A federal fight is brewing in the waters off of Montauk
A federal fight is brewing in the waters off of Montauk

Long Island striped bass fishing advocates traveled to Washington this week to advocate for changes the rules governing striped bass possession in federal waters between Montauk and Block Island.

East End Congressman Lee Zeldin has re-introduced former Congressman Tim Bishop’s proposal to clarify federal laws in a portion of the federal Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ), 155 square miles of what used to be prime striped bass fishing areas between Montauk, Block Island and Rhode Island, but Connecticut representatives and fisheries conservationists are skeptical of the the proposal.

The House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Water, Power, and Oceans held a hearing Tuesday, Feb. 2, on the bill, titled the EEZ Clarification Act (HR3070).

Striped bass populations appear to currently be stressed.
Striped bass populations here are currently under stress.

Striped bass fishing was banned in the EEZ in 1990 after serious declines in the striped bass fishery in the 1908s. While the fishery was declared rebuilt in 1995, when the federal government considered re-opening the area to fishing in 2006, they received 8,500 comments, 97 percent of which were in support of continuing the closure. A stock assessment of striped bass in the fishery last year has shown a decline in its population.

The area of the EEZ in question is currently considered by the federal government to be a “transit zone,” but some fishermen have been unable to prove that their stripers were legally caught outside of the EEZ and have been boarded by the Coast Guard and fined for their catch.

While Mr. Zeldin says his proposal simply transfers authority over those waters to the states, allowing fishermen who transit that portion of the EEZ to carry fish caught in open waters through the EEZ without committing a federal crime, many at the hearing said they believe there will be regulatory complications if management of that portion of the EEZ were turned over to the states of New York and Rhode Island, as the bill recommends.

Mr. Zeldin introduced the bill in July of 2015 and invited members of the subcommittee to Riverhead in December to hear testimony from fishermen here.

While Mr. Zeldin described the issue at the hearing as “the difference between a nice day on the water or a federal offense,” Congressman Jared Huffman of California, a ranking member of the subcommittee, was skeptical of that portrayal, and asked expert witnesses whether the idea of a “day on the water ruined for fishermen” was more hypothetical than a reality.

National Marine Fisheries Service Deputy Regional Administrator Daniel Morris said there were 54 federal violations of striped bass restrictions in the EEZ in the past five years, but only one of them occurred in the transit zone.

He did say that states bordering the EEZ may have issued there own violations that were not reported to his office.

Captain Joe McBride at Tuesday's hearing.
Captain Joe McBride at Tuesday’s hearing.

Captain Joe McBride of the Montauk Boatmen & Captains Association told the panel that, while the EEZ restrictions have been in place since 1990, many fishermen were unaware of the restrictions until after the Coast Guard began enforcing them shortly after September 11, 2001.

Mr. McBride said the area closed to fishing by the federal government contains about 60 percent of the historical striped bass fishing rips fished by Montauk fishermen.

“We would like to fish for striped bass in that area,” he said.

But charter boat captain John McMurray of Oceanside, who also sits on the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, said he doesn’t believe changes to the EEZ would be good for the fishery.

“I’m speaking solely as a fisherman and a small business owner,” he told the panel.

“Today, the EEZ serves as a badly needed buffer for the adult striped bass population, which is facing intense fishing pressure in state waters,” he said. “Anyone who spends any time on the water knows the striped bass fishery is not what it used to be. There’s still good fishing, but it’s sporadic and hard to come by.”

Mr. McMurray added that the fall striped bass blitz off the beach at Montauk has lately “seemed to be a thing of the past.”

Connecticut lobstermen could also be affected by the bill.
Connecticut lobstermen could also be affected by the bill.

Congressman Joe Courtney of Connecticut said he is disappointed that Connecticut legislators were not included in the discussions over the bill.

He explained that, if federal waters were placed in Rhode Island’s jurisdiction, Connecticut lobstermen would no longer be able to place their pots in the water there, because Rhode Island does not allow out-of-state licenses in their waters.

Connecticut lobstermen are already being squeezed by seasonal bans on catching lobster in Long Island Sound.

“In Rhode Island, you are shut out in terms of getting a permit. This is damaging people’s livelihoods,” said Mr. Courtney.  “This is bankrupting people who work on their boats.”

Mr. Zeldin said he’s looking forward to working with the Connecticut delegation on some “very easy fixes to help address your constituents.”

“They’re going to remain a top priority of mine because they are important,” he said.

Mr. Zeldin did receive support from some members of the committee. Congressman Paul Gosar of Arizona, the Vice Chairman of the subcommittee, said the testimony of those opposed to the bill “appears apocalyptic and fearful of any change.”

He added that the current law “unintentionally made criminals out of striped bass fishermen,” and said the “simple boundary change” outlined in the legislation should fix the issue.

“We’re not advocating for there not to be management by fisheries in these areas,” said Mr. Zeldin at the close of the hearing. “We’re advocating for regulation at the local level. No one is here saying everyone can go out and catch whatever you want, keep whatever you want and take as much of it as you want home. No one is advocating for that and this bill doesn’t do that.”

The hearing is online hereThe full text of the bill is online here.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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