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Long IslandLI Life

Force of nature: Environmental conservation officers on Long Island

The state's ECOs are tasked with protecting New York's natural resources, a job that means extensive community engagement on water and land.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is tasked with protecting fish and wildlife and preserving environmental quality across New York. On Aug. 27, 2018, Lt. Sean Reilly explains what officers look for during a patrol in Shinnecock Canal. (Credit: Barry Sloan)

Lt. Sean Reilly gave the word and Environmental Conservation Officer Chris Macropoulos tacked the 31-foot patrol boat out of the Meschutt Beach marina on the Shinnecock Canal. Bow pointed south toward Shinnecock Bay, the trio — including ECO Evan Laczi —  were on a mission to show a presence on the water, enforce environmental laws and educate the public on an array of rules and regulations.

“We’ll mostly be checking recreational and commercial fishing boats today,” explained Reilly as the boat eased across the shallow flats on the north side of the bay. “We want to make sure everyone has the proper license, see what fish species anglers are keeping and ensure their catch falls within appropriate bag and size limits.

“We’ll check boaters doing other activities, too, of course.”

Reilly, 46, the senior crew member with 22 years experience, Macropoulos, 30, and Laczi, 32, were on patrol on a hot August morning. Such outings are routine for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation enforcement officers, tasked with upholding environmental laws, everything from fishing and hunting to illegal dumping, water and air pollution, trespassing and unlawful vehicle access on public lands.

Maneuvering over to a clammer raking in about 6 feet of water, Reilly announces that an officer will board the boat. From the bow, Laczi hops into the large garvey and introduces himself. After polite conversation about the morning’s haul, the digger produces his license and the officer inspects the clams; all appear to be legal size.

“Do you know why we boarded you?” Reilly asks from the port stern of the patrol boat as Laczi climbs back onto its bow. “It’s really because you tossed a couple of clams into the water as we approached,” he says firmly. “We realize you need to throw back the small ones, but next time keep everything on deck until we see it. It doesn’t look good to throw stuff overboard as we get close.”

The bayman nods, and Laczi chimes in with more advice. “You need to keep your catch properly shaded at all times, too,” he points out, noting a towel across the clammer’s bushel basket only partly shades the catch. “Keeping shellfish shaded significantly cuts down the chances of them being infected with bacteria,” he continues. “That’s important, OK?”

The bayman nods again, this time with a smile. Reilly wishes him a nice day, and Macropoulos sets a course for Shinnecock Inlet.

“We haven’t seen that guy out here before,” explained the lieutenant. “We could have given him a ticket for not fully shading his catch, but he seemed receptive and we’d rather educate him on our first encounter. Enforcement is important, of course, but education pays big dividends, too.”

Educating the public goes a long way, Reilly said. “Since we really put an emphasis a few years ago on explaining to baymen that covering shellfish reduces bacterial contamination, there hasn’t been any significant outbreaks in our area. I’m proud of the difference we’ve made on that front.”

Looking out on the water, the breadth of the DEC’s job becomes apparent. Dozens of boats of various shapes and sizes drive and drift in all directions across the bay. It’s easy to see that there’s no way to check them all during the scheduled four-hour patrol, which is only a small part of the overall job.

“You have to pick and choose who to stop,” explains Macropoulos, steering the boat toward the bay side of Cupsogue Beach, where scuba divers are preparing to submerge.

Indeed, there are only two dozen or so environmental conservation officers to cover all of Long Island plus federal waters up to 200 miles off the coast; it’s also a male-dominated force with only four women. In addition to enforcing fishing and hunting regulations on water and land, paperwork, court time, sorting evidence, tracking polluters, water quality monitoring, shellfish checks and more eat up an officer’s time. And although the DEC in past year helped bring the largest illegal dumping case in state history — partnering with Suffolk County in an investigation that resulted in dozens of charges and $4.4 million in assets frozen — most officers come into more ordinary contact with Long Islanders.

Two weeks ago, for example, a complaint brought ECO Landon Simmons, who generally patrols in Brookhaven Town, to Lower Lake (also known as Lily Lake) dam in Yaphank. There, two boards had been removed, apparently to allow fish in the lake — which is scheduled to be drained and cleaned of weeds and muck before being refilled — to run downstream into Hards Lake in Southaven County Park. Removing the boards could result in largemouth bass eating the brook trout that live in Carmans River, immediately below the dam, and in large numbers of carp eventually finding their way to into Hards Lake. The boards have been replaced, according to the DEC, which said it is monitoring the lake.

“It is frustrating knowing we can’t be everywhere at once,” Laczi said. “We have to prioritize our tasks very carefully to respond to the most egregious offenders and cover as much ground as possible.”

In large part, Laczi said, the agency relies on the public to report unusual wildlife, suspicious activity and potential infractions.

A few weeks earlier, the DEC was called to assist Nassau County police with a reported venomous snake. ECO Zachary Prentice responded to an auto body shop on Sagamore Avenue in Mineola and worked with regional agency staff to relocate the foot-long copperhead to the Bronx Zoo.

