If you put too many restrictions on the fishing industry, it could kill off a major part of the local economy.
But if too few restrictions are in place, that could kill off the fish — in which case that economy would no longer exist.
That was the crux of the dilemma being debated at a congressional natural resources committee hearing in Riverhead Monday morning.
The title of the hearing, held at the Suffolk County Community College Culinary Arts Center, was “Restoring Atlantic Fisheries and Protecting the Regional Seafood Economy.”
Also at issue during the hearing was whether the science being relied upon as the basis for fishing regulations was the right science.
Committee chairman Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said the mid-Atlantic regional marine economy supported nearly 17 million full- and part-time jobs in 2012 and $2.7 trillion gross national product nationwide.
“Some in the fishing industry have expressed concerns that conflicting science on affected fisheries stocks has inhibited access to these resources for commercial and recreational anglers,” he said.
Current federal proposals, Mr. Bishop said, have recommended harvest reductions of 25 and 29 percent, respectively, for striped bass and summer flounder.
“This hearing will focus on the lack of science and inadequate data collection used in the management of these key species as well as other potential federal regulatory issues in the region that could hinder access to these fisheries and the hurt the regional seafood economy,” Mr. Bishop said.
East End Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and marine resources committee members Jared Huffman (D-California), and Tom MacArthur (R-New Jersey) were also on the panel, which heard testimony from federal regulators as well as from representatives of the East Coast commercial and recreational fishing industries.
“Fishing and the maritime economy have been a key part of the economy, culture, and history of Long Island for centuries and, now more than ever, our fisheries and the dedicated men and women who work in this important industry face challenges that must be addressed,” Mr. Zeldin said.
Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, said the state’s top three ports — Montauk, Shinnecock and Greenport — landed just under 20 million pounds of fish in 2013 and contributed $260 million to the coastal communities. She said commercial fishing, from a boat-to-table perspective, is a $1.4 billion industry in New York State.
Ms. Brady said some of the after-effects of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act have hurt the commercial fishing industry and she voiced support for a recent bill that would allow more flexibility in fisheries management.
That bill, which was approved in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate, claims that fishermen’s access to fish is inhibited by outdated, arbitrary scientific practices and data used in conservation methods and contends that, as a result, up to 90 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported.
But not everyone agreed with that.
Captain Patrick Paquette, a recreational fisheries owner and advocate, said such flexibility failed to preserve what he called “America’s oldest fishery” — Gulf of Maine cod. He said the use of flexibility delayed the rebuilding of the stock and paved the way for quotas so small that recreational cod fishing off the Gulf of Maine was shut down for the entirety of 2015.
“We have seen that strong conservation standards lead to more abundant and resilient fish populations, with benefits to fishermen, chefs, consumer and diners alike,” said Kerry Heffernan, who described himself as a chef, conservationist, fisherman and oyster farmer.
He cited summer flounder as a species that had been overfished and was restored by conservation measures.
Paul Rigo of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees fishing regulations, said that although recent stock assessments show that summer flounder is not currently overfished, that is likely to occur if recent catch rates continue. This concern led to federal recommendations for reduced summer flounder harvests.
“The recovery and successful management of both summer fluke and striped bass is a testament to long-term meaningful collaboration and cooperation among state and federal partners,” Mr. Rigo said.
“Rigorous science requires intense external reviews of methodologies and continuous tests of alternative hypothesis,” he added.
After the hearing, Mr. Bishop said one thing he took from the discussion was that “we have to have a process that allows public input … if you’re talking about conservation, the best guys on land are farmers and the best guys on water are fishermen, because their livelihood depends on it.”
As for the scientific methods used, he said, “The question that still has not been clearly answered is whether the data collection method is effective or not.
“We found in other areas, including one down in Florida during a similar type of hearing, that the park service was using an intern to go out and count the fish,” Mr. Bishop said. “The intern didn’t even know what end of the boat he was looking at … So the collection of the data is significant — and that’s where we have some questions as to whether NOAA is doing a good job or not.”