New foundation looks to rewrite federal fisheries act with help from Long Island fishermen

Fishing in Montauk
Fishing in Montauk

Commercial fishermen in Montauk got a chance to meet with a new group of advocates for fisheries reform at Inlet Seafood last Friday afternoon.

The Center for Sustainable Fisheries, based in New Bedford, Mass., is planning to do nothing short of rewriting the 1976 federal Magnuson-Stevens Act, which they believe stifles fishermen while doing little to protect the health of fisheries.

Bonnie Brady, the executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association and the wife of Montauk fisherman David Aripotch, serves on the board of the Center for Sustainable Fisheries, and she brought some of the new group’s volunteer board members to Montauk on Nov. 15 to explain their plans. They’re currently traveling throughout the country trying to drum up support for their work.

Dr. Brian Rothschild, the former Dean of the School for Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, serves as the president of the new group, and former Congressman Barney Frank serves as Chairman of the Board.

Attorney Scott Lang, the former mayor of New Bedford, Mass., who has filed several lawsuits over fisheries law, serves as secretary of the board.

“He gets fisheries law very well and is able to synthesize it in a way a lot of people can’t,” said Ms. Brady of Mr. Lang. “Brian Rothschild is like a rock star in the fisheries sciences world. Barney Frank worked on [Magnuson-Stevens]. He can walk the walk, and he knows where some of the problems are.”

“All these guys involved, you want them on your team,” she said, adding that Mr. Rothschild’s participation will ensure the group’s work is based on very good science.

“I couldn’t think of a better group of people to assemble to try to fix a consistently broken system.”

Mr. Lang and Mr. Rothschild gave an overview of some of their plans, which, in part, would reorganize the management tool of “catch shares,” which concentrates the number of fish that can be caught into the hands of larger companies, effectively cutting small-scale fishing operations out of the business.

“The agenda is driven by people who don’t know anything about the fishing industry,” said Mr. Lang. “They’re turning it into a commodity.”

“When I left office and went back to making a living [as an attorney], I was trying to figure out where I was going to make an impact next,” he added. “I was still heavily involved in the fishing industry. Now we’re raising money to organize a foundation to exist in perpetuity.”

Mr. Rothschild said he wants to focus on highlighting the first and eighth of the ten federal standards listed in the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The first focuses on not overfishing, but getting the optimum yield from fisheries. The eighth focuses on understanding the needs of the fishing community.

He added that environmental factors need to be taken into account in fisheries such as the North Atlantic cod fishery, which collapsed in the mid-80s, in part, he said, due to a warm winter which caused a pool of fresh water in the Labrador Sea, which prevented nutrients in the North Atlantic from overturning.

“None of this had anything to do with overfishing,” he said.

East Hampton’s fishing advocate, Arnold Leo, said he was confused by limits on striped bass, which is a predator that eats other commercial species like winter flounder, eels and river herring.

“They’re obviously huge predators. We would never let the dogfish population run wild like that,” agreed Dr. Rothschild.

But, he said, scientists could equally look at a fish that has a high natural mortality rate and say that more of those fish should be caught before they are eaten in the wild.

He said he recently attended a fisheries meeting called by Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, at which every person in the room had a different idea on how the fisheries should be managed.

“That’s what we’re here for,” he said. “We want to get the facts on the table, which will be undeniable. Then we need the political support to get the job done. There’s been no common thrust to get a particular job done.”

Mr. Lang said fishermen are willing to use tracking devices to monitor their catches to give the government a better idea of what’s truly going on in the fishery than they currently get from human observers.

“They’re saying we’re overfishing, but the fishermen aren’t fishing,” he said. “We’ve got dozens and dozens of boats tied up, not having gone out in a couple years.”

“Fishermen are really the conservationists of the sea. They perceive changes earlier than anybody else,” he said. “We need to bring that into the system. We need to get a group of scientists to the table to have the ability to put together the kind of reports we need.”

Mr. Lang is hoping for support from the House of Representatives.

“There’s somebody on the Hill that likes us. I don’t know who, but they’re looking for a way to open the door to get us more fish,” he said. “The House is completely non-functional, but it will be functional on something that says we need to reform government in a way to help people. We have green alliances on both sides of the aisle.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, 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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