Fishermen losing patience with probe of state regulators

Commercial lobsterman Bob Zickmund on his boat, the Commercial lobsterman Bob Zickmund on his boat, the Betty Ann pm March 21, 2012. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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The New York inspector general's office plans to conclude its two-year probe of a state fisheries regulator "imminently," but fishermen and their advocates awaiting long-promised action say they are losing patience.

Three state legislators from Long Island have written to Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott, noting that they first requested a probe of the state Department of Environmental Conservation in May 2012, and that "no report has been issued."

"Estimated release dates have come and gone," Assemb. Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), and state Sens. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) wrote in June, requesting an update.

Thiele said in an interview that the "virtual silence about the status of this investigation for the last year has been very puzzling. At this point we have no idea when this matter will be concluded. Both the local fishermen and the DEC deserve closure."

Fishermen have told investigators of a broad range of alleged improprieties and impediments to fishing by the DEC, according to interviews with Newsday and a source close to the probe. The fishermen have complained about improper seizures of fish without search warrants, restrictions on transferring fishing permits and moratoriums on new licenses.

Leahy Scott, in a response to the lawmakers, noted her probe "addresses other" issues beyond those raised in Thiele's original complaint.

In addition, she wrote, her office has worked with the DEC closely to "implement corrective action on these broader issues" before releasing the report. She said she expected the investigation and "corrective action" to be concluded "imminently," and that a public report would follow "soon."

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William Reynolds, a spokesman for Leahy Scott's office, declined to comment. The DEC didn't respond immediately to requests for comment.

Daniel Rodgers, a lawyer for fishermen who organized meetings with state investigators and first demanded the investigation after reports in Newsday detailing the practices, also wrote to Leahy Scott requesting a status report. He said he never received a response.

Montauk charter boat captain Steve Witthuhn, 57, who met with investigators in his Greenlawn home and has logged dozens of calls to the office requesting answers, expressed frustration with the long probe.

"You can't have people waiting and waiting and waiting," Witthuhn said. "Does imminent mean two years from now? To me it's this afternoon, that's imminent."

Witthuhn wants access to fishing permits that the rules won't allow, even though he knows many legacy permit holders don't use their permits. "If you're in the fishery and you want to make a living, the opportunity should be there," he said.

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LaValle said he worried other issues could delay action by the inspector general.

"Unless it's really good news I don't think the governor's office wants anything out between now and November," LaValle said, alluding to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's November re-election bid and reports that Cuomo's office interfered with his own Moreland Commission public corruption probe.

"This is not a wait-till-after-the-election issue," said the source close to the inspector general's office. "This is imminent."

Mount Sinai lobsterman Robert Zickmund, 58, who had a long meeting with investigators two years ago, said the report and its corrective measures are so late he wonders if any of the problems will be addressed.

"Everybody's spirits are way down," said Zickmund, who sought help overturning DEC rules that prevent him from fishing for whelk because he neglected to renew his license in 2003. "Nobody's catching anything to talk about." Meanwhile, he and others noted that federal agents have been pursuing cases against New York fishermen and dealers related to a fishing auction that allowed them to pay to catch fish beyond New York's relatively small quota amounts. Sen. Charles Schumer has brought legislation seeking to change disparities with other states permanently.At least two fishermen and three fish dealers have pleaded guilty in the federal probe so far, and some 70 subpoenas have gone out, primarily to Long Islanders, in connection with the probe.

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Thiele said he's tried to address problems with the state fisheries rules. This year, he introduced a bill that would have allowed transfer of fishing permits to a larger list of family members than allowed under current rules, which require that recipients live in the same home as the permit holder. Thiele said the DEC opposed his changes, so the bill was approved without substantial revisions of existing law.

Thiele said he will propose broad new rules next year.

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