Locally caught bluefish fillets may soon be scarce at Long Island fish stores if actions by the federal government force a closure of the New York commercial fishery in coming days.
In a letter to the regional director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday, the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation said newly implemented restrictions on commercial bluefish harvesting would have “devastating” impacts.
“I urge you to reconsider the management strategy for Atlantic bluefish,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos wrote to NOAA regional director John Bullard. “The elimination in mid season of quota from the commercial fishery in 2016 is shocking and would deal a devastating blow to our commercial fisheries.”
Seggos said the decision would “effectively end our commercial fishery” for bluefish this month, perhaps in just days. The season generally lasts as long as bluefish are in local waters, often through November. Fishing for bluefish from charter, party or private recreational boats isn’t affected.
NOAA has received the letter and is preparing a response, said NOAA spokeswoman Jennifer Goebel, who declined to comment further.
The problem, said a senior DEC official, stems from a successful recreational harvest of bluefish last year. Because recreational anglers caught nearly all the fish they were allowed, there was no excess to relegate to the commercial fishery this year. About 82 percent of the quota is allocated to recreational fishing, the remainder for commercial.
Because the fishery is managed coast wide, other states are seeing restrictions as well, meaning they cannot transfer to New York commercial fishers as much excess quota as they have in past years. Last year, Florida was able to transfer about 200,000 pounds of its unused quota to New York commercial fishers. This year it can only transfer about 50,000, a DEC official said.
The decision by the federal government stems from what Seggos in his letter described as “troubled” estimates of bluefish harvests last year. Fishing groups have long complained, and DEC has confirmed, that federal estimates of fish stocks are often based on outdated or faulty data.
For Long Island commercial fishermen, the 2016 harvest of 360,000 pounds has already been met, and the fishery could be closed before the week is out, the DEC official said. Typically, he said, New York commercial fishers harvest between 500,000 and 1 million pounds a year. Losing the bluefish fishery now, said the official, is “going to be a significant economic hit” for commercial fishermen.
Fishermen say the season has periodically been closed before but never in midseason, during one of the most active times for bluefish. It also comes as other fisheries are seeing new restrictions.
“For them to close it this time of the year is insane,” said Phil Karlin, a Riverhead fisherman who was part of a group protesting the closing of the black sea bass season in June, its busiest month. The black-sea bass fishery reopened July 1, as scheduled, with a new rule that allowed fishermen to fish two permits from a single boat.