Agreement Thursday could ease fluke fishing limits

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An agreement that could ease restrictions on tightly regulated fluke fishing could be hammered out as early as Thursday, according to two members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The action, if approved, would provide needed relief for recreational fishing boats that rely on fluke as their primary summer catch. Anglers say the current limit of four 19.5-inch fish a day during the May-to-September season made fishing last year difficult.

"We're making all the waves we can down here," Pat Augustine, a fisheries expert and commissioner representing New York, said Wednesday.

"We've had discussions about ways we can fix this short-term and longer term," said Commissioner Jim Gilmore, who is director of marine resources for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

The Atlantic commission is meeting with federal regulators this week in Alexandria, Va.

Fishing boat captains were hoping for the best, pointing to the wide disparity between New York's allowable catch and other states'.

"It's a big problem that would go away if we had the same quota as New Jersey or Connecticut," said Steve Witthuhn, captain of the Top Hook, a charter boat in Montauk and a member of the fluke advisory panel of the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council.

The work toward an agreement comes as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged the Atlantic commission to ease New York's tight restrictions in a letter to the commission.

Schumer said if the commission didn't act, he'd propose legislation seeking a uniform coastwide or regional quota for fluke, one that would more evenly distribute the quota among Eastern states.

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"It is patently absurd that anglers at the exact same location can bring home a different number of fish depending on what [state] their boat took off from," Schumer said. "It is arbitrary and unfair, and it needs to change. We need one, science-based and even standard for the whole region."

Schumer's threatened legislative fix would be introduced in a congressional action to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act, which set the quotas. It expires this year. Schumer will seek a fix that would apply to commercial fluke quotas as well, the senator's staff said. Congressional hearings on the topic are scheduled for next month.

New York commercial boats can catch just 7.6 percent of the federal quota for fluke, while states such as North Carolina and Virginia each have in excess of 20 percent of the total allowable catch.

Similarly, New York anglers during the fluke season can keep four fish a day but they must be over 19.5 inches -- anything under must be returned to the water. North Carolina fishermen can keep six fluke of 16.5-inches or bigger and fish all year round.

Schumer and the New York commission members said the quota was set more than 20 years ago based on faulty information and incomplete records, but other states with higher proportions are reluctant to give up their share.

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Nevertheless, New York's representatives on the Atlantic commission Wednesday said they were close to an agreement with other states on the commission that would allow New York anglers to take more fluke this year.

Gilmore said the 2013 fix for fluke would involve allotting to New York a portion of the quota from other states that didn't fully use theirs in 2012. He stressed that the work was preliminary. At worst, he said, New York would retain its current limits, even though it technically exceeded its recreational quota by 14.5 percent last year.

"We've been talking with the other states," Gilmore said. "Some other states are considering helping out. It looks positive," he added. "Everybody is recognizing we're down the road. New Yorks regulations are so disparate with other states."

At the same time, Gilmore said, the group is working on a regional-management system that could eliminate some of the inequities of separate state-by-state quotas and management that have plagued New York anglers for years. But that won't be finalized until year end, he said.

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