Furor Over New Black Sea Bass Limits

Fishermen talk resistance as feds propose 12-percent reduction for New York
Some 200 party and charter boat captains crammed a conference room at Stony Brook University last week to rail against a proposal to lower recreational black sea bass limits in New York waters. Jon M. Diat

Anger and frustration boiled over last week in a heated public meeting on a proposal to lower recreational black sea bass limits in New York waters for the 2018 fishing season. 

Well over 200 party and charter boat captains, as well as tackle shop proprietors and recreational anglers from as far away as Montauk and Staten Island, attended the March 27 meeting sponsored by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s division of marine resources. They were crammed in a conference room at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, and very few, if any, of them were happy. 

Fishermen, both recreational and commercial, continue to be frustrated by yearly cuts in quotas and limits to what many believe is a healthy and robust fish stock. In fact, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission 2016 benchmark stock assessment found that black sea bass are neither overfished nor had experienced overfishing.

With improved recruitment and declining fishing mortality rates since 2007, the spawning stock biomass has steadily increased. Spawning stock biomass in 2015 was estimated at 48.9 million pounds, 2.3 times the target of 21.3 million pounds. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is a regional body that oversees fishing on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. The commission comprises representatives of each state in the region, from Maine to Florida, and issues fishing allocations for various species including black sea bass, fluke, and porgy.

Despite these positive statistical points, New York State has been asked to take a nearly 12-percent reduction for the 2018 season. Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts will also likely experience a shorter season and a reduction in the amount of sea bass that can be retained. Under the commission’s current proposal, the earliest New York anglers could start fishing for the tasty and popular fish would be June 19, with a limit of two fish over 15 inches per person. At the same time, fishermen in neighboring New Jersey will see their limit increase for 2018, and anglers will be able to retain 15 fish with a minimum length of 12.5 inches starting on May 15. As recently as 2010, New York anglers could retain up to 25 sea bass per day. 

Sea bass allocations, which are calculated and approved by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and are subject to ratification by the Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency with federal oversight over fishing in federal waters, determine the number of fish anglers in each state can catch each season. Those allocations are then taken up by each state agency, in the case of New York, the Department of Environmental Conservation, which then turns these allocations into a seasonal quota. The state has authority to determine season length, daily quotas, and size limits for each species.

“None of us here agree with what is being done,” James Gilmore, chairman of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, said in his opening remarks on March 27. “The sea bass stocks are completely healthy in my view.”

On March 16, New York joined with Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut in filing an appeal of the 12-percent quota reduction for sea bass. The appeal will be heard by the commission in the first week of May. If it is successful, New York’s quota would be reduced by only 6 percent. If the appeal fails, New York State plans to file an appeal with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division.

Black sea bass are highly sought after by both commercial and recreational fishermen throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Fisheries change seasonally with changes in fish distribution. Inshore and more southern commercial fisheries primarily use fish pots and handlines, and when fish move offshore in the winter, they are mainly caught in trawl fisheries targeting summer flounder, porgy, and “loligo” squid. Recreational fisheries generally occur during the period that sea bass are inshore. Since approval of the fishery management plan in 1997, the black sea bass commercial fishery has operated under a quota, while the recreational fishery is restricted by a coastwide recreational harvest limit.

Mark Woolley, district director for Representative Lee Zeldin of New York’s First Congressional District, addressed the crowd on behalf of the congressman and read a statement from Mr. Zeldin that vowed support for the fishermen. “With the vast majority of Long Island fishing taking place in waters shared with New Jersey and Connecticut, such as the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound, it is unfair that New York anglers are, once again, being penalized with smaller fishing quotas than neighboring states,” Mr. Zeldin wrote. “For my constituents, who are both fishermen and small business owners trying to attract customers, the A.S.M.F.C.’s decision to once again cut New York off from its fair share while allowing New Jersey’s allocation to grow, is unacceptable. Two boats fishing next to each other with one allowed to catch up to double the amount of the other because they are landing the fish in New Jersey instead of New York is ridiculous and inequitable.”

Mr. Zeldin called for “tri-state parity.” He urged state representatives to “fight more aggressively within these regional bodies to advocate for New York’s anglers,” and added, “If our state representatives on the A.S.M.F.C., who supported this terrible proposal and failed to fully advocate for New York, aren’t willing to fight for our anglers, then they should step aside.” If necessary, he said, the allocations should be appealed all the way to the secretary of commerce. “Going into noncompliance is never the first option, but it may be the only one in taking a stand for New York anglers who year after year continue to get screwed.” 

“These options before us are garbage,” said Capt. Jamie Quaresimo of the Montauk party boat Miss Montauk. “We ought to go out of compliance.” Captain Quaresimo then asked people in the crowd to raise their hands if they would support that action. A large majority did just that. 

“We need to take a strong stand on this issue,” said Capt. Paul Ripperger of the Prime Time III, an Orient party boat. “Even if we win the appeal, none of these options before us make any sense. There are sea bass everywhere.” 

In a joint statement issued on Monday morning, New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle said, “The State of New York should utilize every legal and administrative tool at its disposal to overturn this ill-considered federal proposal.” They reiterated Mr. Zeldin’s assertion that “New York should not be at a disadvantage with other states on the East Coast,” and said, “Again and again, we have seen politics replace science to the detriment of New York State fishermen, whether they are recreational anglers, charter boat captains, or commercial fishermen. When the federal government is arbitrary and capricious, the state must state ‘no.’ ”

“If all other solutions fail, we agree with the commissioner that noncompliance is a legitimate remedy,” Mr. Thiele and Mr. LaValle wrote. “This has not been an isolated case of discrimination against New York State. Unfortunately this is part of a long history of federal action that has strangled the fishing industry in New York to the benefit of other states.”