A federal quota system is driving some Long Island commercial fishermen to unload their crucial catch of summer flounder in other states, costing them time and money, and depriving the Island of revenue.
Summer flounder, also known as fluke, are particularly important to Long Island fishermen. Found close to shore, especially in the summer, they are "money fish," fetching $2.71 a pound in New York in 2009, according to the latest government data. Only shellfish such as American lobster, sea scallops and Quahog clams pay more.
Under the quotas, a crew licensed in New Jersey or Rhode Island may haul in more than double the fluke that New York fishermen can catch -- even though vessels from different states often trawl side by side in federal waters, which begin three miles offshore. Not all fish are so severely restricted for New York fishermen; scup, for instance, has more even quotas among the states.
"Fluke has been one of the mainstays of Long Island fishermen for years," said Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association. "There were guys who that was all they did: catch fluke." Now, because of the quotas, "fluke may help toward the fuel bill, but it's nothing like the market that once existed."
Commercial fishermen are a hardy breed of small businessmen. Their struggle against what they deem to be intrusive and unfair government regulation echoes complaints about regulation by other small business people on Long Island. It's a national issue as well: The regulation question has been an important theme in the Republican presidential primaries.
The current quota system is "nonsensical," Kevin Law, chief executive of the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group, wrote to regulators recently. Law said in an interview that commercial fishing is "very, very important to our regional economy. It's important to our tourism economy, to our restaurants and supermarkets that our fishing industry feeds."
Room for improvement
The quotas, designed to prevent overfishing, date from 1993. Now fishermen and their advocates see an opportunity for improvement: The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which oversees federal fisheries in the region, said summer flounder stocks have been rebuilt, and the council is conducting a strategic review of the quotas.
After his previous requests for change were rebuffed, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is asking the U.S. Government Accountability Office to investigate the quotas. "Long Island is synonymous with fishing," Schumer said, "and flounder is the jewel of the ocean on Long Island."
The New York seafood industry is a billion-dollar business, supporting an estimated 44,000 jobs -- including transportation and restaurant jobs -- throughout the state, according to the National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration. The state's commercial fishing industry is concentrated on Long Island. NOAA economist Scott Steinback said several thousand fishing-related jobs are tied to the Island.
The number, though, has been shrinking. An estimated 3,207 fishermen held commercial licenses in New York in 2010, down from 3,915 in 2000 -- an 18 percent decline, according to the Cornell Cooperative Extension. The number of New York vessels with federal permits to fish for summer flounder fell nearly 22 percent from 2001 to 2011, from 436 to 341, the National Marine Fisheries Service reported.
'Fleet follows the fish'
When the fisheries service implemented limits on summer flounder, the quotas were allocated among mid-Atlantic states based on historical data for each state's haul.
But the number of fish landed in New York was underreported, fishing industry advocates said, because of a different way of doing business: In other states, fishermen sold their catch directly to the docks where they landed. The docks kept records of the sale and then sold the fish to distributors. In New York, fishermen paid docks a fee to unload, but sold their fish directly to vendors at the Fulton Fish Market, with no one keeping track of the total.
So even though fluke are found from North Carolina to Massachusetts, commercial fishermen unloading in New York can bring in just 7.6 percent of the mid-Atlantic haul. Rhode Island fishermen get 15.7 percent, New Jersey fishermen get 16.7 percent, and fishermen in Virginia and North Carolina are allotted 21.3 percent and 27.4 percent, respectively.
"The fleet follows the fish," said Brady, of the Island's commercial fishing association. "If my husband is fishing next to a North Carolina boat, [sometimes] he can only bring in 70 pounds of summer flounder. The other guy can bring in 10,000 pounds."
As of early February, fishermen had brought almost 540,081 pounds of summer flounder into New Jersey's ports so far this year, records show. Just over 85,190 pounds had come into New York.
Fishermen have different ways of handling the restrictions. For most of the year, Chuck Weimar, who is based in Montauk, brings his catch to Point Pleasant, N.J., where he has a permit to unload, and steams home to Montauk -- adding 30 hours to his trip.
"If I land in New Jersey, my fish make it back to New York before I do," he said.
Mark Phillips, a Greenport fisherman for 40-plus years, used to get one-third of his income from fluke. But he has mostly stopped trawling for it because of the quotas, and it now accounts for about 5 percent of his income. Instead, he goes after other fish, like cod, which are found between Massachusetts and Canada. It would add too much time to bring them to Greenport, so he unloads in Fairhaven, Mass., taking a ferry back to Long Island while his boat stays in Massachusetts.
"I used to catch a lot of fish. I still do," said Phillips, who owns a dock in Greenport. "I just don't bring them to New York."