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Debate over allowing fishery permit law to expire

A 2011 law that paved the way for consolidation of the state's surf-clam fishery has proved "anti-competitive" and should be allowed to expire, according to the chairman of the Assembly environmental committee.

Letting the bill expire at the end of this year, as the original legislation intended, "will make it a more competitive business and give a boost to the smaller guys instead of just the big ones," said Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), noting that he would block any bill to renew the law in his committee.

The law allows holders of multiple surf-clamming permits to harvest their combined quota of the large ocean clams on a single boat. It also allows permit holders, some of whom no longer own boats, to cooperatively harvest their allotted catch by effectively "leasing" their quota to permit holders who own vessels.

Previously, each of the 22 permit holders could harvest their allotment using only their designated vessel -- one permit per vessel.

Proponents say the 2011 law made harvesting economical by allowing fewer boats to harvest the clams, saving gas and other expenses.

But opponents said it primarily benefited a large New Jersey company whose holding companies control most of the remaining 17 permits.

Sweeney said his desire to see the law expire was based on comments from unaffiliated surf clammers who argued it hurt independents. Each permit holder is allowed to harvest 10,200 bushels annually.

One of the remaining independents agreed. "I want to see this sunset. It's not good for traditional Long Island independent fishermen," said Leann Smith, whose family owns one surf-clam permit.

But state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Mastic) on Monday introduced a bill to renew the consolidation law, with certain amendments, said his chief of staff Chris Molluso. "Hopefully, it's something we can get done" by the end of the legislative session next week, he said.

Zeldin in 2011 and 2012 received a total of $7,500 in donations from three affiliated surf-clam companies listing a New Jersey address: Bay Head Inc., St. Peter Dock and Winter Habor Brands, according to state records. He has said the donations did not influence his decision to sponsor the bill.

Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) said he would consider sponsoring an Assembly version of the bill, but acknowledged Sweeney's plan to let it expire could obviate it.

Thiele said he realizes "a simple renewal could lead to a virtual monopoly by one company," while "allowing it to expire could lead to a bit of chaos and with reduced quotas." He said he favors a six-month extension of the current bill while a permanent solution is worked out.

Newsday reported last year that most of the permits were controlled by holding companies with ties to Martin and Leroy Truex, brothers with a long history in the now-depleted New Jersey surf-clam fishery who also have holdings in a clam-processing company, SeaWatch International.

Sweeney said the state DEC, which issues and administers the permits, initially indicated it planned to support renewal of the consolidation bill, but recently reversed course. Lisa King, a DEC spokeswoman, said the agency doesn't comment on "pending legislation."

J. Lee Snead, an attorney representing holders of 11 permits, including those with New Jersey ties, said failure to renew the provisions of the bill would "destroy" the industry. "It would be a grave problem, not only for companies that have been harvesting clams but permit holders who have others do it for them," and are paid for it, he said.

Three companies tied to the Truexes -- Doxsee Sea Clam, Winter Harbor Brands and Bay Head Inc. -- have consolidated eight permits down to three, allowing them to harvest with fewer boats, Snead said, allowing fishermen to make a profit. "The idea that cooperative harvesting is somehow bad for the independent guys is just dead wrong," Snead said.

But Sweeney said his discussions with the independents indicates otherwise. "I've heard the concerns of the smaller clammers, and I think they're right," he said.

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