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September 21, 2007

Too Many Fish?

New York regulators implement "emergency" increases of the daily limits for bluefish and striped bass.
While this bluefish was released, New York anglers can now keep 15 just like it every day.

The New York State Depart- ment of Environmental Conservation (DEC) amended the regulations governing some popular gamefish by "emergency" regulation, precluding the opportunity for public comment prior to adoption and potentially setting a dangerous precedent.

Recent actions by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission could arguably justify new rules for fluke, scup and sea bass. But anglers may find it difficult to discern the "emergency" that justified increasing the daily bluefish bag limit from ten to 15 fish. The new regulations also abandoned the striped bass limit of one fish over 28 inches for a two-fish limit that includes one 28- to 40-inch fish and a second bass over 40 inches. By calling it an "emergency," the regulations go into effect without being subjected to public input.

Tell the regulators how you feel. Send comments to:
Byron Young
NYSDEC, 205 N. Belle Mead Rd
Suite 1
E. Setauket, NY 11733

"Emergency adoption of the striped bass and bluefish regulations appears contrary to the provisions of the State Administrative Procedures Act," said Charles Witek, Fisheries Committee Chair of Coastal Conservation Association New York. This law provides for emergency adoption of regulations only if an agency finds that the immediate adoption of a rule "is necessary for the preservation of the public health, safety or general welfare."

But Gordon Colvin, chief of the DEC Bureau of Marine Resources, said that emergency regulations were the only "practical" way to increase the bag limits this year. He failed to note why the proposed regulations were not published earlier, or how the changes preserve the public welfare. Colvin did not return e-mails or phone calls seeking clarification.

The DEC accepted public comment on the regulations after they were implemented, but most New York anglers seemed to view the emergency changes announced in April as final, believing that the if DEC was interested in public opinion, it would have sought comment.

"I saw the regulations had been implemented, and was surprised because none of us were aware of any public comment period," said Captain Ralph Burtis, secretary of New York's Professional Flyfishing and Light-Tackle Guides Association. "We just assumed there was no reason to submit letters in opposition."

At public hearings in the past, anglers overwhelmingly opposed bag-limit increases for striped bass, and it is likely that most anglers would continue such opposition. Since very few anglers kept the daily limit of ten bluefish, widespread support for the increase to 15 is equally unlikely.

Many anglers see this emergency action as pushing through a harvest increase that has long been supported by an economically interested minority while avoiding meaningful public input and public opposition.

"It's pretty obvious that very few of us want or need to keep 15 bluefish and it's scary that they can make this change without our consent," said Captain Jim Hull of Montauk. "But there are certainly a few influential business interests that cater to the folks who want to take home every fish that comes onboard, and they seem to have the ear of some important people."

While more fish may be killed as a result of the new limits, the real issue seems to be the regulators' disregard for public opinion and apparent willingness to flout state-law requirements to appease economic interests. This dangerous precedent may make it difficult for the state to say "no" to commercial fishermen who demand "emergency" increases in quotas without prior public comment. And other states could be tempted to use falsely labeled "emergency" actions on fisheries issues to avoid public comment.