Stepping up to the podium on the deck of the Swallow East restaurant in Montauk last Thursday, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman drew a laugh from fishermen when he introduced himself. “I’m his lawyer,” he said, nodding to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Funny, yes, but the business was dead serious. Mr. Cuomo brought his lawyer to assure fishermen that both he and Attorney General Schneiderman were prepared to sue the United States Department of Commerce unless the federal approach to managing the harvest of fluke, or summer flounder, in New York State is changed.
Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Schneiderman were joined at the event by County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, County Executive Steve Bellone, East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, and officials from the State Department of Environmental Conservation. Two delegates to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council were on hand, Lori Nolan of Montauk, who is involved with the local tilefish fleet, and Tony DiLernia, a charter captain who teaches at Kingsborough Community College. Bonnie Brady of Montauk, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, helped put the program together.
Mr. Bellone set the stage. “The federal regulations are obsolete,” he said, telling the crowd from both the commercial and charter fishing industries what they already knew, that fluke was managed using the historic landing records of each coastal state. “The data is out of date, and has been too long.” He said that while the fluke population is good off Montauk, old data continued to give the Carolinas the lion’s share of the fluke quota and New York short shrift.
“New York is the only state to be subjected to this bias, and it cannot stand,” the county executive said.
The governor, who went fishing out of Montauk with Billy Joel and Capt. Richard Nessel the week before, said, “the message is simple: Montauk is a fishing port, not just for fun and good for the family, but it’s big business in the State of New York. When the economy is drifting as it is today, we do everything to get the economic forces to work and we’re not maximizing the fisheries. It’s economics.”
“The limits for fluke are set by the federal government and regulated by the state,” Mr. Cuomo said. “The basic point is we’re being shortchanged by the fed. The fed sets the limits based on historic data that’s decades old, back to the ’80s. The fishery has recovered, but they’re using old data.”
Mr. Cuomo said the fluke fishery should be a “regional fishery,” not one managed state by state. “I’ve got news for the fed. Fish swim. They don’t realize they are going from New York to Jersey waters. The fishery should be regulated equally among states in that region. Otherwise it’s an absurd result: New Jersey has a five-fish at 171/2-inch minimum size. Connecticut anglers get five fish at 171/2 inches, and New York gets four at 19. It’s wrong.”
“This is clearly not fair and it’s costing millions and millions of dollars,” the governor said, pointing out that anglers will travel to ports where the limits are more favorable. “If the fed doesn’t do what’s right, we are willing to take a legal case. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but we are not going to take it anymore,” the governor said.
Attorney General Schneiderman then reiterated Mr. Cuomo’s argument. “I’m not in the fishing business. I’m in the justice business,” he said, adding, “the law is based on a flawed 1993 study that used data going back to the ’80s. There is lots of new data. The Magnuson-Stevens Act [the body of federal fisheries laws] provides that the best data be used. We can show the fed that they are not using the best data. We have boats from other states fishing off New York that take their fish home, and then it’s brought back and sold in New York.”
“This is a great tradition,” the attorney general said of the fishing industries. “They generate $1.4 billion for the state. But it’s not just economics, or a way of life. It’s above all about justice.”