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Old 03-17-2009, 01:00 AM
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Default LI commercial fishermen expect hard times to get harder

Long Island Newsday Story march 15 2009

Commercial fishing captain Sandy Mason stands near his boat, Vincenzo, which is for sale in Hampton Bays. (Photo by Doug Kuntz / March 6, 2009)

Mark Harrington
Commercial fishing for summer flounder re-opened in New York waters on March 1, but the Shinnecock II, a hulking black-and-white trawler, remained moored in Hampton Bays, its name all but obliterated by rust.
J.J. Hand, 44, the boat's third-generation owner, hasn't fished for more than a year, after taking a job on a tugboat out of Brooklyn. A fisherman since his teens, Hand is facing the hard economics of fishing on Long Island: His home is in foreclosure, and spiking fuel costs, tightening regulations and mounting debt have kept him out of full-time fishing. His 70-foot boat was once valued at $300,000; a scrap dealer recently offered him $2,000 for the boat, which is 30 years old.

"Everything started going downhill, and it just snowballed," he said.

Faced with the likely closure of federal fishing grounds for winter flounder from the Gulf of Maine to southern New England on May 1, fishermen say the hard economics of commercial fishing on Long Island are about to worsenThe commercial fishing catch landed at Shinnecock fell by half between 2000 and 2006 - from 13.7 million pounds to 6.1 million, according to federal statistics. It's down by nearly two-thirds from a 1995 high of 17.8 million pounds. Montauk landings are down 10 to 15 percent from the late 1990s, and commercial ground-fishing permits for New York fishermen have dropped from a high of nearly 400 in 1992 to just over 100 last year.

The decline is visible at the Shinnecock Commercial Dock in Hampton Bays. Fourteen of the 18 commercial boats at the town-owned dock are on the selling block; last year, two were sold to scrappers, fishermen say.

Bob Soleau, owner of Soleau's Wharf adjacent to the town dock, said 35 to 40 boats fished out of the port 10 years ago, and he oversaw three busy fish-packing facilities. These days, he said, 20 to 22 boats regularly work from the port, and he's down to one packing house. Fuel sales are a third of what they used to be. "It's a tough way to make a living," said Soleau, who has sold his five commercial boats during that decade of decline.


One of the boats still for sale at Shinnecock belongs to Sandy Mason, 67, who fishes out of Shinnecock and is on the Marine Resources Advisory Council, a citizens' committee convened by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. He was one of many local fishermen stung last summer when the price of diesel fuel hit $4.60 a gallon, though it settled back down to $2.20 and on Friday was $2.50.

But he and other fishermen said longer-term issues, including dizzying restrictions and seasonal quota changes, stack the deck against the local fleet. The fuel-price spike last summer led many fishermen faced with daily catch limits to forgo trips to federal waters.

Federal catch ratios, for instance, favor boats from four other coastal states whose fleets fish alongside Long Island boats - often in the waters off New York.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said in an e-mail last week that he is calling for a single coastwide standard for catch limits for each state, "not one that unfairly punishes New York and Long Island."

Just last week, fisherman Mason said, a trawler from Wanchese, N.C., that had docked near his boat in Shinnecock caught its state's 10,000-pound weekly limit of summer flounder in 42 hours, and returned home to unload the fish. But when the quota for summer flounder for Long Island's commercial fishermen re-opened March 1, the daily catch limit was just 150 pounds. The problem: New York fishermen are not allowed to combine daily limits into a weekly haul - meaning they must gas up and steam to the fishing grounds each day to hit the quota. It can make the four-hour trip unfeasible.

"We're basically on a fixed income," said Bruce Beckwith, 60, a commercial fisherman out of Montauk for 45 years. "We're all just squeaking by."


Fishermen say they understand the need for limits to protect species, but question the logic of New York's rules and its low proportion of the federal quotas.

Even those who enforce the rules agree they need revising.

"It's just a nightmare," said Jim Gilmore, chief of the DEC's Bureau of Marine Resources. The DEC has said it would switch to weekly limits, but never moved forward with the plan. Steve Heins, another DEC official, said the weekly rule couldn't be enacted this year because of a staff shortage. He expects it to be in place next year.

The state-by-state allotments are based on the amount of fish caught by each state's fleets in the 1980s, but that data has been debated for years. Still, the result is New York fishermen get 7.6 percent of the annual federally set allotment of summer flounder, compared with 27.4 percent for North Carolina, 21 percent for Virginia and 16 percent for New Jersey. The ratios pay no regard to where the fish are caught.

"We may have the largest percentage of the fishery, but we're not getting a fair share of the fish," Gilmore said. Many fish species, including striped bass, summer flounder, porgies and dogfish have rebounded since declines of the past two decades, a turning of the tides that some scientists say has bolstered predators at the expense of winter flounder and weakfish, which remain troubled.

Toni Kerns, senior fisheries management plan coordinator at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an agency with representation from coastal states that sets the limits, said the commission has considered the adoption of an overall coastal limit rather than state-by-state quotas. But the proposal has been rejected, with deciding votes coming from states with a higher percentage of the catch. She said states are free to apply for a change in their quota, though a ruling would rely on data fishermen here believe way undercounted New York's tally.

Because fishermen who reach their daily allotment of 150 pounds of summer flounder continue fishing for other species to make the trip worthwhile, the trawlers are bound to catch many more summer flounder and other fish than allowed. All must go back in the water.

"We're throwing a lot of fish overboard," said Beckwith, the Montauk fisherman.


To avoid New York's restrictions, some Long Islanders are buying fishing permits to land fish in other states, costing New York tax dollars, and reducing revenue for New York ports. Billy Reed of Hampton Bays, for instance, owns two commercial boats: the North Sea, which lands fish in Shinnecock, and another, the Providence, which brings its catch to New Jersey. Reed, who paid $30,000 for the New Jersey permit, threw up his hands discussing New York's limits. Of the 30,000 gallons of fuel he bought last year, he said "probably 5,000 was waste" because of New York's trip limits.

Last month, Jon Schneider, an aide to Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), met with fishermen at the Shinnecock dock and expressed a desire to change the daily limit, including filing a lawsuit if need be.

The meeting took place at a restaurant owned by Soleau, a former commercial fisherman whose fortunes remain tied to the dock. Still, two of Soleau's sons who had been in commercial fishing now work for tugboat companies. Just like Shinnecock II owner Hand, who said he has kept his 11-year-old son far away from the trade. "I don't want him to like it," Hand said from the tugboat dock. "It's torture."
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