Washington – Connecticut’s lawmakers and state officials are trying to derail a bill would take about 150 square miles of Long Island Sound waters from federal government control and give that authority to New York and Rhode Island, a move that could hurt the state’s fishing industry.
The bill would require Connecticut fishermen to obtain permission from the neighboring states to continue to fish those waters, known as an “exclusive economic zone,” or EEZ. Members of the state’s congressional delegation say that would be a costly and burdensome process.
“We believe that this misguided legislation was crafted strategically to benefit certain states while disproportionately harming the Connecticut fishing industry,” delegation members said in a letter to the leaders of the House Natural Resources Committee.
At issue is the “EEZ Clarification Act,” sponsored by New York Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin, that would re-designate 150 square miles of federal EEZ waters in the vicinity of Block Island, between Montauk, N.Y., and Point Judith, R.I., as New York and Rhode Island state waters.
At a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing Tuesday, Zeldin said the strip of water known as the EEZ poses a threat to fishermen “who can go from fishing legally to breaking the law” by inadvertently straying into federal waters and facing fines.
“Law-abiding, responsible fishermen should not be punished for doing their job,” Zeldin said.
But a representative from the Fish and Wildlife Service and conservationist John McMurray, owner of One More Cast Charters, testified that stripping federal protections from the waters would hurt the Long Island Sound striped bass population.
“Currently, things are not exactly rosy for the striped bass,” McMurray said.
He said every year “it becomes harder and harder” to find the striped bass breeding grounds.
In their letter to the committee, Connecticut lawmakers said Zeldin’s bill “would contradict an approved 2014 addendum by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that directs states to reduce striped bass harvests by 25 percent.”
There are about 230 licensed fishing operations in Connecticut. It is not known how many of them have federal fishing licenses to allow them to operate in the EEZ.
Robert Klee, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, wrote a letter that was made part of the hearing’s record that said, “If these federal waters become state waters divided between the states of New York and Rhode Island, access to these waters will be lost to these Connecticut commercial fishermen.”
“This is already the case for lobstermen fishing in any waters that fall under R.I jurisdiction as that state prohibits non-residents from fishing for lobsters in their waters,” Klee said.
He said commercial fishing for state quota-managed species such as summer flounder, scup and black sea bass “would be greatly complicated by the fact that each state sets different daily harvest limits to manage their state quotas.” He also said the population of striped bass in the sound would be threatened.
To Zeldin, the legislation is “about increased access and local control, not restrictions.”
Connecticut shut out
Last week, the Connecticut congressional delegation objected that none of the invited witnesses at the hearing were from Connecticut.
In their letter to the committee, the lawmakers said, “We strongly urge you to include an opposing witness from Connecticut at the legislative hearing to better understand the full scope of this bill.”
As an accommodation, committee leaders on Monday invited Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, to the hearing, even though he is not a member of the House Natural Resources Committee panel.
Courtney said he and Zendin are both on the House Long Island Sound Caucus and have worked together on several things, but are on opposite sides on this issue. He also said the hearing was tilted against opponents of the bill.
“Unfortunately, today, the state of Connecticut which has 3.3 million people, is not represented, even though it will have real impact in our state,” Courtney said.
He said there has been no biological analysis of the impact of Zeldin’s bill and that it would be difficult for Connecticut fishermen to obtain non-residency fishing permits.
“This is damaging to people’s livelihood,” Courtney said.
He may have had some impact. At the end of the hearing, Zeldin indicated he may make some changes in his legislation.
“There are very easy fixes to address your concerns,” Zeldin told Courtney.