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Cuomo refuses to defend state on fishing licenses

On a cloudy Wednesday afternoon Ivan Markovich of

On a cloudy Wednesday afternoon Ivan Markovich of Ronkonkoma tries his luck fishing off the rocks at Shinnecock Inlet in Hampton Bays. (Sept. 30, 2009) Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The state's new saltwater fishing license program appeared in trouble Wednesday as New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo refused to defend the state in lawsuits filed by Long Island towns trying to block its implementation.

A day before a scheduled hearing on the litigation, Cuomo notified the State Supreme Court that his office, which normally represents state agencies in litigation, would not handle this case.

Cuomo said the new law has been poorly implemented and that it should not take effect for several months.

"His decision means the program needs to be fixed because it's broken," said Jim Hutchinson Jr. of Forest Hills, president of the New York Sportfishing Federation and managing director of Recreational Fishing Alliance, a national sportfishing lobby group.

Cuomo's move means the Department of Environmental Conservation, which is handling the license program, must defend itself in the litigation brought by Southampton, East Hampton and Shelter Island.

DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino said the lawsuit had nothing to do with the implementation system, but centered on the towns' claim they held control over fisheries as they had done under colonial laws.

>>VIDEO: Click here for responses from fishermen

A court had temporarily blocked implementation of the licenses in the three towns pending a hearing on the suit. In light of Cuomo's action, the case was adjourned to Nov. 16, meaning the licenses will not be required in the three towns until at least then but will elsewhere.

Cuomo said in a statement that "the aims of this law are valid - gathering additional data to help protect and preserve Long Island's saltwater fisheries is essential to their continued livelihood. However, I believe the necessary systems are not in place . . . to ensure fair implementation and enforcement."

" . . . A hasty implementation of the law will only jeopardize fishing communities across Long Island," Cuomo's statement said. "In my opinion, the law should not take effect for several months."

He said fishermen found it difficult to obtain the license through the DEC Web site, a dedicated phone line and 1,450 licensing agents at bait shops and other locations.

Responded Severino: "We've been successfully implementing the saltwater fishing license system. Nearly 49,000 licenses have been sold in just three weeks - demonstrating that anglers are taking advantage of it."

The annual licenses cost $10 for individuals. Fishing boat owners can buy one for $400 that covers their customers.

The license fees collected by the DEC cover processing costs, with leftover money going to fish management programs, Severino said.

Fishing groups applauded Cuomo. "It's obvious that neither the fish nor the fishermen were considered in this case," said Hutchinson. "This was a cash grab."

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