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Expert testifies to U.S. Senate on commercial fishing

Aiming to correct imbalances, Emerson C. Hasbrouck, senior educator of Cornell Cooperative Extension's Marine Program, testified before the U.S. Senate March 19 that the federal quotas on harvesting summer flounder - also called fluke - puts New York's commercial fishermen at a disadvantage when compared with other states.

For summer flounder fishing allocations, several states enjoy expansive shares: Rhode Island, 15.7 percent; New Jersey, 16.7 percent; Virginia, 21.3 percent; and North Carolina, 27.4 percent. New York's fisheries get a mere 7.6 percent share.

In 2011, summer flounder landings in commercial fishery were 16.5 million pounds, or about 94 percent of the commercial quota, reports the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The share discrepancies stem from outdated accounting methods for catches, Hasbrouck says: "The fish did not avoid New York fishermen nor were the New York fishermen any less skilled at catching fish. The basis of the problem and of the inequity in the state-by-state allocation is the system of accounting for commercial fish landings that was in place during the baseline qualifying periods."

Hasbrouck testified before the Senate's Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, chaired by Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), at the hearing on "Developments and Opportunities in U.S. Fisheries Management." Hasbrouck was invited to testify by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chair of the full Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, at the request of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). Hasbrouck discussed the state-by-state allocation of commercial fisheries quota and the impact on New York fisheries.

He explained that since the implementation of the summer flounder fishery management plan, the summer flounder resource is now fully rebuilt and that overfishing is not occurring. "However, we are still managing a fully rebuilt stock the way we were managing a depleted stock 20 years ago. It is time to update the management of the summer flounder fishery," he says.

In the waters off Long Island, neither the distribution of fish nor the fishery is the same as they were two or three decades ago. Most of the summer flounder commercial harvest occurs outside of three miles from shore. Hasbrouck explains that New York fishermen fish alongside others from Rhode Island, New Jersey and other states - but the New York fishermen get a smaller quota and thus a smaller trip limit.

Hasbrouck urged that in considering the upcoming reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Congress provide management flexibility. "Not all species can fully respond within an arbitrary rebuilding 10-year time frame," he said, noting that three years was added to the summer flounder rebuilding period.

At the Marine Program, based at the Cornell Cooperative Extension offices of Suffolk County, Riverhead, N.Y., researchers and educators inform Long Island residents and commercial fisheries how to safeguard the marine environment and surrounding area.

Due to current fish management processes, federal quotas are set far below levels where overfishing can occur. Updating fish stock assessments can boost harvests without the threat of overfishing, says Hasbrouck. Scientists who conduct the assessments can only accomplish so much stock appraisal in any given year.

Says Hasbrouck: "Many species go several years between benchmark stock assessments. ... It has been five years between full assessments for summer flounder."

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Joe Schwartz