State Senate leaders said Sunday they will pass a pair of bills this week aimed at protecting Long Island's coastline and marine life by banning permits for offshore drilling operations and protecting menhaden, the oily baitfish feasted upon by striped bass, whales and other predators.
At a news conference on the Long Beach boardwalk, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) predicted the measures would pass the Senate on Tuesday.
"We will stand up for Long Island. We will stand up for our environment," she said.
The bill on menhaden, also known as bunker, would prevent purse seining, a method in which commercial fishing vessels, aided by spotter planes, encircle a school of fish with a net before sucking them onboard with a vacuum.
The bill would ban the method in New York waters, which extend 3 miles offshore.
"This rule that will keep the industrial-scale fishery out of New York will help everything from whales, to dolphins, to striped bass, bluefish and all of our fishing business that relies on those species being abundant," Carl LoBue, The Nature Conservancy's New York oceans program director, said.
Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), recalled on Thanksgiving 2017, joining crowds in Long Beach to watch whales from the beach, a sight he didn't witness growing up. Marine experts say more whales have been spotted in shore because of the increased menhaden population.
"It's a key fish in the ecosystem that had once been overfished before, and we're not going to let it happen again," he said.
LoBue said commercial purse seining boats fished in New York waters this year in Gardiners Bay and west of Shelter Island. Further west, boats came near New York waters, but stayed in federally regulated areas.
A spokesman for Omega Protein, the largest menhaden fishing corporation, said Sunday that the proposed bill was cosmetic, because the company catches most of its fish off Maryland and Virginia.
"This bill is more a feel-good piece of legislation for environmentalists, but will have no impact on us at all," said Ben Landry, the spokesman for Omega, which uses the fish in aquaculture, pet food and fish oil supplements.
In two days last year, the company's boats were about 4 or 5 miles off New York's coast — in federally regulated waters — and caught 4 million fish out of their 500 million-fish quota for the East Coast, Landry said.
The other bill would prohibit state agencies from processing applications for pipelines or any other transportation and distribution services needed to facilitate offshore drilling. Trump, in January 2018, proposed opening nearly all U.S. coastal waters to oil and gas exploration. The proposal has been opposed by local Democrats and Republicans.
Ryan Zinke, the former U.S. secretary of the interior, appeared to throw cold water on the proposal when he said in April that opposition to the proposal has been fierce and resources are limited, particularly off the East Coast.
“There’s very little, if any, oil and gas reserves known off the coast of New York,” or the mid-Atlantic plate, Zinke said at a symposium.
Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, defended the caucus' record on the environment. “When it comes to protecting our cherished natural resources and delivering on major environmental initiatives, Long Islanders know that Senate Republicans have a record that is unmatched," he said.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has attacked the federal proposal to open most of the East Coast to offshore oil exploration. In a statement Sunday, he said "This legislation sends a message loud and clear: while the federal government tries to prop up dirty fossil fuels, New York will stand up for our environment and lead the way toward a cleaner, more prosperous future."
Menhaden bill sponsors said they have worked with state Department of Environmental Conservation officials to craft the bill, including allowing purse seining when there's an overabundance of menhaden that can lead to a fish kill.