A vac from Go Green Environmental Services in Middle Island...

A vac from Go Green Environmental Services in Middle Island vacuums up dead bunker fish from the Peconic River, collected by a fisherman who was hired by the Town of Riverhead, on June 17, 2015. The fish are then transported to the Riverhead landfill. Credit: Randee Daddona

The Town of Riverhead is working with state and federal agencies to prevent another large die-off of Atlantic menhaden in the Peconic River this spring with a plan that would allow fish to be harvested well beyond current limits.

Sean Walter, Riverhead Town supervisor, said he met with officials with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the state Department of Environmental Conservation in Montauk recently to discuss the plan, which will be voted on next month.

At present, fishermen are allowed to take around 6,000 pounds of the small baitfish, also known as bunker, a day. That’s far less than the hundreds of thousands of fish that crowd the Peconic River each spring. Last year, warmer than normal water temperatures and low oxygen levels led to two massive die-offs on the shores of the Peconic in late May and mid-June. Several large fishkills have taken place since 2007, the DEC reported.

Under the plan being explored, fisheries regulators would expand the 6,000-pound restriction on bunker to 30,000 pounds a day, and possibly make a higher limit permanent in future years, Walter said.

“If we can get a permit to lift the 6,000-pound cap, we’ll identify [additional] fishermen and they’ll start taking out as much fish as they can,” Walter said.

The plan will be presented to the Atlantic Menhaden Management board at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meeting May 4, said Tina Berger, a spokeswoman for the commission.

“It’s on the commission’s agenda and they will consider the request,” Berger said. “I think they will take action on it.”

The plan put forth by the DEC estimates that there are around 20 million pounds of menhaden in the area. “New York would like to remove as many fish as possible from the most confined reaches of the Peconic River and area shallow creeks, as these areas are subject to rapid loss of dissolved oxygen due to the demand by a large biomass of menhaden,” the DEC wrote in its proposal.

New York fishing regulators would invite up to a dozen licensed crews to harvest up to 30,000 pounds of menhaden per trip/day, according to the proposal. Currently, four crews are working in the region under the 6,000 daily limit.

The eased limits would apply only to those fishing in the Peconic River and Flanders Bay.

One possible complication, Walter said, is that the presence of bunker in the river coincides with the spawning of another vitally important small fish, the alewife. But the DEC proposal notes that the 2016 alewife run is “winding down,” and to date, no alewives have been caught in the [menhaden] seining operation.”

DEC marine chief Jim Gilmore didn’t return a call seeking comment.

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