Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY-1) sponsored the amendment on an approved House appropriations bill that prohibits the Coast Guard and NOAA Fisheries from enforcing a moratorium on striped bass in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) surrounding Block Island, Rhode Island. This House approved amendment is bad for the fish and fisheries management. Block Island Sound fishermen will be able to take more fish with this amendment. More large, often egg bearing fish will be killed with this act, which could lead to a further striped bass stock decline. Fishermen need to mobilize to prevent this bill from becoming law. The EEZ extends from the shoreline out to 200 nautical miles and includes state waters which generally extend three miles from shore. The EEZ was established to give sovereign states control of waters in the area for such activities as fishing, oil and gas exploration, (and now windfarms).
EEZ striped bass fishing is a bad idea
First, the proposed action is not based on science but rather politics, with Rep. Zeldin doing the bidding of primarily New York charter & party boats, which simply want to take more fish by being allowed to fish in the EEZ. What impact this will have on striped bass stocks is unknown. Second, this amendment will lead to the killing of many additional large egg-bearing striped bass as these are the fish that are targeted in this area by commercial fisherman, party and charter boats and private anglers. This fish stock has a Spawning Stock Biomass (SSB) of 129 million pounds, which is just hovering above the threshold of 127 million pounds, and well below the target of 150 million pounds. Third, this bill sets a bad precedent, bending national law to accommodate local fishing interests with a fish stock that belongs to the people of the United States of America. Local interests circumventing national fishing law is a recipe for disaster, as was the case with summer flounder off the coast of New Jersey and red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. And, who in New England can forget the political pressure that was placed upon managers to fish cod to almost extinction. In 2017 Rep. Zeldin sponsored H.R. 1195 – Local Fishing Access Act, which did not pass. This bill would have authorized NOAA to permit and regulate Atlantic striped bass fishing in the Block Island Sound Transit Zone. The transit zone is the area of federal waters within Block Island Sound, located between areas south of Montauk Point, New York, and Point Judith, Rhode Island. The appropriations bill Rep. Zeldin tagged with his amendment refers to this same transit zone. George Allen, past vice president and legislation committee chair of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association said, “Allowing these fish to be killed in the EEZ is a travesty. Select boats have been illegally fishing in the EEZ with poor enforcement already. Now with NOAA and the Coast Guard not enforcing law, the flood gates will be open to New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Rhode Island boats that will hammer these fish.” Many of the fish caught in this area have historically been some of the largest northeast striped bass consistently in the 30, 40 and 50 pound range. These larger fish are often egg bearing females.
It’s a federal fishing law for a reason
Fishing for striped bass is prohibited in the EEZ since the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, which was approved in 1984. The Act made striped bass fall into a unique federal-state interjurisdictional management category, now managed by states through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission but also with management backed by the Federal government. No doubt the Federal Government is in charge of striped bass. The Act states, “The Secretary shall promulgate regulations governing fishing for Atlantic striped bass in the exclusive economic zone that the Secretary determines – (1) are consistent with the national standards… (2) are compatible with the Plan and each Federal moratorium in effect… (3) ensure the effectiveness of State regulations…; and (4) are sufficient to assure the long-term conservation of Atlantic striped bass populations.” Rhode Island and Massachusetts played a big role in striped bass fisheries management. In 1981 Senator John Chafee (R-RI) became an advocate for striped bass obtaining millions in funding to conduct important research on the dwindling species which led (in 1984) to Representative Gerry Studds’ (R-MA) sponsoring the Striped Bass Conservation Act in the House.
Conflicting points of view on the issue
There are mixed feelings about allowing fishing in the EEZ. Some charter captains, private anglers and commercial fishermen want to open the EEZ. They say many boats often break the law now, so why give law-breakers the advantage and not allow everyone to take these fish? Capt. Rick Bellavance of the Rhode Island Party & Charter Boat Association said, “We are taking no official stand on the issue as some members believe we should be allowed to fish in the EEZ. Yet others are concerned about party boats throughout the region sitting on these fish and really doing them damage.” Greg Vespe, president of the Aquidneck Island Striper Team and mate on Flippin Out Charters, Middletown, RI said, “For some who followed the rules this will probably be welcomed, since the other option of enforcing it has largely been a total failure. Now it’s an even playing field. As a tournament fisherman I can certainly say I am tired of competing against guys going over the line. Watching it night after night gets old. I didn’t like it when it was enacted and I haven’t liked it since, but at least I wanted it enforced if it existed.” Doug MacPherson, recreational fishermen and RISAA legislative watch committee chair said, “This was a nasty rider on the appropriations bill. NOAA’s budgets overall are being slashed to an extent that will probably cripple their ability to continue their current mission. We should write our congressional delegations on the issue.”
Let’s take action
Rep. Zeldin’s amended bill is a special interest bill that promotes the self-interests of New York charter and party boats. They will do harm to large egg bearing striped bass, which in turn could damage the fishery for all. The bill also sets a bad precedent for fishery managers, reinforcing that states and regions should look out for themselves rather than adhere to strong federal fishing laws that safeguard the fish in the interest of all Americans. So I say let’s make some noise on this one and write our U.S. Senators and Representatives, as this is just the tip of the iceberg on weakening the law so that special interests can overfish