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House bill to change fisheries law debated in Riverhead

James Carbone

James Carbone Credit: James Carbone

The debate over whether to ease measures in federal fisheries law came to Riverhead Monday as proponents argued that restrictions on fishing have had a devastating impact on the fishing community, while opponents said any easing could decimate already stressed fish populations.

The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources met at Suffolk Community College’s Riverhead campus to get local feedback on that and other fisheries issues. Freshman Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), a committee member, said his chief aims were to improve the science on which major fisheries quotas are set and to work to increase New York’s relatively small share of those quotas, particularly for vital local species such as fluke.

New York commercial fishermen get just more than 7 percent of the federal quota for fluke, compared with states such as Virginia and North Carolina, which get more than 20 percent. Locals have complained that outdated and incomplete New York records led to the inequity, but they have had limited success in trying to undo it.

The Republican-controlled House has already passed HR 1335, the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Reform Act,” but a companion bill is stalled in the Senate. The bill is aimed at making changes in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which was set up to manage fisheries.

Committee chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said some have accused the Obama administration’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of using “political science to justify fishing closures,” which he said have had “real impacts on local economies, cultures and traditions.”

But while most agreed that there’s a need for improved science upon which to base quotas, some said easing conservation law would have tragic consequences on fish populations. “Consistently, we have seen that strong conservation standards lead to more abundant and resilient fish populations,” said Kerry Heffernan, a Manhattan chef, conservationist and fisherman.

Bonnie Brady, director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, a Montauk commercial fishing group, thanked Bishop and Republican congressmen for passage of the bill, noting that 90 percent of fishing stocks are not considered overfished, yet regulators are recommending reductions in fluke and striped bass fisheries in excess of 25 percent.

“Nothing has destroyed our local New York fish economies more than the unintended consequences of a rigid, 10-year timeline for rebuilding a fishery” mandated in the Magnuson Act, she said.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) called for scrapping the Republican flexibility bill. “A strong coastal economy cannot be based on an empty ocean, and we must keep Magnuson strong and let science — including climate science — guide our fisheries management decisions,” he said.

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