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Fishermen: 'Byzantine' regulations threaten livelihood

Charlie Wertz gestures down the Nautical Mile in Freeport where his commercial trawler, the Norseman, lies moored at the southern end of Woodcleft Canal. Once, he says, 27 commercial fishing boats operated from this port. Today there are five.

His 45 years as a commercial fisherman offer a bleak but colorful timeline of a diminished fleet, most of it the result, he says, of overzealous regulation.

He's one of hundreds of fishermen on Long Island navigating their way through increasingly complex and restrictive federal rules and tough state enforcement. Even James Walsh, the lawyer who wrote the original Magnuson Stevens Act, the 1976 law that set policy for U.S. fisheries, at a recent conference in New Bedford, Mass., observed, "I've never seen such Byzantine regulations."

Converging on Washington

Within the last month, thousands of fishermen converged in Washington to urge federal regulators to give more time for federal timetables on fish rebuilding stock to take effect. Fishermen see the federal fisheries agency as the nautical twin of the IRS - a bloated bureaucracy out of touch with realities at sea. Two weeks ago, more than two dozen fishermen and supporters packed an East Hampton court in support of two men charged with fishing-related felonies.

Regulators say the rules are needed to protect once-depleted fish populations, even though most have rebounded, and acknowledge that they may err on the side of caution because the law requires it to assure fish stocks are rebuilt.

On a section of pier across from the 64-foot Norseman, Wertz points to mounds of green nylon nets, one bought as recently as last fall for $3,000. Most have been rendered obsolete by changing rules, he says.

"I've probably got $50,000 worth of nets that can't be used anymore because they changed the mesh size on me," he says.

Last year, regulators asked Wertz to document his sea scallop landings between 2000 and 2004 to determine his future allotment of the catch. While he had often fished to a prior limit of 400 pounds a day, his new license slashed it to 550 pounds for the entire year. It took effect March 1.

"I can't start the boat up for 550 pounds," Wertz says. So he and his son, Chuck Wertz, a 50-50 partner, have been forced to take the season off, since another once-vital species, winter flounder, is off-limits entirely. "I'm basically out of business January through May."

Permit taken away

He's luckier than some. Tom Kokell, a Northport fisherman, lost his scallop permit entirely in the recent rule change. Regulators denied his appeal based on hardship because his boat had been destroyed by fire and was out of commission during the years regulators used to determine new eligibility, he said.

Marjorie Mooney-Seus, a spokeswoman for National Marine Fisheries, said the rules were put in place because permits and harvesting in the scallop fishery were increasing too quickly. In 1994, 181 general-category vessels harvested scallops, but that number had increased to more than 600 by 2005. The new rules seek to reduce the number to around 365. "No matter what time period you pick [to set the allotment] someone's going to win and someone will not," Mooney-Seus said, referring to cases like Kokell's.

Local fishermen point with gallows humor to their dwindling ranks in asserting New York keeps getting shortchanged. Wertz, 70, who is chairman of the West End Fishermen's Association, was asked what the group's meetings are like now that membership has fallen from more than 100 to less than 10. He paused a moment and looked across to his son, also a member. "This is a meeting right now," he says.

Wertz, who attended Farmingdale College, started his fishing career after he was laid off in 1965 from a defense industry job. He bought a former lobster boat, he says, that once had been used to haul bodies for burial at Hart Island, near the Bronx in the western end of Long Island Sound. The fishing was very good. "We made money hand over fist."

New advisories come often

In the 1970s, Wertz recalls, fishing regulations arrived in the form of a pamphlet sent once a year by the state. These days, he says, notices from the DEC and federal regulators come to his home every few days. Regulators also communicate via a satellite-based device on board that tracks his movements and can send a message if a fishery is shut down on short notice. He pays $100 a month for the device.

He and his son also pay around $10,000 in insurance each year, $10,000 annually for dock space, untold thousands in repairs, and $25,000 a year for fuel. Like other Long Island fishermen, he and his son handle most ship maintenance, from welding to net repairs.

Wertz won't say how much he makes a year, but says a boat of the Norseman's size should gross $300,000 to $400,000 a year, before expenses. Given his hours at sea, he says, "We're lucky if we make minimum wage."

These days in Freeport, many of the vessels along the Nautical mile are large gambling boats and pleasure boats.

But remnants of the heyday remain. In the dock space next to the Norseman's lies the busted hull of the trawler Ida L. It was owned by a Korean War veteran who, Wertz says, "got regulated out of the business," moved to New Jersey about 10 years ago, and later passed away. The ship at high tide is submerged, though its lines remain secured to the dock.

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