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Cuomo hits hold button on commercial fishing license overhaul plan

John German onboard his fishing vessel the Suzanne

John German onboard his fishing vessel the Suzanne Marie during a morning of conch fishing off Mount Sinai on July 11, 2018. Credit: Randee Daddona

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday said the state would “hit the pause button” on a planned overhaul of the commercial fishing licensing system, saying regulators need more information and input to get it right.

The state two years ago hired an outside expert to review the system for issuing commercial fishing permits and draw up a list of recommendations for fixing a system many fishermen criticize as broken. Among the recommendations of consultant George Lapointe was requiring fishermen to show income of $15,000 or more for three consecutive years to qualify for their licenses.

Opposition to the recommendation was widespread in hearings last week and when they were first introduced in May.

Cuomo said the state would do more work.

“We're going to hit the pause button here on this because … we need more information,” Cuomo said on a Long Island News Radio with Jay Oliver on Thursday.

Cuomo took issue with the prospect that the recommendation would result in licenses being transferred "from the smaller operators to larger operators,” he said. “In other words, if you didn't have more than $15,000 in income, as a commercial fishing license, you would lose that commercial license so that it would go to someone who could catch more, generating more income." 

That, he said, would result in "taking a license from the little guy and giving it to the bigger guys. My head and heart always are simpatico to the little guy.”

The state will “have to figure it out, but we have not yet figured it out,” Cuomo said. “And that's why until we study this, and we understand it, and we have a full public discussion, we're not going to be doing anything. So nothing's going to happen fast; it requires more thought, more discussion.”

That’s a relief to fishermen and state legislators who attended hearings and expressed concerns about taking away licenses.

John German, a commercial fisherman from Brookhaven who fishes out of Mount Sinai Harbor, said he welcomed Cuomo's decision. “I think we ought to take a little more time and get it right,” said German, 72, who is president of the Long Island Sound Lobstermen’s Association.

He said he supported the idea of making room in the fishery for younger fishermen, but with a caveat.

“I’d like to see some younger guys get in but not at the expense of the older guys,” he said.

Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), whose longtime work on fishing issues led to the plan for reform, said he agreed with Cuomo that the proposal to make income a requirement for keeping licenses was “problematic.”

“In general, I favor utilizing a carrot not a stick to reduce latent licenses,” Thiele said, referring to licenses that are long held but not actively used. The state found that around a third of the 950 food-fish licenses issued in the state are not actively fished.

Thiele said he’d rather see “incentives to surrender a license … not a rule that takes the license away.”

Thiele suggested a license buyback program by the state, something Lapointe said he left out because there was no identified funding for it.

“The issue is how to pay for it,” Thiele said, adding that he’s floated the idea that offshore wind companies subsidize it as “part of the cost of doing business” in the state.

Richard Hunter, 76, a commercial fisherman who works from Freeport, said the state allowed him a license when he applied more than 20 years ago but he would never qualify under the $15,000 annual income threshold. "Nobody is putting kids through college on fish money," he said. 

He supported Cuomo's decision to rethink the plan. "I think Cuomo is maybe on the right trail," he said, suggesting the DEC "do a thorough investigation of what this whole thing is all about. What’s the hurry? It's been screwed up for 20 years, but do it right."

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