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Our Great Fishermen in Need of Relief

July 18, 2017
Press Release
Op-ed Written by Congressman Lee Zeldin (NY-01)

On Long Island, so much of our economy and way of life are connected to the water around us. Fishing is a treasured part of our identities as Long Islanders. Yet today, the current flaws in the management of our fisheries aren't just raising costs for commercial fishermen and charter boat captains- it also hurts all the small businesses in the coastal economy, including restaurants, bait & tackle shops, hotels, and gas stations. Quite candidly, it is also making this pastime just nowhere near as much fun as it used to be either. As the Representative for New York’s First Congressional District, which is almost entirely surrounded by water, I am committed to supporting our fishermen and ensuring this tradition is preserved for generations to come.

The current management of our fisheries has created a web of unnecessary restrictions on our local anglers. For example, just last week, regulators gave final approval to a confusing set of requirements that call for a one inch difference in the size limit for fluke, 18 inches for New Jersey anglers, but 19 inches for New York. There is also a proposed regulation that would create two separate sets of rules for blackfish, one for the North Shore, and one for the South Shore. Current rules in our state also limit anglers to only one striped bass and weakfish per day. A rule like this is very damaging to the fishing industry. Many people just aren’t going to spend all the money it costs to go out on a charter boat if they can only catch and keep one fish. Using flawed, outdated data to justify that bad rule makes even less sense. New York representatives on regional councils have to do much more to fight for our fishermen because we continue to get rolled at the table by other coastal states that take a much more proactive role within these councils, getting better quotas for their states while New York anglers do not get their fair share. Additionally, these decisions on fishing regulations are being made using old, obsolete data, which has not been updated in years. There is no reason that our fishermen should be held back by numbers and figures that may have had relevance in years prior, but simply do not apply in 2017.

I have long worked hard to get various victories across the finish line for our fishermen. In 2011, for example, as a member of the New York State Senate, I led the successful effort to repeal the Saltwater Fishing License Fee. My efforts have continued in Congress. In February, I reintroduced my legislation from the 114th Congress, the Local Fishing Access Act (H.R. 1195). This bill will provide Long Island anglers with relief from confusing and burdensome regulations, by reforming the federal law that bans striped bass fishing in the Block Island transit zone, which are federal waters between Montauk, New York, and Block Island, Rhode Island. Striped bass fishing has been banned in these waters since 1990, and yet commercial and recreational fishing is allowed for dozens of other species. Passage of this legislation will allow Long Island’s fishermen to once again enjoy striped bass fishing off the coast of Montauk, both commercially and recreationally, and to make sure that a nice day on the water doesn’t suddenly turn into a federal crime when a vessel drifts from state to federal waters.

In addition, H.R. 244, legislation which was recently passed by Congress and signed by the President, includes $72.5 million for the National Sea Grant College Program. This important program works with local oyster growers, fishermen, watermen, and other businesses in the coastal economy to grow and sustain their business models, connecting them to local resources to share best practices, and helping them navigate a complex patchwork of state and federal coastal zone management regulations through technical assistance. Alongside Congressman Joe Courtney (CT-02), I also led a bipartisan group of 95 members of the House in sending a letter which called on the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies to continue their support for Sea Grant. With imported seafood making up 90% of American seafood consumption, this program works to help strengthen the ranks of Long Island’s local fishermen and shellfish farmers.

We must also support our shellfish industry, a historic and rapidly growing industry on Long Island. Blue Point oysters, which originated in the Great South Bay, are now a highly sought after, world famous commodity, and the oyster trade has long been a prominent feature of our district’s economy and heritage. That is why, as part of the Congressional Shellfish Caucus, I've joined my bipartisan colleagues in pushing the Food and Drug Administration to end the impasse over European Union and United States trade negotiations over the import and export of oysters. Long Island’s oyster farmers need access to markets and restaurants in Europe to grow their businesses. Improving water quality is also absolutely paramount in this effort as well. Overdevelopment of waterfront properties, pollution, stormwater runoff, nitrogen loading, harmful algae blooms, and lack of adequate flushing of waterways are all contributing factors to reduced water quality that have caused severely negative consequences for the shellfish population over the past few decades. That is why so many environmental efforts like fully funding the National Estuary Program, which I have long supported, are so vital. 

While all of this will help to advance the interests of our fishermen, there is still so much more than can be done in Congress to aid this effort, such as thoroughly reforming the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. This is the main law that governs recreational and commercial fishing in our nation; however, while it was first enacted in 1976, it has not been updated in a decade. Our home, and our fishermen, are unique and they should be treated as such. Reforming the Magnuson-Stevens Act also presents the opportunity to fix New York’s issue regarding Fishery Management Councils (FMCs) and allow our anglers to receive the fair share they have long deserved. Also as part of Magnuson reform, there needs to be improvement in the data and science used to create federal fishery management plans, as well as an improved framework that makes quotas and regulations flexible to each region and species. Maintaining healthy fish stocks is incredibly important, and our fishermen understand this; however this horribly flawed data only results in needlessly limited size and catch limits which serve no one. Without addressing this need, America’s fishermen will continue to suffer under a one-size-fits-all approach that hurts our industry and allows other nations to overtake our markets with their cheap, imported seafood. Last year, the commercial bluefish fishery in New York almost shut down mid-season due to a misguided ruling by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that New York went over its quota for 2015, a decision based off of old data and poor science. While NOAA took a second look at the data that was outdated and wrong and revised their plan, allowing commercial blue fishing to continue, this decision should have never been made in the first place. 

In addition to these initiatives, there are other efforts required outside of Congress to give Long Island’s fishing industry a much needed boost. As such, it is imperative that all necessary levels of government come together to cut through the red tape and help grow this industry, including implementing improved permit practices for our commercial fishermen. While a thriving and successful fishing industry is just within our grasp, restricted access to needed permits continues to limit this potential. Industry experts have long derided this cumbersome process which is in dire need of reform. The time is right to change the burdensome licensing and permit procedures that put a cap on this industry’s ability to succeed. 

There remains much more that can be done to reinvigorate fishing and shellfish farming. Saltwater fishing is a cherished part of our heritage, and as members of an island community, it is so important that we never let this important aspect of our culture and economy fade away. A single act of Congress cannot resolve all of these challenges, but progress must be pursued in any available direction. We were raised to enjoy the bounties of these waters, and now, we have the pleasure of raising our families here as well. Tens of thousands of residents on Long Island and in surrounding areas utilize this unique resource and need our help.

Congressman Zeldin represents the First Congressional District of New York, and serves on the House Financial Services and Foreign Affairs Committees.