Commercial fishermen have a stern message for federal regulators: Fix the rules before they sink our industry.
Two dozen of them unloaded on the regulators at a meeting Tuesday night in Montauk, saying new rules instituted in May to save fish are destroying their livelihood.
While the meeting by the National Marine Fisheries Service was called to address those rules, the fishermen used it to air a laundry list of lingering gripes, from how data is collected to how limits are set to rules that result in tons of dead fish being tossed overboard. The fishermen say trawlers are hauling fish such as winter flounder with their catches but they can't keep them. Instead the flounder wind up as crab food.
"We went from being able to fish for flounder to everything going overboard dead," said Montauk fisherman Terry Wallace, arguing the rules did little to protect targeted species.
The latest set of rules, called catch shares, attempts to manage fish populations by dividing the annual catch among pooled groups of fishermen and individuals based on their historic landings. Even regulators admit the complexity of the rules is daunting.
"A lot of people are saying this is getting very complex," said Doug Christel, a fishery policy analyst for the fisheries service. "The long-term solution may be to evaluate that."
Observers need look no further than a June 3 letter from the agency that greets the fishermen as "Dear Limited Access Northeast (NE) Multispecies Permit Holder."
Fishermen like Vincent Carillo, who owns three commercial boats out of Montauk, say they spend more time navigating complex rules than the water.
"It's so confusing I can't get an answer on the phone," he said. At the meeting, a question he asked a specialist about a trip he planned to catch three species of fish took several minutes to answer - and it still wasn't clear.
Most railed against restrictions on more lucrative species such as the winter flounder and black-back flounder, which regulators say are depleted but fishermen say are plentiful.
Regulators say the rules are helping rebuild fish populations but acknowledge "consolidation" in the fishing community. Fishermen and experts expect the new rules could reduce the fleet by 50 percent.
Montauk fisherman Chuck Morisi put it bluntly in a statement that opened the meeting. Gesturing with a cigar stub, he said: "You guys are ruining the fishery. We can't keep nothing. . . . You guys change the rules every five seconds. It's disgusting."
Christel acknowledged there was room for improvement in the rules, old and new. "If there are things not working, we want to hear about it," he said.