- The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency charged with regulating fishing in federal waters three miles off the coastline, is proposing an interim closure of groundfisheries in the Northeast, including a moratorium on the fishing of winter flounder in the Southern New England and Mid-Atlantic
regions of which Long Island's waters are a part. South Fork fishermen are livid over the proposed groundfish closure, as their livelihoods are tied to an industry that they contend is being regulated out of existence.
Montauk, dubbed the Fishing Capital of the World, has long been considered the focal
of Long Island's fishing industry.
"They took the land from the Indians and they're taking the sea from the fishermen - our government," Captain Chuck Wheat of the Christy Ann
argued while he and Dave "Captain Happy" Aripotch of the Caitlin and Mairead
sat by the docks in Montauk Harbor on Feb. 19. "I don't know, Dave," Wheat lamented with his fellow fisherman, "Government usually gets involved and things don't get better."
"The oldest industry on Long Island is going out of business from over-regulation," Aripotch asserted in agreement.
The Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), proposed the interim secretarial rule that would ban the fishing of all groundfish in Southern New England waters as a way to protect the winter flounder population which the agency says is currently at only nine percent of sustainable levels. That nine percent represent the species' biomass, or the number of adult flounder able to reproduce, which is an all-time low for winter flounder in the region. The New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), a regional committee of the NMFS, is in the process of writing Amendment 16 to the Northeast Multi-species Fisheries Management Plan and the interim rule on groundfisheries is meant to bridge the gap between its implementation on May 1, 2009 and the amendment's completion, expected in 2010.
Stocking The Deck
Trollers that would normally skim the sea floor of federal waters for groundfish will have to raise their nets and go after squid and scup if the groundfishery is closed.
"The purpose of [interim rule] is to protect our winter flounder," Arnold Leo, president of the East Hampton Baymen's Association and Fishery Consultant to the town, explained, "but the real disaster is that to protect winter flounder they're taking away all groundfish." The big issue at hand, according to Leo, is Framework 42 of the multi-species management plan adopted in 2006, which allows NMFS to close down the fisheries for all related species to protect the weakest. "You can't do fisheries management in this extreme, heavy-handed manner," Leo contended.
Leo would prefer "reasonable curtailments of the fisheries," rather than a broad ban on all groundfish, maintaining that it is better to allow the stocks of one species to run low, rather than destroy an entire fishery. "You cannot have all species of fish at maximum populations at all times," he explained, citing the provision in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act) that mandates that all stocks must be maintained at their highest levels.
Strict regulations in catch size has long been in effect for the groundfish. Image courtesy of The Kunkel Marine Life List, www.bio.umass.edu, Photo by Joe Kunkel
The MSA also set a schedule for rebuilding the breeding stock for all species by 2014. All species must be at the highest sustainable levels within the strict 10-year timeframe established by the act, "Not 10 years and one day," Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association who also happens to be the wife of Captain Aripotch, clarified. Brady asserted that the winter flounder population could likely be restored within a 15-year window without closing the entire groundfishery - and without killing the industry. The strict 10-year timeframe "may work well for the fish," Brady granted, "but for the humans it has catastrophic consequences."
"These are small businesses run by local guys who are self-employed and highly independent," Brady contended, "This kind of closure is going to have such an economic effect," she warned, comparing the NMFS's measures to swatting at a fly with a sledge hammer.
The mature winter flounder in full camouflage scours the bottom in search of food.
Image courtesy of Clean Ocean Action, © Herb Segars
While the interim rule could be detrimental to the fishing industry, an immediate sweeping closure may not have the desired restoration affect either. "If they reduce the total fishing effort to zero, there is only a one percent probability that the stock is going to rebound," according to Emerson Hasbrouck, a marine specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension, who added that stocks are generally managed with a target of 75 percent probability in mind.
The current state of groundfisheries in New England is mixed, Hasbrouck explained. "Some of these stocks are doing okay, though the Southern New England stock of winter flounder is not doing so well."
In its attempt to protect the winter flounder population, the NMFS proposed a full closure of all groundfishing despite what is known as the Mixed-Stock Exception, which says that when working in a mix-species fishery, such as groundfisheries, the NMFS must determine whether a full closure is appropriate and consider the impact of such a decision on the fishermen, as well. "One bad apple shouldn't spoil the tree," Brady contended.
The young flounder finds cover in eelgrass beds which are in a struggle of their own to
stay healthy in area bays. Image courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric
"The right amount of conservation is great," Capt. Aripotch maintained, yet "a touch too much is destructive." Aripotch and Wheat agreed that size requirements were necessary to protect spawning levels and limits on the number of days at sea will prevent over-fishing, however the NMFS is going from absolutely no regulation on winter flounder to a full-blown moratorium that will extend to the entire groundfishery.
"The industry is not rapacious destroyers of their own income," Leo argued, claiming that fishing pressure from humans is not the most influential factor in the decline of winter flounder. Pollution and predation are more likely the culprits.
By late-April, early-May, newly hatched winter flounder have grown to one-and-a-half to two inches long, hiding in eelgrass beds in the harbors and bays around Long Island while feeding on plankton carried along by the currents. Years of storm water runoff, boating pollution and a lack of flushing through narrow inlets has led to a severe reduction in eelgrass beds throughout Long Island, destroying the natural habitat where flounder mature, leaving them susceptible to predators. "Their habitat has been compromised," Leo asserted.
Stripped bass, bluefish and spiny dogfish populations are all at all-time highs, according to Leo, all three of which are nature predators of young flounder. Add to those predators an influx of seals migrating down from the north that have been inundating the shores throughout the winter, Capt. Wheat mentioned. "There are over 4,000 seals wintering in New York eating 30 pounds of fish a day," he noted, putting some perspective on the many factors affecting the species. "The only thing that can be controlled are the commercial fishermen," Aripotch reasoned.
The federal government watches the fishermen so closely, through regular checks and GPS systems, that "they know if I move from one side of the harbor to the other," Capt. Wheat noted.
"Even if you totally stop all fishing on winter flounder you are not going to rebuild the stock in a short period of time," Leo explained, as too many other influences are hurting the biomass. The best way to rebuild the flounder population is to restore the eelgrass beds and employ stock enhancement, Leo contended, whereby winter flounder are raised in captivity, tagged and released into the wild. "It's one way to improve the stock without clobbering the fisheries," Leo argued.
The East Hampton Town Trustees have attempted to start such a program, taking winter flounder from Napeague Harbor and releasing them back into the harbors when they mature, however the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has denied the Trustees permission to begin the program, according to Leo, fearing the possibility of introducing disease to the wild population. The DEC will be holding an advisory committee meeting on March 3 at Belmont State Park to discuss the potential adverse effects of stock enhancement and the probability that such efforts would prove effective.
All parties concerned agree that some regulation is necessary, however a full closure on all groundfishing is being considered an extreme measure by advocates of the fishing industry. Meanwhile, empty traps sit waiting on dry land.
Though for now, the interim closure seems to be imminent. "We're not asking for a government bailout," Capt. Aripotch stated. "Never," Wheat concurred with that legendary fisherman's pride. "All we want is to harvest
fish in a reasonable manner," Aripotch asserted, "I'm not getting rich out here - I'm working hard every day."