Towns win fishing license suit against state

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Seven Long Island towns have won a lawsuit against the state Department of Conservation preventing the agency from requiring that recreational anglers obtain a saltwater fishing license to fish town waters.

The decision by State Supreme Court Justice Patrick A. Sweeney follows a one-day trial last month, in which the towns contested a law that required any angler older than 16 to get the $10 license. The law, which took effect in October 2009, was designed in part to enable the collection of statistical data for the federal government.

The towns of East Hampton, Southampton, Shelter Island, Brookhaven, Southold, Huntington and Oyster Bay opposed the law arguing it encroached on their pre-existing authority to regulate town waters - patent rights the towns have enjoyed since the colonial era.

Sweeney's decision said those rights give the towns full control over their fisheries.

"Concerning the issuance of a saltwater fishing license, the statute as applied to the respective plaintiffs is in violation of the rights of the people of the respective Towns and may not be enforced upon those who seek to fish in the waters regulated by the respective towns," read the decision.

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"This was a tax, nothing more than a tax," said Joseph Lombardo, assistant town attorney for Southampton, which led the effort. "We allow people to go shellfishing for free. We don't charge you if you're a resident. We've never made people get a fishing license to go saltwater fishing. These are rights that we have to protect."

A spokesman for the DEC declined to comment.

Lombardo said Sweeney's decision may apply only to the seven towns that mounted the lawsuit because the constitutionality of the law itself wasn't challenged. He said the towns in the lawsuit obtained an injunction from the fees for the duration of the dispute and that they will not be required to obey the law unless the decision is overturned on appeal.

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