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NOAA administrator makes 1st visit with LI fishermen

From catch limits to skepticism over the way federal scientists count fish populations, Long Island fishermen had a number of bones to pick with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrator Jane Lubchenco on her first visit to the region Thursday.

About two dozen commercial fishermen, seafood dealers and representatives of the recreational fishing industry attended the Hampton Bays meeting, which was arranged by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Speakers were civil but the mood was tense, a reflection of strained relations between regulators and Northeast fishermen in recent years. Some fishermen are wary of Lubchenco, a marine biologist, because of her past ties to organizations they say have an anti-fishing bent, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Pew Oceans Commission.

Many fishermen who spoke said they were struggling financially. They blamed strict rules driven by what they called inaccurate and outdated fish population data that does not reflect the current abundance of scup, summer flounder and other economically important species.

"We are being held to smaller and smaller quotas," said Bonnie Brady, executive director of Long Island Commercial Fishing Association. "NOAA has a credibility issue when it comes to fishermen, and that credibility issue is based on science that they [fishermen] feel is wholly inadequate."

She and others urged the agency's National Marine Fisheries Service to incorporate additional data - collected by commercial fishermen and outside researchers - into fisheries management decisions. They said rulemakers need to loosen restrictions more quickly once it becomes clear that fish populations had recovered.

"Nobody wants to see overfishing," said Schumer, who was joined by Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton). "But they want to see the science done in a rational way that allows them to stay in business and let their children go into business."

Schumer and others also pressed Lubchenco to make amends for wrongdoing uncovered by a recent audit of federal fisheries police. The audit found heavier fines were imposed on Northeast commercial fishermen than those in other regions and that the agency spent the money on unauthorized cars, boats and travel.

Other speakers complained that regulators had been slow to incorporate data from a new sportfishing registry designed to provide more accurate estimates of how many fish recreational anglers catch. They said the old method, which is still used to set annual quotas, vastly overstates the number of anglers and their catch. "We're bound by a fatally flawed system once again," said Jim Hutchinson Jr. of the Recreational Fishing Alliance.

Lubchenco said she understood their frustration, but that the new system was being put in place as quickly as possible given the volume of data.

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