Commercial lobsterman Bob Zickmund on his boat, the Betty Ann...

Commercial lobsterman Bob Zickmund on his boat, the Betty Ann which he is selling because of the drop off in the lobster population and his inability to get a license to fish for Conchs or whelks. (March 21, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

The scarcity of lobsters in Long Island Sound is leading some longtime lobstermen to turn to more abundant species such as conch -- only to find that new restrictions may lock them out.

Robert Zickmund is a second-generation lobsterman who has fished the Sound for 40 years. Last winter, he converted old lobster pots for use as traps to catch conch, a large snail-like predator and carnivore that is considered abundant in local waters.

But Zickmund, 55, doesn't have a conch license, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation has a moratorium on new ones. Zickmund says that this month, as fishing season opens, he plans to challenge the law the DEC is using to deny him a license.

"I made 300 pots, and I'm going to fish," said Zickmund.

The problems Zickmund and others face stem from a 2004 law that only those who applied for and received a conch license in 2003 could get another one in subsequent years.

Zickmund said he had a license from 2000 through 2002, but neglected to buy one in 2003. He says it is unfair that the law determines who gets a license based on just that one-year window. The law remains in effect until 2015, with only limited access to new licenses in an annual lottery.

DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino said when changes in whelk licensing were under consideration in 2004, the agency consulted the commercial fishing industry and the state Marine Resources Advisory Council, made up of fishermen and experts who review new policies.

"The large majority of these stakeholders supported the law," she said.

But Severino acknowledged that the new rules went into effect without research or data about the health or size of the conch population. "The department does not currently have any population estimates for whelk," she said. However, the DEC is developing mandatory reporting requirements for whelk permit holders.

Conchs, which a decade or more ago fetched 35-50 cents a pound, now bring $1.75 to $2.50 a pound -- a real market for those locked out of other fisheries. A growing appetite for local conch in Asian markets has fueled the higher prices, fishermen say.

Pat Augustine, a commissioner representing New York on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a federal fisheries management agency, said the restrictions on permits "don't make sense," given anecdotal evidence that the conch population is healthy.

"I do know the fishermen have to have something to fish," he said. "With conch, there are so many . . . now they are destroying the scallops and mussels."

Still, Augustine said, fishermen were warned in 2003 about the licensing moratorium. He said those who are locked out can request an amendment to the 2004 law. Zickmund has reached out to local officials, but it's unclear when or even if they might try to alter the law.

James King, former president of the Long Island Lobstermen's Association, said he felt mixed about the regulations on the conch fishery, which he and his father fished for decades. King, now retired, said he doesn't like the notion of regulating an abundant fishery. However, conchs are being targeted like never before, he said.

"Now that the lobster resource has collapsed, you see money being made [on conch] and everybody wants a piece of the action," said King.

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