Strained Fluke Quotas, Hurricanes and Safe Harbor
Case of fisherman bound for North Carolina caught in José’s rough seas highlights inadequacies in interstate fishing regulations
by Beth Young
Less than a month after a bill granting vessels safe harbor in New York was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a fishing vessel bound for North Carolina carrying 6,000 pounds of fluke has tested the new policy, straining New York’s federally designated fluke quotas.
The F/V Rianda S., which has long been a part of the Montauk fleet, was in transit to land its fish in North Carolina, where it has fishing licenses, on Sept. 17 after fishing in federal waters when it encountered the rough seas generated by Hurricane José and requested safe harbor in Montauk.
New York’s fluke fishery is closed for the month of September, due to banner fluke landings this summer that strained the state’s already low federally mandated quotas.
The law granting safe harbor, sponsored by South Fork State Assemblyman Fred Thiele and East End State Senator Kenneth LaValle, allowed vessels fishing with licenses from other states immunity from prosecution for violations of state fishing regulations if they seek safe harbor under certain emergency situations, including weather, mechanical breakdown, medical emergencies and loss of essential gear that renders vessels unable to remain at sea.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) guidelines for safe harbor were drawn with input from commercial fishermen after an incident in January 2015, when the arrival of bad weather forced a commercial fisherman with New Jersey fishing permits to land his fish in Hampton Bays instead of continuing on to New Jersey.
He was charged with illegally landing nearly 10 times the amount of fluke allowed under New York State regulations. The court dismissed the criminal charges, however, because there had been no state statute that clearly defined how commercial fishermen operating with out-of-state fishing permits could seek safe harbor in New York when under duress.
In the case of the F/V Rianda S., the New York DEC worked out an agreement with North Carolina to transfer 3,000 pounds of its federally mandated fluke quotas to New York, and to require the captain of the F/V Rianda S. to donate the remaining 3,000 pounds of fluke to Long Island food pantries, “to discourage questionable decisions to fish in advance of a hurricane,” according to the DEC.
“New York will never turn a blind eye to ships in need during severe weather, but we take very seriously our responsibility to carefully manage our state’s fishery and our commercial fishermen,” said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. “We commend our counterparts in North Carolina for working with us on a plan to ensure these fish do not go to waste. We need to see the same level of cooperation from federal fisheries regulators to equitably distribute fluke quotas in the Atlantic.”
The DEC closed New York’s commercial fluke fishery for the month of September, due to high landings that strained the quotas this summer. The state has just 40,000 pounds left in its quota for the year, and despite the fact that the fish are being donated, 3,000 pounds of fluke will still be deducted from the state’s quota.
“With the fishing season currently closed in New York, state officials did not think it was appropriate for this captain to profit at the expense of New York’s commercial fishing industry,” according to the DEC. “The only other alternative left to state marine fishery managers (other than donation) would be to allow 3,000 pounds of fluke to go to waste.”
“If all southern New England and mid-Atlantic states were treated equally for fluke, this would be a non-story,” said Bonnie Brady, Executive Director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association. “If fluke was managed as a coastwide quota instead of a state-by-state system, the Rianda would have fished and then landed at home, instead of needing to steam south for two days. José had other plans, unfortunately, requiring them to take safe harbor. This federally-regulated state-by-state quota system that created winners and losers, with New York always losing, needs fixing and must stop discrimination between residents of different states when assigning fish allocations and compromising the safety of New York fishermen.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service does not currently allow for any quota waivers for emergency landings of fish for a ship requesting safe harbor and counts any fish against the quota of the state where the fish are landed.
“New York’s quota is already low due to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s continued reliance on outdated and incomplete historical landing records for the fluke fishery,” according to the DEC. “This issue highlights the need for a more equitable distribution of fluke quota between Atlantic states.”
The DEC is calling on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to revise their methodology and more evenly distribute fluke quotas along the coast.