A decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare the Atlantic sturgeon an endangered species has met with severe resistance from East End fisherman who feel it will have a significantly negative impact on near-shore gillnet fisheries.
“Worst-case scenario is a complete ban of using gillnets for a distance of 25 fathoms, about 150 feet, from the offshore fishery to shore,” said Arnold Leo, secretary of the East Hampton Town Baymen’s Association. “That would essentially eliminate the monkfish industry.”
According to the Endangered Species Act, knowingly harming, wounding or killing an endangered species is a punishable offense, and gillnets—even those intended for other species of fish—can pose a threat to the Atlantic sturgeon, who live in nearshore coastal areas when not spawning and can grow to be up to 14 feet long and 800 pounds.
Though the tangible impacts on the area’s fishing industries are still unknown—the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Mid-Atlantic Fishing Management Council are currently discussing how to deal with the designation—there is little doubt that it can have a dramatic impact on commercial and recreational fishing. In addition to monkfish, other industries at risk are those gillnet fisheries for striped bass and bluefish.
The designation comes despite the fact that there has been a harvest moratorium on Atlantic sturgeon in New York since 1996. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission banned possession of Atlantic sturgeon in all coastal Atlantic states in 1998.
“The data that they used was extremely faulty and not sufficient to warrant such an extreme measure,” said Leo of the designation.
Leo voiced his concerns in a December 2010 letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) opposing the then-proposal to list the Atlantic sturgeon as endangered. Among his concerns with the designation is that the NMFS confused distinct varieties of sturgeon and that they did not take into consideration data indicating that populations of sturgeon are coming back.
Others echo Leo’s sentiment that the designation was not based on sufficient scientific studies.