It's a fight that's gone on for decades. Ever since the federal government mandated fishery catch limits years ago New Yorkers have complained about both their accuracy and fairness. Members of the industry complain the data used to determine limits is iffy and limits for New York are the strictest in the region.
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Last week, the battle saw support from the state's heaviest hitter, as Governor Andrew Cuomo arrived in Montauk offering an ultimatum to Department of Commerce officials: fix the problem or find a lawyer.
In particular, Governor Cuomo spoke of the catch limits for summer flounder caught by commercial or recreational fishermen. The Department of Commerce's Fisher Management Plan sets annual limits for each state and in New York the ability to compete sinks, with limits of 21 inches compared to neighboring states where catching fluke of 17 to 18 inches is permitted.
"We have gotten short-changed by the federal government year after year after year," the governor said.
Presiding over a gathering of close to 50 elected officials and industry members on the deck at Swallow East restaurant in Montauk last Thursday morning, Governor Cuomo expressed affection for Montauk, reporting that he was recently in town for a fishing trip and "did great."
Fishing is "very big business in New York," he pointed out. Assemblyman Fred Thiele, who wasn't at the press conference, later offered some stats: Summer flounder is one of the most important species for commercial fishing in New York. In 2011, a total of 1.4 million pounds of summer flounder were landed in New York at a value of $3.4 million. If New York's FMP allocation were the same as neighboring states, fishermen would have been allowed to land nearly 4 million pounds, resulting in $9.8 million in revenue.
He continued, "The federal government's FMP allocation is also detrimental to recreational fishing on Long Island. In 2011, recreational New York fishermen caught more than 7.5 million summer flounder. Due to the FMP's limitation on New York State, however, only about 375,000 of those caught that year could be harvested legally."
As a whole, New York State's fishing industry generates roughly $1.8 billion in economic activity every year and supports nearly 17,000 jobs.
Officials don't seem to realize, Governor Cuomo said dryly, "It's a regional fishery . . . I have news for the federal government, fish swim." Fluke aren't aware of boundaries between state waters. Catch limits should pertain to regional fisheries and there should be equality among the states. Otherwise, the numbers New Yorkers wind up with are "absurd," he said, and people can catch more fish in neighboring states. "That is just wrong and it is unfair," he said. He reminded that when he was attorney general he also asked the federal government to do the right thing. Now, he said, the state is willing to bring a legal case. "This has gone on too long."
Government quotas create an unfair competitive disadvantage, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman offered. In New York, the industry has not been given a level playing field, he said, noting, "I'm not in the fishing business, but I am in the justice business." The AG said he would have "no hesitation' about taking the case to court on behalf of the state. The law requires the DOC to use "the best available science" to develop catch limits. Schneiderman said he can prove they aren't using the best science and are "discriminating against New York."
"Changes to the data are long overdue," long time local industry advocate and member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council Laurie Nolan opined. "It's reassuring to know our governor stands beside the industry."
County Executive Steve Bellone echoed the sentiment, stating that he was "heartened and thankful for this incredible support . . . the governor of New York and the attorney general are declaring loudly and clearly that this will not go on."
In a letter to the DOC, Governor Cuomo outlined the negative impact inequitable limits have on New York's fishing industry. He called on the agency to pursue new methods for assigning quotas and warned that if action isn't taken to remedy the "biased formula" by the 2014, summer flounder season, the state is prepared to file suit.
South Fork Legislator Jay Schneiderman was also on hand in Montauk last Thursday. (In fact, the AG joked the event was "historic" because it was the first time two elected officials named Schneiderman were together at a press conference.)
"These are powerful allies," the legislator asserted. "If anyone can get this done, these guys can."