“We respond to every credible call at some point, especially those providing when-and-where info to help us pattern offenders,” Laczi said. Calls can come at all hours, often at night, he said. “Most ECOs are very passionate about their work. We’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

With a pair of binoculars, Laczi sees that the scuba divers are ready to drop below the surface. They have a diver’s flag out for safety; all looks in order so the crew turns its attention to fishermen drifting in a 23-footer at the north end of Shinnecock Inlet.

“To most people, that boat looks like a recreational vessel,” Macropoulos says. He cuts a tight course around a sandbar and pulls up beside the anglers. “I can tell by the way their cooler is positioned for easy access — and their serious focus — these guys are most likely commercial fishermen.”

The officer’s intuition is spot on: They are fishing commercially for fluke. As Laczi jumps from the DEC boat to the commercial boat to check the cooler and documentation, Reilly realizes he’s crossed paths with this crew on Hempstead Bay.

“They were in compliance last time and seemed knowledgeable about the rules,” he says, “I bet they are fine, today, too.” And they are.

Pushing the throttle forward, Macropoulos powers out of the inlet toward a commercial trawling vessel two miles down the beach. The twin 300-hp. Mercury engines hum smoothly. Capable of speeds up to 40 knots and a range of up 600 miles, the 31-foot Safeboat is fitted with radar, sonar and GPS. It takes about five minutes to reach the trawler Lady J, but 20 minutes more to board it in bumpy seas, inspect the catch and determine the fishermen are in compliance.

“I don’t have any problem with the DEC officers inspecting our catch, says Kenneth Jayne, 46, of East Quogue. “These guys are doing their job. They stop us 15 times or more a season. They keep everyone within the law, that’s for sure — but I’d rather see them work on nitrogen runoff issues.  . . . That runoff hurts the fishing more than anything else.”

Michael Zicari, 46, of Manhattan, welcomed the officers on Oakland’s dock just west of Shinnecock Inlet as he worked aboard the 43-foot Everglades he takes offshore in search of tuna.

“I like that they are visible,” he said of the crew. “Just their presence in the area slows boaters down and keeps others from taking fish they should be throwing back. I don’t know the full spectrum of their work, but they are doing a job that can’t be easy to navigate.”

It’s a sentiment the DEC officers can appreciate. Reilly added that the job is easier when you treat people with respect — because you’ll usually get the same in return.

“I love being out on the water, and I enjoy this line of work. I feel like we make a difference every single day,” he said as the patrol boat turned back toward the Meschutt Beach Marina.

“If we catch someone purposefully breaking the law, that’s good because it protects our resources,” Reilly said. “If we choose to simply educate someone and get a positive response that leads to a change in behavior or a tip in the future — so much the better.”

About the DEC

The state Department of Environmental Conservation was created July 1, 1970, combining into one agency all state programs designed to protect and enhance the environment. The agency, with a central office in Albany, has 24 divisions and offices that are further organized into bureaus. Each of DEC's nine regions has an office that serves the communities within that region; Nassau and Suffolk fall into Region 1. The DEC has about 3,000 employees. To reach an environmental conservation officer or report a violation or concern call 844-332-3267 or visit dec.ny.gov.

Officers do ‘amazing job’

The public is quick to praise the DEC's environmental conservation officers, but the agency itself can get mixed reviews from environmental activists and for-hire fishing captains. They say the agency is less adept in responding to large-scale environmental code violations and not supportive enough in advocating with the federal government for increased fishing quotas.

Adrienne Esposito, Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment executive director, expressed frustration with the agency’s handling of the Noyack Sand Land Corp. mine, which a recent Suffolk County report blamed for water contamination, as well as the odor problem at the Brookhaven Town landfill. 

“On the plus side, DEC aggressively attacks illegal dumping and general water quality issues,” she said. “Locally, ECOs do an amazing job.”

The DEC's commissioner since 2015, Basil Seggos stressed that the agency “holds all polluters accountable" and encourages the public to report suspected environmental crime.

“DEC rigorously monitors permitted facilities across the state and on Long Island. Our aggressive actions include requiring the operators of the Brookhaven landfill to implement a corrective action plan, [and] developing and enforcing recently enhanced composting and mulching operations regulations,” he said.

On the water, Capt. Joe Tangel, president of New York Recreational & For Hire Fishing Alliance, lauded officers, but wants more advocacy for fishermen. “Most fishermen here on Long Island have no problem with DEC enforcement personnel” he said. Nevertheless, he said, the agency “doesn’t fight hard enough to get increased fishing quotas from the federal government for species like fluke and black sea bass.”

Tangel, who also owns King Cod Fishing in Center Moriches, said, “With [black] sea bass stocks robust at 240 percent  above the minimum federal harvest threshold, there’s no reason our quotas should be so restrictive.”

"The DEC continues to work to expand recreational fluke and black sea bass access for anglers, which has remained an ongong priority for many years," Seggos said in an emailed statement. Before 2014, he said, "New York State had the most restrictive rules on recreational fluke than any other state on the East Coast. Since 2014, DEC has fought to improve these restrictions, including implementing the same size limit and similar bag limits as Rhode Island and Connecticut, as well as allowing a higher bag limiit and longer open season than New Jersey."

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