Fishing Violations? Cite Captains and Crew

Two recent high-profile incidents involving Montauk party-fishing boats have drawn attention to a problem on the water in which paying customers take too many or too small fish, while the crews, captains, and vessel owners evade responsibility. 

The first of the busts happened aboard the Fin Chaser at the end of August at Star Island in Montauk Harbor. State Department of Environmental Conservation officers approached as the boat reached the dock, and customers were seen dumping hundreds of fish overboard despite orders to stop, then shuffling to their cars empty-handed. 

As the officers investigated, they discovered abandoned coolers, holding what they said were around 1,000 illegally caught black sea bass, porgies, and fluke. Seven anglers were cited for varying offenses, but the captain was issued only a violation ticket — for an incomplete trip report. 

D.E.C. officers were back at it again on Sept. 16, rounding up what they said were 1,800 undersized or over-the-limit fish from patrons on the Viking Starship. Twenty-three anglers received citations dockside in Montauk, but the captain was cited only for an unsecured sanitation device. The fish that could be salvaged went to charity.

There is an irony here. Captains boast of their ultimate authority while at sea. Yet when enforcement officers show up, these self-same Ahabs are able to hide behind a law that absolves them of blame if their clients happen to violate catch limits. This makes no sense. Something has to change. 

It also is interesting to note that the state appears to be finally paying attention to how recreational fishing affects fish stocks. For decades the majority of its enforcement efforts was directed toward commercial harvesters, despite statistics that, in many cases if not all, indicated that sportfishing had an equal or greater impact on the resource.

Party-boat operators insist that they make a good-faith effort to tell their customers about the regulations. This can nevertheless be read as an indictment of party-boat practices in general. It is frustrating for private anglers who scrupulously measure each fish they land and stick to the number allowed per day to find out that party-boat customers openly ignore the same regulations with a wink and a nod from those in charge.

If it is impossible to assure that anglers aboard party boats follow the rules, the next step would be to consider shutting down the industry. A logical and fairer approach is to change state law to make captains, crews, and boat owners legally responsible, through costly penalties, for what their customers do.