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Testimony: Young fishermen being driven from Long Island fishing industry

Fishermen complain an antiquated licensing system makes it difficult to transfer permits.

Peter Stiansen, right, and his father, Norm Stiansen

Peter Stiansen, right, and his father, Norm Stiansen are shown aboard the fishing boat Elizabeth E., which was tied up at the Shinnecock Commercial Dock in Hampton Bays on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018. Peter would like to follow in the family business, but recently gave up his dream of becoming a commercial fisherman, because he couldn't get the needed licenses due to antiquated laws. Credit: Veronique Louis

A generation of young fishermen are being driven from the industry by an antiquated licensing system that makes it difficult if not impossible to transfer permits, fishermen said at one of several state meetings last week.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has hired a consultant from Maine to meet with commercial fishermen across the metropolitan area over the next month to compile proposals for fixing the system.

Licenses for many fisheries are closed,  due to the declining populations of species such as lobster, or because New York has only a limited portion of the coastal quota for thriving species such as black sea bass and fluke.

As a result, the only way younger fishermen can hope to access the fishery is if their parents die and they live in the same house as the previous license holder, or through one of the occasional lotteries held by the state for a handful of permits.

Fishermen who spoke at a meeting in Southampton last Thursday  were adamant that latent licenses holders — those who annually renew their legacy permits but rarely use them — need to be identified and removed from the ranks of commercial fishermen. Many part-time fishermen who have full-time jobs off the water continue to hold licenses, allowing them a technical “share” of New York’s limited fishery.

George LaPointe, the consultant and former chairman of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, told the group as many as a third of the 900 food-fish licenses issued each year in the state are considered latent and "aren't used."

Norman Stiansen, a commercial fisherman from Hampton Bays, said his son Peter recently gave up on becoming a commercial fishermen because he couldn’t get the needed licenses.

Five years ago, Norman Stiansen’s uncle, Stian Stiansen, died at sea when his boat capsized as he approached Shinnecock Inlet from the Atlantic. He’d filed paperwork with the DEC to leave his permits to Norm Stiansen. But the DEC rejected the application because of a requirement that Norm didn’t live in the same “domicile” as his uncle, Norm Stiansen said. 

“I can’t get a license for my son? What the hell?” Stiansen said. “I just don’t get it. It’s been five years. I’ve kind of had it.”

Hank Lackner, a commercial trawler boat owner from Montauk, suggested that deck hands who work long fishing trips with him, often for days at a time, should get priority and credit for their time fished when it comes to issuing new permits.

“They are true commercial fishermen, working 20 hours a day in all kinds of heat,” he said. “How do we get new people in the fishery?”

“It’s pretty much impossible to get a license,” said Aaron Rozzi, 31, who fishes as a deck hand on boats throughout the East End and called the licensing situation “un-American. If your heart is set on doing something, you should be able to do it.”

Meetings will take place across Long Island and New York City through September. LaPointe will come up with a proposal that will be available for input and review before year’s end. It could result in administrative regulations or legislation by the end of 2018 or early 2019.

Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), who advocated for the meetings as part of a legislative compromise, said “issues I’ve been hearing about for a long time” came up at the Southampton meeting. Thiele said it was important for the fishing industry to “come up with a working proposal to bring to Albany.”

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