New York anglers moved a step closer to fluke-fishing equality Thursday when a federal fisheries commission voted to begin steps that could ease planned restrictions on this year's allowable catch.
While precise fixes still need to be worked out, officials said it could mean New York will avoid even tougher restrictions this year, and even could see a reduction in the allowed size of fluke to 18.5 inches. The current limit is 19.5 inches.
By a unanimous vote, the 11 commissioners of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to consider allowing New York to "borrow" the unused portion of other states' projected 2013 fluke allocation to ease a cutback that could have hit New York and New Jersey this year.
Toni Kerns, interstate fishery management program director at the commission, stressed that the measures have not been finalized.
"Nothing is set in stone right now," she said. "It is an addendum that would allow for this to happen and put this out for public comment. We hope to have it out for public comment by end of next week, for 30 days, and the commission would make a decision by end of March."
Kerns said commissioners "had a long discussion about the issues New York has been facing and the discrepancy in size limits that New York has faced."
The moves were hailed by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has long advocated for an end to the disparity between New York's stricter limits and those of other states, and this week threatened to fix it by proposing legislation. "We are finally making progress on ending discrimination against New York's recreational fluke fishing industry," Schumer said in a statement.
New York anglers can take only four fish per day of 19.5 inches or more between May 1 and Sept. 30, while North Carolina fishermen can keep six fish of 15 inches or more year round.
Kerns said the commission will form a subcommittee of commissioners, including New York and New Jersey representatives, to examine longer-term ways to address disparities. "Anything is on the table," she said, noting the group will report back to the full commission at its May meeting. "We want to fix this issue for the long term."
The vote Thursday could represent the first step toward ensuring that New York won't see a shorter fluke season, or a stricter fish limit this year. Anglers faced a reduction of 14 percent this year because New York exceeded its quota last year. New Jersey faced a 15 percent cut.
The vote applies only to recreational fishing. Commercial fluke fishermen face similar disparities. They receive only 7.6 percent of the annual allotment for fluke, while North Carolina and Virginia have more than 20 percent. The disparity was based on historical landing data that critics say was incomplete and out of date.
Schumer staff who attended the meeting said he will still address the disparity of New York's low share of the quota at upcoming Senate hearings on the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act, which expires this fall.
Steve Witthuhn, captain of the Top Hook charter boat out of Montauk, said a 1-inch difference in the fluke quota is significant. A 19.5-inch size limit often means only one in 20 fluke caught is a keeper, he said.
"Now we have a better chance of taking home a keeper fish," he said. "It's definitely a positive development."