An ice chest full of adult bunker fish, otherwise know...

An ice chest full of adult bunker fish, otherwise know as menhaden.  Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The State Legislature this week overwhelmingly passed a bill that would ban a controversial method of mass fishing for a vital bait fish known as menhaden in New York waters unless the state declares a specific fish-kill emergency. 

The bill would ban the harvesting of menhaden, also called bunker, using purse seine nets up to three miles from shore, effectively restricting large-scale industrial boats from encircling massive schools of the fish with nets to haul in tons of the fish for oil and protein meal.  

Bunker are a vital East Coast species important to the diets of predator fish such as striped bass, bluefish and some whales. They're also vital to local fishermen, who in the spring cast nets in local waterways to grab the fish for bait. Bunker have been subject to large-scale die-offs locally in recent years because of their massive numbers and depleted oxygen levels. 

The bill, which last year stalled in the then-Republican-controlled Senate, passed the now Democratic-controlled body 61 to 0, championed by State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach). It passed the Assembly, 143 to 0. 

The bill now goes to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The bill contains language negotiated between the legislature and Cuomo's Department of Environmental Conservation that would allow the DEC to issue permits for purse-seining on a 14-day emergency basis, said Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), the bill's original sponsor. That would allow the state to respond to potential die-offs, which clog waterways and can present health hazards. 

"It's a great bill and I think we should all urge the governor to call for the bill and sign it to protect our local waters from the kind of exploitation that overfishing can bring," Englebright said Wednesday. 

Kaminsky said the bill would help ensure the long-term survival of the species.

"Ensuring a thriving menhaden population is critical to protecting our Atlantic Ocean ecosystem," he said. "Sadly, menhaden had been overfished before and our legislative action will prevent that from happening again."

Representatives for Cuomo's office and the DEC didn't immediately comment on the bill, which was also championed by environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy. 

One company that conducts large-scale purse seining for bunker, Omega Protein, said that while it had "no opinion" on New York's bill because it does not fish in local waters, it takes issue with environmental groups' claims about purse seining.

In a statement, Omega spokesman Ben Landry said: "The hysteria created by some environmental groups in the state regarding menhaden fishing is based on falsehoods and inaccuracies. All credible fisheries scientists working on menhaden acknowledge that the menhaden population is healthy, not overfished and there is no overfishing occurring.” 

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