WASHINGTON - They came from ports as far away as Montauk and Kodiak, Alaska, Panama City, Fla., and New Bedford, Mass., wearing baseball caps and blue jeans and fish-embroidered windbreakers. With shouts and hand-lettered signs, they issued a single demand: Fix crippling fishing laws now.
More than 3,000 men, women and children came to Washington Wednesday, cheering lawmakers who vowed to champion their cause.
The chief target of their wrath: the 2006 iteration of the Magnuson Stevens act, which mandates strict timetables for rebuilding once-depleted fish populations.
As they have for years, fishermen questioned the science that says some populations remain overfished.
"I am listening to you and we will change this law," Gillibrand said. Fisherman want the rebuilding timetables extended up to five years.
Even as fishermen rallied, Eric Schwaab, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration assistant administrator for fisheries, released a statement saying the law doesn't need to be changed - a view held by many conservationists.
"I understand the criticism of the 10-year rebuilding time frames in Magnuson," he said. "However, I believe Magnuson already contains the flexibility we need for rebuilding stocks by allowing certain exceptions based on biology and other issues."
But local fishermen said the 2006 constraints threaten their way of life on Long Island.
"If we have to stay within the guidelines of Magnuson, there's a good chance most commercial operations [in New York] will shut down in two years," said Hank Lackner, who operates a trawler out of Montauk. He said he has worked with government researchers on fish counts and demonstrated faulty equipment and methods that proved to regulators the science of counting fish to set quotas needed fixing.
Margie Higgins, first mate of Captree charter boat Laura Lee, said - and others agreed - that in the last two years the Captree fleet is down to 23 boats from 35.
Billy Reed, a commercial fisherman in Shinnecock, wore a placard naming the 16 boats that have been sold at that dock in recent years. New restrictions on weakfish, black-back flounder and scallops, he said, hit hard at the backbone of Long Island fishing.
Many are concerned there won't be a next generation to take over the fleet.
Terence Wallace, a commercial fisherman in Montauk, attended the rally with his wife and three young sons, one of whom carried a sign questioning whether he'd be a "future fisherman." Wallace said the answer to the question seems increasingly uncertain, given his own finances. "We're pretty far behind," he said.