Fisheries council suspends controversial research set-aside program

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A federal fisheries council voted Tuesday to suspend for at least a year a controversial program that allows fishing boats to pay to extend their catch beyond legal limits.

The move follows a year of criminal enforcement actions on Long Island related to the program that have resulted in five guilty pleas, and 70 subpoenas issued to other New York fishing interests in an ongoing federal probe.

At a meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council in Washington, D.C., members voted 12-6 to suspend the research set-aside program in 2015 as they attempt to overhaul it.

The program allows commercial and for-hire recreational fishing boats to bid for the right to catch fish beyond state and federal quotas. Opponents and even some participants have called it a "license to steal," if fishing vessels fail to properly report their set-aside catch.

In a briefing before the vote, Mid-Atlantic chief scientist Richard Seagraves said the "costs probably outweigh the benefits" of the program, which funds fisheries research. The auction is held in Riverhead.

Supporters of the program, which Seagraves said has raised $16.3 million since the early 2000s for fisheries research and funded 41 projects, said the research it pays for is vital.

"If we gave up this program even for a year, we're taking away a million and a half dollars of needed fisheries research money," said Emerson Hasbrouck, a senior fisheries educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension and New York's representative on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Long Island fishing ports have been a chief target of federal and state enforcement actions that found illegal fishing and underreporting of hundreds of thousand of pounds of fluke by program participants. Some say New York is a ripe location for abuse because the state has such a low portion of federal allotments for fluke, and other vital species, compared to other Atlantic fishing states.

In briefing documents presented Tuesday, regulators reported that the "known illegal harvest" of fluke exceeds 50 percent of New York's annual quota allocation. And "the illegal harvest estimate is likely to increase substantially as the investigation in that state continues to unfold," noting the 70 subpoenas served in mostly Long Island fishing ports, according to the report.

Hasbrouck said those who pleaded guilty in the criminal cases have received prison sentences, heavy fines, loss of boats and their businesses.

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"I'm guessing these actions have gone against the most egregious violators," said Hasbrouck, who worked on four research projects funded by the program. "I think it's gotten the most egregious violators out of this program. It's also a very, very strong deterrent."

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