Sunday, March 20, 2016
HOUSE BACKS DOWN ON EEZ STRIPER BILL
Last December, I wrote about H.R. 3070, a poorly-drafted and even more poorly conceived piece of legislation introduced by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), which would have opened up some federal waters surrounding Block Island to striped bass harvest, and turned such waters over to the states’ jurisdiction with respect to all fisheries matters.
The bill’s primary, and perhaps only substantial support, came from party and charter boat operators on the East End of Long Island, who wanted to target striped bass in areas that, for the last quarter-century or so, have been off-limits to striped bass fishing. When the House Natural Resources Committee held a field hearing on New York on December 7, 2015, only one out of the seven witnesses who testified, Capt. Joe McBride of the Montauk Boatmen’s and Captains’ Association, spoke in favor of the bill.
On the other hand, the legislation ran into substantial opposition from recreational and commercial fishermen in the region. The strongest opposition came from the State of Connecticut, where both state officials and its Congressional delegation went on record in opposition to the bill, largely because of its potential effects on Connecticut commercial fishermen who fish in federal waters that would be affected by the bill.
Recreational fishermen all along the coast also took up arms against Zeldin’s legislation. Stripers Forever, a national organization that advocates for healthy striped bass populations, issued an alert that stated, in part
“Stripers Forever regards this bill as a danger to the health and recovery of wild Atlantic striped bass. Not only will it increase pressure on striped bass stocks, but it sets a bad precedent by ceding federal waters to state control. The water that would be opened to state management—and thus commercial fishing—is well known for attracting large female stripers, the very fish on which the future of the species depends…”
The New Jersey Outdoor Alliance carried an article on its Facebook feed, in opposition to Zeldin’s bill, which began
“Bill HR 3070, sponsored by Representative Zeldin of New York would allow fishing for striped bass in a portion of the EEZ off Montauk and out toward Block Island and Rhode Island. We all know that opening of the EEZ for striped bass would result in more stripers being killed at a time that we are supposed to be conserving them.”
Up in Rhode Island, one of the most directly affected states, the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers’ Association published an editorial entitled “Keep the EEZ closed to striper fishing.” It noted that
“Currently all waters beyond three miles of the shoreline is considered ‘federal waters’ and the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). In 1990 a federal moratorium was created prohibiting fishing for striped bass in the EEZ to protect them from overfishing (especially in the south).
“An attempt to reverse this was tried in 2006, but after receiving over 8,000 public comments supporting the continued closure, NOAA [decided] to keep the closure in place.
“So now another attempt is made to create a special open zone here in our backyard. Bill H.R. 3070 was introduced by Rep. Lee Zeldin from New York and referred to the House Natural Resource Committee…
“What would happen if H.R. 3070 passed? The SW Ledge [off Block Island] would not only be inundated with Rhode Island anglers, but an armada of fishing boats from New York would flood Block Island waters.
“In an article on this subject, John McMurray, an New York Charter Captain who always sides ‘for the fish’ said, ‘The Montauk charter/party boat fleet is arguing that such a regional opening would provide economic benefits’
“’Perhaps it might,’ continued McMurray, ‘But the larger question is whether such potential economic benefits, for what appears to be a narrow special interest, trump the long term health of a public resource.’”
As I said before, the majority of the striped bass angling community was not pleased with the introduction of Rep. Zeldin’s bill...
Thus, there was some dismay in striped bass angling circles when news came out that the House Natural Resources Committee gave its unanimous approval to H.R. 3070.
Speaking personally, I was dismayed, but not surprised, as the current majority of that Committee is usually in favor of anything that provides an economic boon to narrow groups of special interests, while impairing the greater public interest in conserving America’s natural resources. Approving H.R. 3070 would have been just another step taken along the same ill-advised path.
However, things were not as simple as they originally seemed.
It turns out that the only similarity between the legislation debated at last December’s hearing and the one reported out of Committee last week was the bill number. Even the name had changed.
The original version of H.R. 3070 was entitled the “EEZ Clarification Act,” and began by stating that
“For purposes of all Federal laws governing marine fisheries management—
(1) the landward boundary of the exclusive economic zone between the area south of Montauk, New York, and the area south of Point Judith, Rhode Island, shall be considered to be a continuous line running…”
And the boundaries were set forth from there.
The new version of H.R. 3070 was provided not by Rep. Lee Zeldin, but by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ). It is entitled “EEZ Transit Zone Clarification and Access Act,” and begins
“IN GENERAL—The Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, may issue regulations to permit and regulate recreational Atlantic striped bass fishing in the Block Island Sound Transit Zone… [emphasis added]”
In other words, the bill has changed from one which threatened to open the EEZ off Block Island to striped bass fishing, and handed all fishery management responsibilities within the proposed boundaries over to the states, into one that does nothing at all.
The key is in the word “may,” which means that the Secretary of Commerce is allowed to amend current regulations to permit striped bass fishing in the so-called “transit zone” between Block Island and the mainland, but only if the Secretary should choose to do so.
And that has always been the case.
The current prohibition on striped bass fishing in the EEZ was imposed by regulation, not by legislation. The National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the Commerce Department, considered reopening the EEZ to striped bass fishing in 2006, but ultimately decided that it was the wrong thing to do. Commerce could reopen the question at any time, should it decide to do so.
So all that the current H.R. 3070 does is reaffirm the status quo. The Secretary of Commerce still has the power to open the EEZ to striped bass fishing, and the power to keep the EEZ closed.
Hopefully, the closure will continue, and H.R. 3070 will soon be lost in the mists of obscurity, a fate that it most certainly deserves.