head. "This is the only thing I know."