New York State will not enforce the first-ever quota on bunker this year, giving a reprieve to fishermen and tackle shops that depend on the oily baitfish, state regulators said.
The state's 200,000-pound limit on the fish would have been reached in just a few weeks this summer, effectively shutting down the legal commercial catch midseason, said Jim Gilmore, director of marine resources at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Distributors, while relieved New York had put off the quota, are still worried.
"I'm very concerned moving forward about how we get the supply we need to satisfy the recreational industry's need," said Melissa Dearborn, vice president of Regal Bait in Huntington Station.
The limit on the fish, also known as menhaden, was imposed this year by a commission set up by Congress.
In New York, fishermen use them for bait, and the fish in the wild is considered a vital food source for game fish, particularly big striped bass.
Conservationists and many anglers blame a massive Virginia fishing operation for having depleted the menhaden population. Houston-based Omega Protein grinds up millions of fish at a time for aquaculture, dog food, swine and cattle feed and food supplements, such as fish oil capsules.
New York's quota this year was set at just 0.06 percent of the total East Coast catch. New Jersey, which has a much more active commercial baitfishing industry and supplies many Long Island tackle shops, has an 11 percent quota. Virginia's catch is allowed at 85 percent, 78 percent of which is caught by Omega Protein.
Dearborn said restrictions put in place in New Jersey made for a tight local supply this year.
The national quotas were based on catches states reported between 2009 and 2011. New York's DEC, which acknowledged it did not consider bunker a priority before the quota was imposed, said its allocation was too low. "We're not going to start managing a fishery on data we know is wrong," Gilmore said.
Mark McGowan, owner of Cow Harbor Bait and Tackle in Northport, said for some anglers, fishing without bunker "is like having a burger without ketchup."
For stores like his, selling fresh and frozen bunker has kept anglers coming through the door. Online tackle sales and big box stores have eaten into business, but fishermen needing bait still go to the smaller stores. "Economically for us, bunker is really important," he said.
McGowan said it makes no sense for the small bait suppliers to be shut down when their catch is so small compared with Omega Protein.
Ben Landry, a spokesman for Omega Protein, said quotas and reporting are essential. "I'm as supportive of the commercial industry as anyone. But if you're catching fish, you have to report them."
He said the science is unclear on whether the menhaden fishery is being depleted -- something conservationists strongly disagree with, saying it is only shrinking -- but if Omega's operation has to reduce, then it makes sense for the bait industry to reduce.
New York not adhering to its quota could have consequences, said representatives of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which was created by Congress and set the quota for bunker based on a 20 percent reduction of reported catches between 2009 and 2011. That includes the possibility of having fish in future years taken away.
Mike Waine, commission fishery management plan coordinator, said, "They have a quota, they're expected to be monitoring the quota."
Other conservationists, who said the fish is a vital food source for striped bass, bluefish and weakfish, said New York's bait catch needs at least to be tracked.
The New York DEC plans to plead its case for a higher quota next May to the multistate commission. It is now focused on re-creating its records for the three years of reported landings, 2009-2011, and wrote to commercial fishermen last month, asking for dated receipts, log books and unsubmitted fishing reports.
But some fishermen said the DEC should have been preparing for the limit on menhaden, which some conservationists had dubbed "the most important fish in the sea" because of their role filtering water and serving as food for other fish.
Montauk charter boat captain Steve Witthuhn said the DEC should have been working with fishermen. "We knew a quota was coming," he said. "It was just a matter of time."