Photo: Capt. Dave Monti with Block Island striped bass. Large striped bass have been caught on the Three Mile Line at the Southwest Ledge off Block Island. Many claim opening up the EEZ would kill many more fish with great spawning potential.
Block Island is arguably one of the best striped bass fisheries in the Northeast. Large striped bass weighing in at 30, 40 and 50 pounds (fish with prime spawning potential) have been taken there for many years.
It is legal to retain fish within the three-mile limit around Block Island. The south, southeast and north sides of the island and specifically the Southwest Ledge area (within the three-mile limit) all have been targeted by anglers, not just from Rhode Island but from New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut as well.
It is illegal to fish for striped bass outside the three-mile limit in federal waters in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). However, fishermen and charter captains claim that some fishermen have and do fish there illegally. This has angered many fishermen who fish in legal areas. Although several arrests have been made in the area in the past few years, the area is difficult to enforce as it is far from shore. In addition, commercial fishermen, private anglers and charter boats can reap great benefits from fishing there, encouraging them to break the law.
Lawmakers have a history of introducing federal legislation to open up fishing in the EEZ in the Block Island transit zone, which is the area of federal waters within Block Island Sound, located between areas south of Montauk Point, New York, and Point Judith, Rhode Island. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-New York), who has been lobbied primarily by the Montauk, NY charter and party boat industry, has spearheaded these efforts. Rep. Zeldin has said, “One of the top legislative priorities of Long Island fishermen is the need to clarify the federal regulations regarding striped bass fishing in the small area of federally controlled waters between Montauk, New York and Block Island.”
The aim of Rep. Zeldin’s proposed legislation over the years (see historical account written by Charles Witek) is to open the EEZ at Block Island. His bills have never passed both the House and Senate to become law.
However, two directives pertaining to the EEZ are written into the NOAA’s Omnibus Appropriations bill for 2019. The first directive from the administration to NOAA Fisheries is to explore opening the entire EEZ on the east coast to striped bass fishing, and the second directive is to explore opening striped bass fishing in the Block Island transit zone. Both of these are to be done in ‘consultation’ with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).
At the August 2018 ASMFC Striped Bass Board meeting, Derek Orner, Fishery Management Specialist for NOAA Fisheries and its representative on the Striped Bass Board said, “NOAA has been directed to explore opening up the EEZ for striped bass fishing overall and second to explore opening the Block Island Transit Zone around Block Island. NOAA Fisheries is seeking the Board’s input today on the Block Island proposal specifically.”
Opening up the entire EEZ for striped bass fishing has been put on hold until a new stock assessment is completed in early 2019. In an interview last week Orner said, “Opening up the Block Island transit zone to striped bass fishing will benefit anglers and the fishing industry by improving coordination in that area.” During the week of Octomber 1, 2018NOAA Fisheries introduced an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule Making (ANPRM) for public comment to allow striped bass fishing in the Block Island Transit Zone. The rule was posted in the Federal Register with a 45 day written comment period that ends November 19, 2018.
Robert Ballou, ASMFC and striped bass board member from Rhode Island (and special assistant to Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management director Janet Coit) said to Orner that opening up the EEZ around Block Island was “very controversial in Rhode Island. Proceed with extreme caution as the issue will receive a lot pf push back on both sides of the issue.”
At the Board meeting Capt. John McMurray said, “In the public comment document will there be any analyses on the impact on the striped bass spawning stock biomass (SSB) or F (fishing) rates.” Orner said, “Not likely” but that such information would come later.
Orner said, “Once public comment from the Advanced Notice is received along with input from the ASMFC, a Draft Proposal will be written and published in the Federal Register with a comment period. The Proposal could be reviewed at public hearings and/or just by a written comment period. This is likely to occur in April or March of 2019. The proposal would have specific information in it with options relating to the impact on striped bass SSB, the impact of a short term or long-term opening, etc.”
When asked who will make the final decision, Orner said, “The ultimate decision to open the EEZ in the Block Island transit zone would be made by NOAA Fisheries, specifically NOAA Fisheries chief Chris Oliver.”
Fishing community reaction
The fishing community in Rhode Island is sure to express its point of view once the comment period opens on the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule Making. However, earlier this year Representative Zeldin proposed an amendment to the House Appropriations Bill ordering NOAA Fisheries and the Coast Guard not to enforce the “no striped bass fishing rule in the Block Island transit zone.” At that time the fishing community in Rhode Island had the following to say about the proposed amendment.
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. The flood gates will be open to New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Rhode Island boats that will hammer these fish.”
Capt. Rick Bellavance of the Rhode Island Party & Charter Boat Association said, “Some members believe we should be allowed to fish in the EEZ as other for-hire vessels are fishing there anyway illegally. 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 RISSA board member 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. 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, “The appropriations bill amendment was nasty. 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.”
EEZ striped bass fishing is a bad idea
The proposed action is not based on science but rather politics, with Rep. Zeldin doing the bidding of primarily New York charter & party boats that simply want to take more fish by being allowed to fish in the EEZ. This action will lead to the killing of many additional large fish that have a great spawning potential as these large fish are the fish that are targeted in this area. Currently, this fish stock has a spawning stock biomass of 129 million pounds that is just hovering above the threshold of 127 million pounds, and well below the target of 150 million pounds. What impact opening up the EEZ will have on the striped bass spawning stock is unknown.
Opening up the EEZ runs counter to the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act (Pub. L. 100-589, 16 U.S.C. 5151, et seq.) that sets forth the basis for Federal striped bass regulatory authority. Under the act, Federal Atlantic striped bass regulations must comply with among other things “(4) be sufficient to assure the long-term conservation of Atlantic striped bass populations.”
My second reason for opposing this proposed action is that it 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, fish, and fish cod to almost extinction.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act, the fishing law of this nation, has provisions to make sure our fisheries benefit the entire nation and not just one interest group or one geographic area to the detriment of the rest of the nation or the fish. This action would kill more fish for the benefit of just a few and would set another precedent for putting economic gain over the growth and survival of a fishery.
We need to keep our national fishing law, the Magnuson Stevens Act, strong to ensure the conservation of all fish stocks and to grow them to abundance so there are more for all of us to catch and eat.