NY needs a place at the table


BY ERIN SCHULTZ |STAFF WRITER

New York fishermen will lose millions of dollars this year without winter flounder.

And U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said they need to shout about it -- and that the federal government needs to listen.

"It is absurd and unfair that a government body that sets the rules that the Long Island fishing industry must abide by does not have any representation for New York," he said in a statement. "When it comes to fishing regulations, I am saying loud and clear that there must be no regulation without representation."

The senator introduced legislation on Friday that would amend the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to add New York to the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC).

Last month, he raised concerns over a proposed federal rule that would end groundfishing as we know it in waters off Long Island up to southern New England.

The new rule, which will take effect May 1, severely restricts the fishing of cod, haddock, yellowtail flounder, pollock, plaice, witch flounder, white hake, and windowpane.

It also includes a total ban on winter flounder, or fluke, fishing, recommended last fall by advocates like Kevin McAllister, head of Riverhead-based environmental group Peconic Baykeeper.

Anglers took home just 15,000 winter flounder from the local bays during the 2007 fishing season, an extraordinary drop from the nearly 5 million caught in 1987, Mr. McAllister reported in "Baywatch," last year's assessment of the bays' health.

"Until stocks rebound, stop fishing" said Mr. McAllister last fall.

But Bonnie Brady, Executive Director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, called the new rule a "double-whammy."

"Winter flounder landings represented 80 percent of all groundfish landings on Long Island in 2008," she said. "That's close to a $1 million dollar hit to Long Island's fishing families in 2009."

The total number of private recreational anglers to be affected by the ban on winter flounder will be small, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) study on which the new restrictions are based.

But the ban would effectively sink the business of about 30 of 92 federally permitted charter and party boats, said the study.

"Including declines in sales by party and commercial fishing vessels, the economic impact of the proposed action is estimated to be $21.4 million [this year]," said the study. "The impact on the commercial fishery is estimated to be approximately $17.4 million."

In addition, lobstermen will not be able to produce as much bait, increasing their costs, and tackle shops and marinas will also lose business, said Sen. Schumer.

"The rule, as is, will seriously impair the Long Island fishing industry, which was not represented in the voting process on the NEFMC, the key advisory body to the NMFS for fishing regulations," said Gerry Petrella, Long Island Regional Director for Sen. Schumer. "[Today's proposed] legislation would ensure that important votes involving the fishing industry would include New York representation going forward."

This makes sense to Jim Hutchinson, Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), a New Jersey-based organization. But he said that the government should be investing more energy into looking at the science associated with the winter flounder stock collapse instead of focusing on an already-crippled fishing industry.

"It's ridiculous to think that recreational angling would be shut down for winter flounder, just because that's the only controlling ability the federal government had in its toolbox," he said. "But until we start looking at the other environmental concerns and start addressing the entire ecosystem, recreational anglers will continue to bear the brunt of restrictions."

To John DePersenaire, a research scientist with the RFA, fishermen are not to blame for the steady decline of fish like winter flounder.

Power plants are.

"Here in New Jersey, we know the Oyster Creek plant draws in and discharges 1.2 billion gallons of water a day," said "As this water is drawn in and discharged, massive amounts of marine life are killed."

Earlier this year, in response to declining populations of groundfish species, the NEFMC voted 15 to 1 to curtail days at sea by 18 percent.

"Although this is a steep cut, the committee agreed almost unanimously to take these measures in order to protect the long-term health of the Atlantic's ecosystems and the fishing community," Sen. Schumer wrote in an April 2 letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "This proposal was a compromise plan that would have kept the winter flounder fishery open in 2009."

But, without any input from a New York representative, the NMFS rejected that approach in favor of something closer to a complete shutdown of groundfishing.

"While the commercial fishing industry is already reeling from the economic downturn and sky high fuel costs, the worst thing we could do is implement a rule that would deal a near fatal blow to their livelihood," said Sen. Schumer. "This is why I am urging the NOAA to review and modify this proposal so we do not sink Long Island fishing."

eschultz@timesreview.com