Proposed flounder rules threaten Montauk fleet

February 20, 2009 at 10:04 pm Leave a comment

East End fishermen could be caught in the net of a federal ban on winter flounder fishing that is set to go into effect in May. They fear the ban will make it impossible for trawler captains to harvest for other ground fish, which would paralyze Montauk’s fishing fleet.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed the ban for the Southern New England and Mid-Atlantic fisheries, which includes New York State. The regulatory agency stopped taking comments on the proposal on Tuesday, February 17.

The area, which is just to the east of Long Island, would be closed to fishing boats that have federal ground fish permits. Currently, there are about two dozen such boats berthed in Montauk.

According to East Hampton Town Board member Brad Loewen, a bayman and advocate for fishermen, the ban would shut down cod, pollock, haddock and yellowtail flounder fishing as well, because those fish are often caught in the same otter trawls that are used to catch winter flounder.

Bonnie Brady of Montauk, president of the Long Island Fishermen’s Association, has been travelling the Northeast, lobbying to keep the ban from taking effect.

The size of the winter flounder catch has plummeted from a high of nearly 12,000 metric tons in 1966 to 1,622 metric tons in 2007.

“The most recent data show that the populations are not good,” Ms. Brady said. “If we do nothing, we have less than 1 percent chance of having stock rebuild. If there’s a ban, we have a 1 percent chance. So there’s a 99-percent chance that they will not rebuild, no matter what. There were no trip limits or quotas on these fisheries before. It’s like going from not doing anything at all to open heart surgery without checking the patients’ pulse. The fish are not endangered, they are not going extinct. The catch is down because there are quotas on certain fish and trip limits on certain fish.”

Conservationists are singing a different tune. Last year, the Coastal Conservation Association of New York began pressuring the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to enact its own ban on both commercial and recreational fishing of winter flounder.

“Commercial landings of winter flounder are completely unrestricted,” the group’s president, Bill Raab, wrote in a letter last year to DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis. “So long as fish meet the 12-inch minimum size, trawlers and other commercial fishers can land as many winter flounder as they can catch. There are no limits at all.”

Recreational fishermen are limited to 10 12-inch fish per day, but members of CCA believe that many fishermen are lucky to catch two or three flounder in New York waters in a single day during the local season, which runs from April 1 to May 30, before the fish head out to the deeper waters where the federal ban is proposed.

The local flounder fishing has been so bad that Sag Harbor’s annual Flounder Derby has been canceled for the past several years due to the lack of fish, and the usual spring run of flounder through the Shinnecock Canal has just not occurred at all.

Though the National Marine Fisheries Service has estimated that there are just 3,368 metric tons of winter flounder in the Southern New England and Mid-Atlantic fisheries—down from nearly 15,000 tons in 1983—Ms. Brady is skeptical of the regulatory agency’s science.

“The science that the National Marine Fisheries Service has tends to be dismal at best,” she said, adding that another group doing trawl surveys has shown a “much higher indication of winter flounder.”

“There’s better data out there; they’re just choosing not to use it,” she said.

Though Mr. Loewen said that he believes a flounder ban in and of itself would not be onerous, he said that he was most concerned that ground fishing be stopped just for the sake of the flounder.

“There’s a furious counter-argument being made by all fishermen and certain fisheries managers that it would be unnecessary and unproductive to have a ban,” he said. “The gain would not be worth the pain. The severity of the ban is so dislocating and massive, it will put most of the fishermen out of business. Their money fish would be whiting and squid and there are heavy restrictions on those.”

Mr. Loewen said that the town’s fisheries advisory committee will continue to lobby against the ban this spring.

By Beth Young
Southampton Press

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