Ban on Commercial Bass Fishing in Hudson Could Be Eased

The New York Times

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April 6, 1999

TARRYTOWN, N.Y. -- New York State environmental officials provided the first detailed account Monday of the steps they may soon take to ‘reopen the long-closed commercial fishery for striped bass in part of the Hudson River -- and it immediately became clear that this would be a process fraught with contention.

There has been a ban on commercial netting of striped bass in the river since 1976, when the fish were found to contain high levels of PCB's, industrial chemicals linked to cancer. The chemicals, polychlorinated biphenyls, flowed for decades from old factory sites along the banks.

But this spring, New York State environmental scientists reported that after years of declines, PCB levels had dropped below the Federal safety limit in fish sampled from the first 50 miles of the river north of Manhattan, encouraging state fisheries officials to consider ending the ban on that part of the river.

Sport-fishing groups have strongly opposed any renewed commercial bass fishing on the river, for fear that stocks would decline just as recreational fishing is resurgent.

Several private environmental groups say it is too soon to proclaim that the fish are safe to eat.

The dwindling number of traditional commercial fishermen who ply the river say they will go out of business if they are not allowed to sell the bass they catch in their shad nets. The fish must now be discarded.

To sift through the varied opinions, Richard L. Brodsky, the chairman of the New York State Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation, convened a hearing today at the Striped Bass Restaurant overlooking the river here.

"You don't usually see this kind of intensity over a fish, but the striped bass crystallize all our fears and hopes for the Hudson River," Brodsky said.

At the hearing, Gerry Barnhardt, the director of the state's Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources, said that the commercial fishery could be reopened by the summer of 2000 if a series of conditions are met.

The next PCB tests would have to show that concentrations of the chemicals in samples of bass remained well below the Federal limit, he said. The tests are expected to be completed in May or early June, Barnhardt said.

The New York State Health Department would then have to rule that the test results indicated there was no threat to anyone eating the fish, he added.

Finally, he said, state fisheries officials would hold a series of public hearings.

At that point, he said, the recommendation would likely be made to start by allowing the river's small remaining cluster of commercial shad fishermen to keep and sell the striped bass that become tangled in their shad nets each spring.

He estimated that about 6,000 bass, weighing a total of 24 tons, die in the nets each year and must now be thrown away because of the PCB ban.

The ban, if lifted, would likely affect only the 50 miles of the river south of Poughkeepsie. Tests have shown that PCB concentrations remain too high in bass in the rest of the river, officials say.

The ban has nearly driven shad netters out of business because almost as much labor is expended freeing and discarding the bass as is put into capturing the shad, the fisherman say. By allowing fishermen to sell these fish, they could make a better living without removing any additional stripers from the river, Barnhardt said.

But speakers representing the river's growing sport-fishing industry said they were opposed to any re-establishment of commercial fishing for the bass.

The opponents were not all from the Hudson Valley. After spawning in the river, the fish head to sea and roam the Atlantic coast, so any depletion of the Hudson's fish could hurt recreational fishing along the coast, said Charles Witek, representing the New York chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, a private group focused on preserving sport fisheries around Long Island.

But the Hudson's commercial fishermen, numbering no more than a dozen or so by several accounts at the hearing, were defended by John Cronin, the president of Riverkeeper Inc., a private conservation group

Cronin had been a part-time commercial shad netter before becoming an environmental advocate, and has long been an avid angler, he said. He listed moral, legal and cultural reasons why the river's commercial fishery should be preserved.

It was the river's commercial fishermen who pressed state officials hardest to force a cleanup by General Electric, the company that released most of the PCB's into the river, Cronin said. State officials had promised to do what they could to restore the bass fishery once the pollution was cleaned up, he said.

"Their tradition is a very important piece of our culture that was ripped away when G.E. polluted their fishery," he said. "The time may be coming to bring it back."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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