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Artificial reef to be built, thanks to fishing fees

Citing new money from saltwater fishing license fees, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has resurrected plans for an 850-acre deepwater artificial reef off the East End put on hold last year because of budget problems.

The announcement Wednesday by state officials marks the resumption of the artificial reef program suspended in March 2009 because the DEC did not have enough money to pay workers to help the program's lone staffer inspect and monitor the reefs.

"This is fantastic," said recreational fisherman John Schoenig of Greenlawn, who lobbied the state for years to add to the existing system of 11 artificial reefs off Long Island. Anglers and divers like reefs because they provide habitat for fish, crabs and other marine life.

The DEC said the new reef would be located 12 miles off Westhampton and built of rocks and other material dredged up from New York Harbor by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. New material will also be placed at older reefs, with construction set to begin in 6 to 12 months.

Bill Pfeiffer, president of the Long Island Divers Association, said the new reef could turn a barren stretch of sea floor into a marine haven. "It's a sandy bottom, 125 to 145 feet deep," he said. "We could expect to see large fish, crustaceans moving into the site."

DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis and Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst) said restoring the program would not have been possible without money from the marine fishing license, which has generated $2.5 million since it was imposed in late 2009.

The saltwater license has met with resistance from many in the recreational fishing industry, who fear it will dissuade anglers and put a damper on their businesses. Seven Long Island towns have sued the DEC over the license, saying the requirement encroaches on their authority to regulate town waters.

Sweeney said jump-starting the reef program will help Long Island "get the benefit of the saltwater license" - which also entitles New York to millions in federal matching funds that are only available to states with licensed fishermen. This year New York received $9.5 million from those matching funds; about $3 million will go to marine projects, such as recent improvements to the Moriches boat ramp.

Schoenig, 69, said the reef planned off Westhampton would also boost the local economy: "When there are fish there to catch, then more people are going to go there, more bait will be sold, and more sandwiches at the deli."

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