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State legislation would ban big boats from menhaden fishery

Baymen Will Caldwell and Dave Inoue at Meeting

Baymen Will Caldwell and Dave Inoue at Meeting House Creek in Jamesport Wednesday. Credit: Newsday / Mark Harrington

The clock is ticking on an effort by local baymen to maintain a sustainable local fishery for Atlantic menhaden through legislation that would ban large commercial purse seine boats from gobbling up the state’s newly expanded quota.

New York’s previously low annual quota for the bait fish, also known as bunker, has largely kept industrial purse seine boats out of the state fishery. The state quota had stood at 250,000 pounds for the entire year. But this year, the state’s allotment was increased to 3.4 million pounds as menhaden fisheries have been rebuilt.

A bill by Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) that has already passed the State Assembly would ban purse seining boats from operating in state waters. A Senate version of the bill is sponsored by Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). It would take effect in 2020.

Local baymen using small-scale nets and fish traps have been the primary state harvesters of bunker, selling them as bait for lobster traps and sport fishing. They’ve also harvested the fish for local towns to prevent massive die-offs that have polluted rivers, bays and beaches over the past several years.

Industrial purse seine boats can encircle entire schools of menhaden with a single net and harvest dozens of tons at a time. Menhaden are a vital forage-fish species, feeding everything from humpback whales and sharks to bluefish and striped bass.

They’re also harvested industrially for use in products such as fish oil and powdered protein.

New York State allows purse seine boats to fish certain waters around Long Island, and the current daily haul is unlimited. Boats from neighboring states can pay a $1,000-$2,000 fee for an out-of-state license to harvest.

“The intent of increasing New York’s quota was never to create a new large-scale fishery here,” said Carl LoBue, senior marine scientist for The Nature Conservancy, which supports the legislation.

Ian Mullarky, a representative answering the phone at Ark Bait in Swansea, Mass., said the company has one of the few, if only, menhaden permits held by an out-of-state company in New York. He said he wasn’t aware of the proposed legislation but said it could “directly impact” the company.

The Department of Environmental Conservation moved this week to set new limits on the harvest, but it’s not enough to dissuade larger boats from fishing here, baymen and conservationists say. Starting July 9, boats can take up to 40,000 pounds of bunker per day, or 120,000 pounds per week.

“They’re going to turn it into a free-for-all out here,” said Will Caldwell, president of the Southampton Baymen’s Association, from his boat on Meeting House Creek Tuesday morning. Massive schools of bunker crowded the waterway, and Caldwell and his mate, Dave Inoue, circled the fish with nets and scooped them into vats in 6,000 to 7,000 pound trips.

Jim Gilmore, marine resources chief for the DEC, declined to comment on pending legislation. But he said local baymen had little to worry about because he’d be opposed to giving the big purse seine boats licenses to land the fish in New York.

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