Recreational fishing for fluke, porgies and black sea bass will remain closed at April's end, but that won't stop Capt. Neil Delanoy from lawfully taking his customers out for fish under the usual size limits.
Delanoy, owner of the party boat Laura Lee out of the Captree boat basin, is one of dozens of captains who participate in the "research set-aside auction." The federal program allows recreational and commercial boat owners to bid on and buy the right to catch thousands of pounds of fish when the season is otherwise closed.
"If it wasn't for research set-aside, we couldn't fish at all" in the pre- and postseason, said Delanoy, who described the program as "largely an insurance policy" to help keep his boats productive in the weeks before and after the season. For everyone else, the 2014 fluke season runs for 128 days, from early May to late September.
But new scrutiny of the research set-aside program by fisheries regulators and the pending prison sentence of a Long Island commercial fisherman caught in a two-year sting tied to the program have revived debate about whether the program is living up to its promise. Opponents have long said it provides opportunities for abuse, particularly for New York fishing captains constrained by some of the lowest fishing quotas on the East Coast.
"The perception held by many of our stakeholders has been that certain fishermen have been abusing the system by not reporting their [research set-aside] landings," Richard B. Robins Jr., chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, wrote in a Nov. 8 letter. The letter advocated a stiff sentence for Long Island fisherman Charles Wertz Jr., who pleaded guilty to three felonies last year.
Criticism of the program was so "acute" during a review over the past two years, Robins said, that the agency considered ending it altogether. Instead, it recommended changes to better track the amount of fish caught and improve enforcement measures.
Each year, up to 3 percent of the coastwide quota for several species, including fluke, is "set aside" to sell to fishing interests seeking to extend their season or increase their harvest. Money from the auction funds research programs and trawl surveys, leading to more accurate data on fish populations and migration. The funding is also used to help identify diseases affecting fish and study species genetics.
This year's auction took place over two days this month at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead. The right to catch large specific lots of fish, all more than 1,000 pounds, were bid on by fishermen from Long Island and other Atlantic coastal states.
Among this year's total lots: 537,825 pounds of fluke, 1.4 million pounds of squid, 870,000 pounds of porgies, 51,686 pounds of black sea bass, 99,000 pounds of butterfish, 250,000 pounds of spiny dogfish and 99,800 pounds of bluefish.
Bidders for the first time had to pay 25 percent of their bid price the day of the auction, 50 percent by summer's end, and the full amount by year's end. Commercial boats with satellite-based vessel-monitoring systems, which give regulators the boat's location, also now must keep them turned on during their set-aside trips. Boats without such a system must call in their catch amounts to regulators an hour before they land, and can't unload their fish between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m.
The auction is conducted by the National Fisheries Institute, and the money disbursed to programs in the Northeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program.
Delanoy paid a total of $18,400 for the right to keep his two boats on the water for weeks beyond closed seasons.
"You can fish for those things you wouldn't be able to fish for," Delanoy said. "It's certainly a good thing."
But for some, the program provided an avenue to take fish beyond even the set-aside allotments. Those who have derided the program as a "license to steal" point to the prosecution of Wertz, an East Meadow commercial fisherman and son of recently deceased fisherman-advocate Charlie Wertz.
According to court papers and Wertz's lawyer, Ronald Russo, fisheries enforcement officers mounted a video surveillance camera on the Freeport dock near Wertz's boat, the Norseman, and recorded round-the-clock footage of the boat unloading. That footage was compared against the amounts Wertz reported in landing records.
When all was tallied, the discrepancy amounted to more than 86,000 pounds of illegal fluke that prosecutors valued at just under $200,000. Wertz failed to deduct the fish from his set-aside allotment.
Wertz was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison, along with a $5,000 fine and $99,800 in restitution.
Records submitted in court showed that Wertz made less than $23,000 a year for each of the four years of his offense.
"These were not the avaricious acts of a 'fat cat' looking to get fatter," Russo wrote. "Rather, he was barely making a living."
But fisheries officials advocated for prison time, saying Wertz would serve as an example to others who might also abuse the system.
Gregory DiDomenico, executive director of the Garden State Seafood Association, which conducts the auction with Rutgers University, said the new requirements to participate in this year's auction were meant to help limit and better police the program. The changes "did cut down on the number of vessels" that participated, he said. "We were hoping this would occur. We believe the changes were necessary to reduce the number of vessels to aid enforcement."
"We're trying to minimize the chance to cheat," said Eleanor Bochenek, a marine scientist at Rutgers who ran the auction in Riverhead. She defends its goals of better research, while acknowledging it can be misused.
Bochenek said the 70 to 150 pounds of fluke that New York commercial fishermen are allotted is so small it would be considered unintended catch in other states. "Some of what . . . [New Yorkers] call trip limits, I would call bycatch," she said, referring to fish other than the target fish that are caught.