Cuomo expected to sign bunker fish protection bill

Michael Dobie for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

Add another item to the list that shows how the Democratic takeover of the State Senate has loosened the legislation logjam:

A bill to protect the vital bait fish known as menhaden has been sent to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for his signature.

The measure sponsored in the Assembly by Democrat Steve Englebright passed in that chamber last year but never even got a vote in the Senate. This year, now championed in that chamber by fellow Democrat Todd Kaminsky, the new chair of the Senate’s environmental conservation committee, the bill passed 61-0. Which means every Republican senator who cast a vote said yes.

The bill is important to Long Island. Menhaden, known as bunker fish, have rebounded in population and are an important part of the diets of bluefish, striped bass, some whales and other predators. Local fishermen catch menhaden for bait.

The bill bans the use of nets called purse seines to catch menhaden, a tactic big industrial boats use for huge harvests that could deplete the species that also is a source of fish oil and powdered protein.

Albany insiders say the one difference from last year’s bill — a small change requested by the state Department of Environmental Conservation — does not explain the GOP turnaround. The DEC asked for, and received, the right to publicly declare a fish-kill emergency when too many menhaden are crowded into a small area, depleting oxygen levels in the water such that a massive die-off could take place. Under those circumstances, the DEC would be able to temporarily allow the use of purse seines.

Cuomo has until midnight on April 20 to sign the bill, and is expected to do so.

All because the Senate finally responded to the challenge of fish or cut bait.