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State official: NY commercial fishermen ‘getting a raw deal’

Basil Seggos, state commissioner of the DEC, seen

Basil Seggos, state commissioner of the DEC, seen in an undated photo, recently met with commerical fishermen to hear complaints about federal fisheries quotas. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

New York commercial fishermen are “getting a raw deal” in federal fisheries quotas, and the state will follow through on a lawsuit early next year if meetings in December don’t fix the problem, the state’s top fisheries official said last week.

At a meeting at the East Hampton Public Library on Thursday, Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, listened to two full hours of complaints about state and federal regulations and management of fisheries, including restrictive quotas, inaccurate fish-population data, difficulty in getting and transferring permits, and “Gestapo”-like tactics of federal observers on local fishing vessels.

Seggos in an interview after the meeting said the state would base its response to federal regulators “on the numbers we get” in the federal quota following a meeting of an interstate commission in December to divvy up the quota for fluke and other species.

New York gets only 7.6 percent of the Atlantic-state quota for fluke, while North Carolina and Virginia get more than 20 percent each. The quotas were set decades ago based on incomplete data of each state’s percentage of the coast-wide catch. Jim Gilmore, director of the DEC’s marine resources division, was recently appointed chairman of one of those interstate bodies, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

“New York is getting a raw deal and there needs to be equity,” Seggos said, noting his efforts will start with the commercial sector. Recreational fishers have similar complaints.

Federal fishing regulators haven’t yet responded to a letter from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last month threatening to make good on a four-year threat to sue. Fishing interests have been calling for the suit for years.

“Without the lawsuit we have no stick,” said Bonnie Brady, director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association. Riverhead fisherman Phil Karlin expressed impatience that the state would wait until next year to sue, after promising to do so in October.

The meeting, with around three dozen invited fishermen and state lawmakers, was largely a listening session. Fishing advocates expressed concerns beyond the federal quotas. Southampton attorney Daniel Rodgers, who heads the industry group New York Fish, said New York’s fishery was “an industry on life support,” and charged it has been “devastated by the actions of the DEC.”

Rodgers called management of state fishing permits “unlawful,” and charged the state has “refused to do anything about it.” He noted a dearth of young people in the room, and in the industry, and charged regulations were largely at fault. “I’ve never seen the governor do anything about it until recently,” with the threatened lawsuit, Rodgers said.

Montauk fisherman Hank Lackner told Seggos: “The reason there are no young people in the room is because our quota isn’t enough. There’s nothing to give new people.” Lackner said fishermen and fish dealers are already banding together and working with a law firm to prioritize demands in advance of the state’s threatened lawsuit.

Chuck Morici, a Montauk commercial fisherman who last month used an empty blue fish basket at a fisheries meeting to demonstrate how few fish Long Island fishermen can take compared to other states, told Seggos, “The system we have is not working,” including for fish conservation. New York fishermen, he said, must throw so many fish back dead. “You can feed the seagulls and the sand fleas but you can’t feed your family,” he said.

Seggos said he sought to pivot from “adversarial” relationships” that characterized the agency’s past ties to the fishing community, and said he wanted to be a “resource” for them. “I want action,” he told fishermen. “We expect to have action.”

Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who attended the meeting with Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), said afterward, “It is my hope the commissioner has heard the concerns of our fishermen and will consider their input as discussions continue.”

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