Fishing fleet floundering under blackfish ban

Empty line: Greg Nardiello, captain of the recreational fishing vessel Ocean Eagle in Sheepshead Bay, can barely make ends meet ever since the season for his winter staple, the blackfish, was cut by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

Sheepshead Bay’s recreational fishing fleet is reeling from a state edict that shortened the little known, but quite lucrative, blackfish fishing season — a business-killing measure that many now claim was based on faulty fish statistics.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation shortened the 2012 Blackfish fishing season — which usually runs from October until April — for recreational casters by 70 days, forcing it to end in January. The agency also increased the minimum size limit of the catch by 2 inches, so that many of the Blackfish that were hooked had to be returned to the sea.

Charter boat captains say blackfish — which are also known as tautog and oyster fish and taste like cod or flounder — are a winter staple for fishermen trolling borough waters. Now that the blackfish season has been cut short in New York, their business has been cut by nearly 60 percent as recreational anglers go to New Jersey, they say.

“In a time of economic hardship why we’d want to send business out of state is beyond me,” said Greg Nardiello, captain of the recreational vessel Ocean Eagle, which used to troll for the ugly, but tasty, water breathers nicknamed “the poor man’s lobster.” “Blackfish is really the big ticket fish in the winter season. Now people are heading to New Jersey for it.”

But it didn’t have to be this way, fishing experts claim. The statistics released by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which encouraged the state to cut the blackfish season short after determining that the blackfish population needed to be replenished, were wildly inaccurate, they said.

Even the Fisheries Commission admitted that their numbers were off base: in a statement released on March 7, the agency admitted that their determination to reduce blackfish fishing by 53 percent was an overestimation and only a 37 percent reduction was necessary — meaning that the blackfish season could have could have extended.

A state Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman said the agency didn’t intend to hurt Sheepshead Bay’s fishing fleet, but was required to set new recreational and commercial fishing rules for blackfish casting after the Fisheries Commission said it was necessary to rebuild the blackfish population.

State officials will hold a meeting later this month to discuss changes in the Fisheries Commission’s policy, but area fishermen fear that the damage has already been done, and that, while the blackfish population may recover, the Sheepshead Bay party boat business, which was New York’s port of call for blackfish anglers, will never return to its former glory.

“At one time there used to be 50 boats out in Sheepshead Bay, but the fleet has shrunk to where there’s only three boats out there,” said Steve Cannizzo, a retired marine law enforcement detective and owner of www.fishingunited.com, an online forum for recreational and commercial fishermen. “People used to come from Northern New Jersey and Staten Island, because the captains were great guys who could really fill up your pale, but the regulations are so stiff now that it’s just not worth it.”

Reach reporter Colin MIxson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4514.

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