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Town of Riverhead cracks down on bunker fishermen

Menhaden fishermen haul in their seine net on

Menhaden fishermen haul in their seine net on the Peconic River early Wednesday. Credit: Newsday/Mark Harrington

Even as Long Island’s commercial fishing industry reels from coronavirus-shuttered markets and restaurants, one East End town this week began cracking down on one of the few remaining viable sectors for local baymen: fishing for menhaden.

Menhaden fishermen who launch their boats from a town ramp in Riverhead were greeted by a bay constable Wednesday morning who said the men would be cited for using seine nets that stretch beyond the 50-foot limit allowed by the town. The fishermen, who previously worked in cooperation with Riverhead to prevent large die-offs of the fish, were surprised by the move.

“I’ve been fishing there for the last 30 years, and they decide to pick now, in the middle of a socio economic disaster, to enforce a silly code that’s not even applicable?” said Will Caldwell, a Hampton Bays fishermen who received a summons with a 30-day court date. He said he expects to be called back by the town in a few weeks to help when bunker swarm the river as temperatures rise, inundating docks, yards and waterways. "It's destructive to the six fishermen and their families that are lucky to be working in this difficult time."   

Travis Wooten, a Riverhead bay constable, said his stakeout and the summons were the result of complaints by residents who are concerned the bunker fishing boats are damaging the bay bottom, depleting it of companion species such as striped bass and weak fish.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said the state Department of Environmental Conservation five years ago granted bunker fishermen access “during a time we had excess bunker fish,” and “just for that season," but no more. The men have since returned, she said, “and people have complained” because the area is “a sensitive location.”

“In order for them to fish they have to be granted access by the DEC,” she said. “That expired four years ago.”

The DEC, in a prepared statement to Newsday, said fishing for menhaden in the area Caldwell works "is not illegal under New York State law or regulations but may be subject to other municipal restrictions." 

Fishermen can take up to 40,000 pounds of bunker a day, the state said, though local restrictions may have changed depending on conditions. 

Properly licensed commercial fishermen can use a haul seine of up to 900 feet long to take menhaden, which are not considered overfished, in the western port of the Peconic Bays, according to the DEC statement.

"Many of the restrictions in question are not established in New York State law or regulations, but in the Town of Riverhead’s Code," the DEC said. "There are different restrictions on the southern side of the Peconic River system under the jurisdiction of the Town of Southampton. These local restrictions are implemented and enforced by the local towns, not DEC."

Bunker fishermen at the dock wondered why Riverhead Town would be cracking down now, with commercial fishing one of the few local industries considered essential businesses and allowed to operate, even as local markets are largely shuttered. Bunker are used for crab and lobster traps from Maine to Maryland. 

Tom Gariepy of Bluepoint said he uses the fish to set crab traps on the Great South Bay. 

Caldwell and other fishermen said Riverhead's supervisor is dead wrong in her assessment of state law, and a DEC officer at the scene, Ike Bobseine, checked over Caldwell’s catch and issued no citations. He was assigned there after a complaint from the town.

Lenny Nilson, a longtime bait fisherman who was also at the ramp, preparing to fish after Caldwell returned, said the town couldn’t have picked a worse time to crack down.

“We can’t even sell our fish anywhere,” he said, noting his former company, L&L Bait was expected to temporarily close due to sagging market conditions from the coronavirus outbreak. Nilson said he previously fought the town over fishing rights and won — 30 years ago. He noted fishermen have a right to take bunker from the waters, given that they are a migratory species.

Caldwell said he has been working with state lawmakers, including Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) to get relief funding for local commercial fishermen hit by market shutdowns around the coronavirus pandemic.

“After the scallop die off in the winter and now this [virus], everybody is hurting,” he said. “Why would Riverhead pick this time” to crack down? he asked.

Caldwell normally harvests soft clams and razor clams this time of year, but shuttered markets make it unfeasible, he said. Losing the bunker market in Riverhead could cost him tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue. He fishes with two deck hands.

Meanwhile, Caldwell said he suspects the town will be calling him shortly to harvest what appears to be an abundance of bunker before they begin dying in local docks, backyards and creeks, as they have in past years. This year’s crop is large, and the weather relatively warm — conditions that lead to low oxygen levels that kill the fish in the Peconic River.

Aguiar said she hopes the issue can be resolved soon.

“Everyone needs to go to the DEC and see where we stand,” she said. “We do hope they [the DEC] will give them [the fishermen] access.”

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