Arnold Leo, secretary of the East Hampton Town Baymen’s Association and former town fisheries consultant, returned from an Aug. 1 Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meeting in Virginia with some good news — striped bass and lobster fishermen might have dodged a bullet — and some bad — East Hampton Town was not represented at the important meeting.
East Hampton Town’s fisheries advisory committee “was never called to meet before this incredibly important meeting,” Mr. Leo said Friday. “Not only were lobster and bass on the chopping block, but during a Tuesday morning meeting, there was a lot of debate about how much New York will have to reduce blackfish landings.”
“The fishery advisory committee never called for a position on what action to take on any of these issues,” Mr. Leo said.
Mr. Leo served as the town’s fisheries consultant for four years until he was fired by a 3-to-2 vote of the town board earlier this year and replaced by Eric Braun. The previous year, his annual $40,000 budgeted stipend — never used in its entirety — had been reduced to $15,000.
As the town’s consultant, he attended numerous management meetings and reported back to an advisory board including representatives of commercial and recreational fishing, aquaculture, and marina interests.
At the time of Mr. Leo’s firing, Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said the consultant’s advocacy at state and federal management meetings had not borne fruit, and that Mr. Leo had a commercial fishing bias. Members of the fishing industry criticized the firing and claimed that fish stocks important to local fishermen, as well as access to them, had actually improved during Mr. Leo’s tenure.
On Friday, Mr. Leo spoke about the Atlantic States Commission’s meeting, which he attended on the Baymen’s Association’s dime.
Lobster landings in the southern New England region have been lackluster in recent years. Managers have sought to dramatically restrict fishing, even threatening a five-year moratorium that lobstermen said would put them out of business.
“They had three options, status quo, a five-year moratorium, or a combination of ways to reduce the harvest by 50 to 75 percent,” Mr. Leo said. “The status quo was not going to fly and lobstermen said both the moratorium and 50 percent reduction would put them out of business.” The draconian approaches were being pushed by the states of Maine and New Hampshire, big lobster producers whose motives were therefore suspect, he said.
The commission represents 15 coastal states and manages species found within their territorial waters.
Mr. Leo said there was an alternative that Connecticut and Rhode Island managers had been working on “to reduce the harvest by 10 percent in each of the conservation areas to rebuild stocks [using higher minimum size limits and shorter season closures] to prepare the industry for more substantive reductions in the future,” in other words, to buy the industries time.
Lobster landings in the southern New England region have been lackluster in recent years.
This alternative was adopted by the commission’s advisory board, and although the threat of a total moratorium would remain hanging above their heads, lobstermen were given a chance, Mr. Leo said.
On to striped bass. Once again, Maine and New Hampshire pressed for reductions in the coastwide striped bass harvest, especially for commercial fishermen. Mr. Leo said that the summer migration of striped bass often did not reach the northernmost states, which was no indication of the overall population.
The curtailment measure, Amendment Three to the striped bass plan, “basically said that if any trigger was reached that indicated the stock was in poor condition, then things would be done to reduce landings by 40 percent.”
“For the past 12 years, since the bass fishery reopened, these triggers have never been approached. The spawning biomass is 189 percent above the threshold. There are almost twice as many adult bass capable of spawning before the stock needs protection.”
Mr. Leo said a new stock assessement was due in September. “I was speaking for the baymen’s association. I addressed the board and said, ‘I’m talking to you as a taxpayer too. Why are the states holding public meetings on this addendum when there is no indication that the adendum is needed, and a new assessment is due in September that will tell us if there’s any need for curtailment of harvest?’ ”
The commission voted to suspend public discussion of the proposed addendum.
According to members of town’s fisheries committee, East Hampton was not represented at the Virginia meeting because too much of the money budgeted for the purpose after Mr. Leo was fired as the town’s consultant had already been spent.
“There was no sign of Eric Braun, and there’s no sign there’s any money left” in the committee’s travel budget for him to attend future meetings, Mr. Leo said.
Several members of the committee confirmed anonymously that Mr. Braun had charged the town over $7,000 — more than half the entire year’s budget — for attending one three-day meeting of the Atlantic States Commission last spring. After submitting his bill, committee members said, Mr. Braun was told to stay close to home. The committee has remained virtually dormant since then, one member said.
Mr. Braun said yesterday that the fisheries committee was “very much alive.” He said he did not attend the Atlantic States Commission meeting because the committee had decided it was better to send industry reps instead of him. “If it’s lobsters, Al Schaefer might go, if it’s whiting, Dan Farnham.”
Mr. Leo said a Wednesday meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council in Wilmington, Del., is “of importance to the recreational guys.”
The council will meet jointly with the Atlantic States Commission to determine the harvest levels of both commercial and recreational scup, black sea bass, fluke, and bluefish. “The rec fishery had an overage in scup, so there might be a fight over that. Nobody’s paying attention on the town level. If they lose 60 percent of tautog (blackfish) and 60 percent of black sea bass, what are they going to fish for?”
Mr. Leo said on Tuesday that he planned to ask the town board the same question at its next meeting.