Fishermen Oppose Commercial Ban

Say national marine monument exclusion is unfair and unnecessary
Like other commercial vessels, the Jason and Danielle, a trawler based in Montauk, will soon be prohibited from fishing in the newly designated Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. Durell Godfrey

The first national marine monument in the Atlantic, designated last month by President Obama under the 1906 Antiquities Act, has been criticized by commercial fishermen who say it will harm their livelihoods while failing to achieve its intended purposes.

The Sept. 15 proclamation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, a nearly 5,000-square-mile area 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, was said to be based on threats to the ocean from “various uses, climate change, and related impacts.” 

Recreational fishing will not be affected, but the designation bans commercial fishing 60 days after the proclamation and also prohibits drilling and mining.

The area is home to tuna, marlin, and sharks, as well as whales, sea turtles, and plankton. The harvesting of American lobster and red crab will be allowed to continue, although it is to be phased out over seven years.

Fishermen believe a monument in the Mid-Atlantic is unnecessary and allege it was not based on science but pressure from nongovernmental environmental groups, including the Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Resources Defense Council. To exclude commercial fishermen while allowing recreational fishing makes no sense, fishermen contend. They also claim the monument will not only fail to prevent harm to non-target species such as pilot whales, but will increase interactions with them.

The proclamation states that the designation was designed in part to protect the deep-sea corals, found at depths of more than 3,900 meters, which provide spawning areas, nurseries, and shelter from predators. Bonnie Brady of Montauk, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, called that rationale “completely bogus” because the commercial fishing gear used  for highly migratory species never touches bottom. Those who fish for migratory species, she said, “are absolutely the hardest hit, losing all the canyons and the seamounts within the water column.”

David Schalit, who fishes primarily for such species from the Zerlina, based in Shinnecock Bay, said the only recreational boats that can get to the area “are the larger, or much more expensive, sportfishing vessels that cost between $1 and $4 million. They have to carry so much fuel to get there and back, it would be impossible for a smaller vessel. They’ve created an exclusive country club. . . . I don’t know that they even realize they’ve done that.”

Mr. Schalit is vice president of the American Bluefin Tuna Association. “These tuna, inhabit the top 15 percent of the water column. From a point of view of protection of deep-sea coral, it’s a nonissue. In fact, our commercial fishermen use exactly the same gear as recreational fishermen. If we allow recreational fishing, why wouldn’t we allow our form of commercial fishing?”

He called the monument area very important for commercial fishing “because all of these fish appear at different times of the year in the Northeast Canyon region. . . . We see ourselves as innocent victims of someone else’s agenda.”

“It’s a huge blow,” Hank Lackner of the Jason and Danielle, a trawler based in Montauk, said. “And there was no need for it.” Mr. Lackner cited a draft Deep Sea Corals Amendment to the Mackerel, Squid, and Butterfish Fishery Management Plan, an ongoing effort by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional councils created by the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. The amendment would protect corals by restricting fishing in select areas and restrict expansion into areas where corals are known or likely to be present. The Mid-Atlantic’s New England counterpart is drafting similar regulations.

“If we were towing there already,” Mr. Lackner said, referring to bottomlands from which commercial fishing would be banned, “it’s most likely there were no coral there unless it’s something we already go around. . . . There’s no reason to protect mud. The council truly protected coral, with a buffer zone.”

Mark Phillips, who fishes for fluke, squid, and haddock from the Greenport-based Illusion, agreed. “The funny thing, there is no coral there. It’s all sand and mud, and I’ve dragged all of that bottom. A handful of boats out of Montauk have dragged it all. There is no coral, period,” he said. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agree that many of the areas in which trawlers fish are devoid of coral, according to Ms. Brady.

Marty Scanlon of Hauppauge, a pelagic longline fisherman who owns the Provider II, said that, contrary to federal opinion, “all indicators are that stocks are booming. We’re ahead of the rebuilding model they presented originally,” he said, but “there’s no way of applying that in the regulatory process at the time. It’s a mess.”

“Those grounds are way offshore to the east,” Mr. Lackner said of the monument area. “That’s where you want the bigger boats. You don’t want us guys sitting right south of Montauk. We go far offshore, we don’t add to any depletion going on locally. We work on stocks that are rich and vibrant, most of the time 150, 200 miles from the land. That’s part of what’s troubling — if they close that off, it will lump us into one area. If the council was able to do its process, we could remain spread out.”

Mr. Scanlon serves on the board of directors of the Blue Water Fishermen’s Association, and is a member of NOAA’s Atlantic Highly Migratory Species advisory panel and its pelagic longline take reduction team, the latter charged with addressing incidental mortality and injury of pilot whales. He shared Mr. Schalit’s criticism of the prohibition on commercial but not recreational fishing. “Their carbon footprint,” he said of recreational fishing,”is probably 10,000 times more negative than the pelagic longline vessels that are excluded from this area.”

He estimated that 30 vessels are in the area only three to four months a year, “as opposed to thousands of recreational boats. On top of that, those sport boats anchor at times, and that will have a direct negative impact.” “I don’t understand the logic behind closing something,” Mr. Phillips said, “and then they gave lobstermen seven years to get out of there.” The Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association opposed the monument in a statement last month. “We find it deplorable that the government is kicking the domestic fishing fleet out of an area where they sustainably harvest healthy fish stocks,” the statement read.

Nongovernmental organizations are wrong, the statement said. “There is little place for these fishermen to go that will maintain the productivity that they have worked so hard to achieve, while avoiding gear conflict, bycatch, and protected resources.”

“The more you inhibit that ability to move,” Mr. Scanlon agreed, “it hinders our ability to do what they’re asking us to do,” such as avoid interaction with protected species like whales.

Mr. Lackner called the ban “disheartening,” and pointed to environmental groups. “For them, it’s never enough. Their goal is to totally stop fishing, from what I can see. We’re the most regulated fishing fleet in the world, and all our stocks are rebuilt.

What are we trying to stop?”

The press office at the White House had not responded to an email seeking comment by noon Wednesday.