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DEC halts commercial fluke fishery for about 2 weeks, sets harvest limit

Long Island fishermen say the state-mandated closure is another blow to their livelihood at a time of pricing stresses and amid state pressure to ease federal restrictions.

A commercial fisherman sorts fluke on Long Island

A commercial fisherman sorts fluke on Long Island Sound. Photo Credit: Newsday/Mark Harrington

New York State will close its commercial fishing grounds, a staple of the Long Island fishing fleet, for about two weeks effective Sunday.

The closure, which applies to fishing in state waters up to 3 miles from shore, will last until the month’s end, when it reopens with a harvest limit of 50 pounds per day.

Local commercial fishermen, who dealt last month with a similar closure of another plentiful staple in New York waters of black sea bass, say the new closure is another blow to their livelihood at a time of pricing stresses and amid state pressure to ease federal restrictions.

“It really hurts us,” said Phil Karlin, a commercial fisherman from Riverhead. “It really makes it difficult for the fishermen and the retailers and dealers involved who need a supply of fluke.”

Karlin is among several hundred commercial fishermen in the state affected by the closure, mandated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The DEC, in a statement Wednesday, noted it monitors commercial catch data closely, and it can take action to reduce trip limits or close a fishery when the pounds allocated to a period are exceeded. That happened this month and the closure Sunday will “preserve fish for the fall.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, after promising to sue the federal government since 2013 regarding the state’s disproportionately low share of the East Coast fluke fishery, earlier this year worked with then-state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman to file “petitions” with the federal government complaining about the problem. It’s unclear if Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross ever responded.

State officials have said they needed to first file a petition with the federal government before they could file a lawsuit, to exhaust administrative remedies and sue based on the response, or lack thereof.

The state is still awaiting a formal response to its fluke petition, the DEC said, but the federal government this week published a solicitation for public comments in the Federal Register.

“DEC encourages all interested marine stakeholders to review this posting and make their voices heard on their opinions regarding New York’s petition,” the agency said. 

The main gripe is that New York is allotted only 7.6 percent of the commercial quota for fluke, compared with a combined 50 percent for Virginia and North Carolina. The allotments are based on historical catch data from each state, but New York's historical catch data are widely believed to have been underreported. 

Karlin noted that even when the quota returns at 50 pounds per day, the effort will be largely futile.

“Fifty pounds is nothing,” he said, noting that boats from southern states often travel to federal waters off New York in these months to take thousands of pounds of fluke per day. Those vessels then steam back to their states, and the fish is shipped by truck back to the high-demand New York market.

“These guys come here from out of state and catch fish off our shores," Karlin said. "It’s a slap in the face when the state shuts the quota for two weeks. And they know it. It’s like they want you out of business.”

Karlin said last month’s temporary closure of the commercial black sea bass fishery in the state also hurt. It has since been reopened with a 50-pound daily limit.

One of the main frustrations for New York fishermen who trawl for fish with long, ground-hugging nets is that they often pull up more than the quota for local fish. When the quota is shut down entirely, it’s especially infuriating.

“The shame of it is, you’re dragging for conchs and catching fluke, so what do you do? You throw it back dead,” Karlin said. He said he has little hope that the state’s promise to sue or even pressure the federal government to change the rules will have an impact.

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