20 Years Ago: Dan’s Papers July 24, 1992

A bunch of people are going to stage a protest on July 28. What they are going to do that is illegal is go fishing with a haulsein net. (Haul seining is illegal.) They are going to catch some striped bass (also illegal this time of year unless you are a sport fisherman.) And they are going to “possess’” these fish. (There is a fine of up to $500 for each fish possessed.) And then they are going to take them home and eat them.

Incidentally, there is nothing wrong with that. The striped bass which are caught in the waters of eastern Long Island are good for you—free of any chemicals or any other harmful things—and there is no law against eating them.

Not yet anyway.

Pretty ridiculous, isn’t it? And yet, that is the convoluted state of affairs that our State of New York has gotten itself into trying to regulate the catching and “possessing” of striped bass.

Where did these rules come from? In the mid-1970’s, it was discovered that the GE plant upstate on the Hudson River was dumping a chemical called PCB into the river and this chemical was getting into the fish. Tests were taken. And for many years, no striped bass fish at all could be caught because they were considered hazardous to your health.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, however, the amount of PCBs in fish began to decline. GE was no longer dumping any into the Hudson, lawsuits were begun against them to compensate for the loss of income by many commercial striped bass fishermen, and here on the East End, the striped bass, both big and small, passed all tests regarding their safety. The dangerous levels of PCBs were gone.

In the process of all of this, however, the Atlantic Fisheries Commission came up with some numbers that would be acceptable to catch and still allow for a full replenishment every year of the species. For New York State, this meant the catch could be as much as 1.2 million pounds a year. How New York State wanted to divide this up amongst all the different people trying to catch the fish was its business.

And it was a political business. Politics as usual.

The State allows only 10% of the 1.2 million pound total be caught by commercial fishermen. The remaining 90% may be caught by people with sport fishing boats. The sport fishing industry is a very big one after all.

Of the 10% allowed to commercial fishermen, 1/3 of it is to be taken by commercial charter fishermen, surfcasters and commercial rod and reel boats and 2/3 of it can be taken by commercial netting. Dragging is legal, pound traps are legal, gill nets are legal. Haul seining is illegal.

Why haul seining is illegal is a complete mystery. No studies of it involving volume have ever been made. If you are unfamiliar with it, haul seining is an ancient art involving five men, one boat, two three quarter ton trucks, a 300 foot net and at least two Labrador retrievers. The men launch the boat through the surf with one end of a 300 foot net attached to a pickup truck on the sand and a second end attached to a winch on board. The boat pulls the net away from shore and parallel to it. Meanwhile a third end of the net is attached to a second truck on the sand several hundred yards away from the first. Fish are trapped in this triangle net, the net is pulled to the shore and the fish put into ice buckets.

Only about six crews were actively haul seining in Southampton and East Hampton Township when the activity was banned in the mid-1980s. It was banned for stripers only, but since stripers fetch about $2 a pound and bluefish fetch about 10 cents a pound, it effectively put an end to it.

The State laws involving size of striped bass, the beginning and end of the striped bass season and other matters are revised every year. For 1992, due to a bureaucratic mess, the laws were not issued for the commercial fishermen until three weeks ago. (Of course, for the sport fishermen with their heavy political clout, the laws were issued early in the spring. Nobody was going to miss the sport fishing season.)

The East Hampton Town Baymen’s Association, which is organizing the protest on Saturday July 28 is objecting to the failure of the state to properly announce the commercial fishing season—what are they supposed to do, not eat or pay their bills until the word comes down?—the law banning haul seining, and the almost arbitrary laws regarding the size of fish that can be caught whether they be 24 to 29 inches or over 36 inches or one fish a day or whatever.

Many people, including singer Billy Joel, have offered to get themselves arrested by “possessing’” a fish caught by the haul seiners, but the East Hampton Town Baymen’s Association will decide how many will actually violate the law since each arrest costs $500 in fines per fish and the organization only has a limited budget.

It’s sort of a legal limit on law violators.

There is to be a meeting this Sunday at Scoville Hall in the Amagansett Presbyterian Church by everyone involved in the protest. Everyone is welcome to attend, but you should arrange it by calling Arnold Leo.

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