Fishermen tackle government regulations
The vagaries of nature at sea are matched on land by disagreements between the government and fishermen over what they can catch, when and where.
“The rules that have been set forth by the federal government are effectively killing our fishing industry,” says Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
He has joined the Long Island fishermen’s fight to try to overhaul the federal data system that sets fishing harvest quotas for each state, based on ocean population estimates.
The quotas are driven by the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act, which requires fishery management and conservation, with the goal of restoring the ocean to where it once was based on the best available scientific data about the ecosystem.
Fishermen say the regulators’ information is often outdated or inaccurate _ or based on sample fishing by government surveyors who don’t know how to fish as well as commercial professionals.
The act empowers the National Marine Fisheries Service to set quotas for how much of each type of fish can be caught, after sending out survey boats for spot catches.
Scientists and fishing officials say regulation is necessary to ensure some species’ survival.
“Without adequate management, there won’t be any fishing in the future,” says Commissioner Pat Augustine, who represents New York on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the combined federal-state governing body that administers regulations for the Northeast fisheries.
But the 73-year-old commissioner, a former schoolteacher who lives on Long Island and fishes there, sees flaws in the method used to assess what’s actually in the ocean. “It doesn’t work,” he says.
One complaint voiced by critics: The government sets targets for rebuilding the stock of certain fish, based on peak historic harvests. For a fish like fluke, that peak in the 1930s was an anomaly and that can skew regulation, they say.
The abrupt curtailment of the recreational fluke season this year, because too many had been caught _ based on the target harvest _ caused an outcry.
“This is the largest fluke harvest in a quarter of a century, and yet, in terms of what we’re allowed to catch, we have the lowest quota ever,” says Dan Furlong, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. “We’re constrained by the law. It’s as if you put a kid in front of a bowl of candy and say, ‘Take just one.”‘
“But since the system is imperfect, that’s what we have _ even if times are good,” says Furlong.
The present regulatory system, dividing quotas by state, also fails to account for fish migrations, critics add.
Augustine insists that the government’s aim is not to destroy the livelihood of fishermen, but to discourage “the unregulated grab, grab, grab” of whatever is in the water.
The result is “the piracy of the 21st century. Grab what you can and take off,” says Dennis Cataldo, who represents the recreational sector as president of the New York Sportfishing Federation.
“You don’t want that kind of anarchy. This can’t be the last buffalo hunt, a free-for-all _ that was the philosophy 30 years ago,” says Cataldo, also a member of New York Sea Grant, an independent program of the State University of New York and Cornell University that monitors fishing.
Cataldo says fisheries management is essential “to maintain the resource, even if it’s painful, even if people have to sacrifice.”