PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The proposal: to open part of Long Island Sound, the sliver of ocean separating New York's Long Island from Connecticut and Rhode Island, to striped bass fishing by shifting it from federal to state control.
The problem: The New York congressman who's pushing the idea didn't check first with Rhode Island or Connecticut, where lawmakers say the proposal is pointless at best and environmentally dangerous at worst.
Striped bass fishing is allowed in state waters but banned in the federal area, and Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York says he wants to restore local control and common sense to fishery management. He introduced a bill to change the boundary for 150 square miles.
Though Rhode Island would get control over a slice, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, said the notion of removing federal jurisdiction just doesn't make sense here.
"I'm not sure the rationale for it," Cicilline said.
U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, another Rhode Island Democrat, called the bill "an odd little thing." He said his office contacted Rhode Island fishermen and regulators and "nobody's very interested in it."
Recreational anglers who catch striped bass legally in state waters sometimes stray into, or travel through, the federal exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, between areas south of Montauk, New York, and south of Point Judith, Rhode Island.
According to Zeldin's office, some have been fined for having striped bass on board because they couldn't prove the bass were caught legally in state waters. Zeldin, whose district encompasses eastern Long Island, is responding to concerns from local fishermen, his office said.
Zeldin is a vulnerable freshman lawmaker who has been targeted by Democrats in a swing district that President Barack Obama narrowly won twice. Passage of the legislation could help him in his re-election bid.
Joe McBride, of the Montauk Boatmen & Captains Association, publicly thanked Zeldin for his leadership on the issue. Sport fishing is important to the Long Island economy, especially in Montauk, McBride said.
Connecticut's entire congressional delegation signed a letter opposing the "misguided bill," citing the potential for "major economic losses" to the Connecticut fishing industry and a "major blow" to efforts to rebuild the striped bass stock.
"This is damaging people's livelihood, and I think we need to be a lot more careful," U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat, said at a hearing on the bill this month.
Joseph Gilbert, owner of Connecticut-based Empire Fisheries, said in a letter submitted to Congress that the bill is an attempt to "disenfranchise Connecticut fishermen" for a small subset of recreational striped bass fishermen, who already have ample grounds for fishing within state waters.
Connecticut commercial fishermen who have permits to catch species other than striped bass in the federal area would have to get expensive state permits, and lobstermen can't get nonresident state permits for Rhode Island, according to Courtney's office.
And commercial fishermen from Rhode Island would be cut off from the newly designated New York waters unless they get New York permits, which are limited in quantity, said Meghan Lapp, who monitors fisheries issues at a large Rhode Island producer and trader of frozen fish, Seafreeze Ltd.
"You can't just be moving the EEZ around when someone says, 'Hey, I want this and I want you to move the line here,'" Lapp said. "It sets a dangerous precedent."
The federal boundary has been shifted outward in the past in the Gulf of Mexico to expand state jurisdiction, though Tina Berger, a spokeswoman for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, said she wasn't aware of it ever changing along the Atlantic. The commission manages Atlantic striped bass.
"This is uncharted territory," Berger said. "It's something the commission would have to evaluate and respond to as it moves forward."