Sea urchins meet federal overreach at hearing

By Emily Yehle | 02/03/2016 08:13 AM EST

The federal government took a beating from both Republicans and Democrats in a hearing yesterday that considered the plight of sea urchins, charter boats and the hardworking man.

The federal government took a beating from both Republicans and Democrats in a hearing yesterday that considered the plight of sea urchins, charter boats and the hardworking man.

The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans spent more than two hours questioning two panels of witnesses on two bills: H.R. 4245 and H.R. 3070.

Both bills address local issues but share the theme of an overbearing and bureaucratic government. H.R. 4245 would exempt sea urchins from inspections by the Fish and Wildlife Service, while H.R. 3070 would give states 155 square miles of federal waters.


Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), who authored H.R. 3070, struck a grim note yesterday as he told colleagues of the plight of charter boats in Block Island Sound, where they can catch striped bass in state waters but then must navigate through federally controlled water where such fishing is banned.

"For recreational anglers and charter boats, the shift in jurisdiction can mean the difference between a nice day on the water and a federal offense," he said, later adding that such fishermen "desperately need relief from arbitrary government regulation."

Federal fishery managers have only handed out one citation in the past five years for striped bass violations in that area, according to Daniel Morris, a deputy regional administrator at the National Marine Fisheries Service.

NMFS — an agency under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — allows fishermen to possess striped bass in federal waters, as long as they caught the fish legally in adjacent state waters. But charter boat fishermen have long argued that the prohibition on striped bass fishing in federal waters makes business difficult.

Zeldin’s bill would hand over the area in question to states, which would then manage the striped bass fishery and, ostensibly, allow fishermen to harvest it. But potential roadblocks popped up in yesterday’s hearing, such as the fact that other fisheries exist in the same waters. States would thus have to take over management of everything from lobsters to flounder.

John McMurray, a charter boat captain who also sits on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, argued that Zeldin’s bill could lead to overfishing of striped bass. He questioned whether the bill’s new federal boundary lines would be any clearer.

"If you get out a chart and you actually draw those lines, you’ll see that it cuts off the entire southeast corner of Block Island," McMurray told the panel. "Unless I’m misunderstanding something, this means technically, if you are fishing from the beach on the southeast corner, you would be in violation of federal law."

Sea urchins on the tarmac

The Maine delegation’s bill, H.R. 4245, got a more positive reception — and stirred up more anti-bureaucratic sentiment. Maine Reps. Chellie Pingree (D) and Bruce Poliquin (R) argue that their state’s sea urchin processing industry must deal with unnecessary FWS inspections that threaten to delay exports of the highly perishable seafood.

Poliquin detailed the story of a pallet of sea urchins at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York that was ready to fly off to Asia last November when FWS struck.

"Folks from Fish and Wildlife come to yank it off, and they yank it off because they hadn’t inspected it yet," Poliquin said. "And they take the next day off because they’re having an out at Veterans Day parades or whatever they’re doing. This is a perishable foodstuff that needs to get to market as quickly as it can."

The sea urchins are harvested in Maine and Canada, then processed in the state. Those from Canada are inspected before entering the United States. The bill targets only the later inspection, when the seafood is sent abroad.

California Rep. Jared Huffman, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, called FWS’s inspection "dramatic overkill." Pingree pointed out that no one is likely to smuggle an endangered species in a box of sea urchins that is worth between $5,000 and $20,000 already.

At one point, Subcommittee Chairman John Fleming (R-La.) criticized FWS for not having a formal system that allows companies to file a complaint about the speed of an inspection.

"I would think if a $20,000 shipment spoiled on the tarmac — oh, I would hear about it," William Woody, assistant director of FWS’s Office of Law Enforcement, responded.

FWS officials say such inspections are necessary to cut down on the smuggling of endangered species. Woody emphasized that the agency gives priority to perishable shipments to ensure they don’t spoil.

Pingree and Poliquin’s bill would give sea urchins and sea cucumbers the same exception from the inspections that shellfish now receive. But Woody said sea urchin shipments that originate in Mexico and the Caribbean carry smuggling risks. Exempting just Maine would be difficult, he said.

"Mr. Woody, I know it’s hard. I bet it’s hard. I know you can do this," Poliquin said, before referring to another panelist, sea urchin diver Joseph Leask. "If Mr. Leask can dive down and harvest in the cold, dark waters of Maine, I’m sure you folks can figure out a way to do this so our 650 jobs in Maine are not penalized, sir."