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Consultant: State should not renew licenses if commercial fishermen can't show minimum income

George Lapointe, a consultant for the state Department

George Lapointe, a consultant for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, outlines his commercial fishing permit recommendations during a meeting at Stony Brook University on Tuesday. Photo Credit: Newsday/Mark Harrington

New York commercial fishermen would be barred from renewing their licenses if they could not prove three years of income at $15,000 a year or more under a draft recommendation by a state consultant.

Response to the recommendation at a state hearing Tuesday night was mixed and sometimes heated. Some fishermen questioned why fisheries consultant George Lapointe, under contract to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, had stopped short of devising a plan for transferring or selling commercial fishing licenses, as a "significant" number of them had requested, Lapointe acknowledged. His report is a draft and there will be three public hearings to take comments before it's finalized. 

Lapointe’s recommendation that income be used to determine who is a commercial fisherman would look at each fisherman’s fishing-related income over three years to determine eligibility for a license. Those who can’t show three years of fishing income of over $15,000 each year would not be able to renew their licenses.

The state DEC already has an income verification policy, but longtime fishermen who qualified years ago faced "no provision for re-qualifying," DEC spokeswoman Maureen Wren said. "Many fishermen qualified years ago and may no longer be fishing." One recommendation in the Lapointe report, she said,  is to "require re-qualification and periodic review." 

Commercial fishing licenses can be transferred among family members, with proper paperwork and conditions that they live in the same household — rules long criticized by fishermen. Lapointe said a “significant”  number of fishermen had requested changes to allow more liberal transfer  or sale of licenses, but found it was “too big a change right now.” 

Some criticized the decision to delay the move. 

“All this we did, if it’s not going to allow licenses to be transferred, we’re wasting our time,” said John Davi, a commercial fisherman and a member of the Marine Resources Advisory Council, which held the meeting.

Daniel Rodgers, who represents fishermen in cases  before the DEC, said any delay in getting new licenses to fishermen is a problem. 

"They're basically saying it's going to be a half decade for an industry that's already on life support" before new licenses can circulate back to fishermen. 

Lapointe, a former Maine fisheries commissioner, said  New York could consider a license sale or transfer program in three to five years’ time, after the problem of unused licenses was cleaned up.

The draft report, begun in 2017, was aimed at what elected officials and fishermen say is an ineffective and exclusionary system for issuing licenses to fish and to harvest clams, oysters and lobster in New York waters, a system replete with restrictions and long-term moratoriums that has failed to keep pace with fish populations and ever-changing quotas. That’s led to an aging population of fishermen, and grumbling about licenses held by old-timers who may not actively fish. Lapointe said the average age of New York fishermen, most from Long Island, is “well in excess of 50.”

The state issues around 950 so-called food-fish licenses to harvest a range of species across the region, but fully a third of those licenses are not used, he said. The argument has been that many of those so-called latent, or barely used licenses, are issued to those who are renewing a license they have long held, preventing new fishermen from entering the fishery. New fishermen, for instance, cannot get licenses or tags for the most in-demand fish — fluke and striped bass — because of moratoriums on those licenses. Many older fishermen maintain lobster licenses even though lobsters have been largely wiped out in once-rich waters like the Long Island Sound. Attempting to make $15,000 a year on lobsters, for instance, would be impossible. Most fishermen harvest a range of species, and require a wallet full of licenses.

“You need to take strong action to address latent licenses,” Lapointe said.

The recommendation drew a sharp rebuke from one longtime fisherman. Peter Lizza, an Oyster Bay lobsterman who has consistently obtained a license to fish, even though the fishery is depleted. “We feel like we’re getting swiped away again,” he said of the certain loss of his licenses because the lobster fishery “has died.” He maintains his boat and gear, but spends most of his time in construction. “It’s not going to be overfished any more than it is,” he said.

Lapointe's recommendations included startup of an apprentice program to induce younger fishermen and women to get into the field; modifications to existing rules that limit transfer of licenses within families to those who live in the same household as the license holder, suggesting the state do away with the so-called “domicile” requirement; and changes to lottery programs that award occasionally available licenses to in-demand fisheries by giving those who’ve waited longest more weight in the selection process.

Several fishermen took issue with the report’s focus on “taking away” licenses rather than finding ways to grow and improve Long Island fisheries. “Did you make any recommendations for growth?” said Brad Loewen, a commercial fisherman and member of East Hampton Town’s Fisheries Committee.

“It wasn’t about market share,” Lapointe said. “I was focusing on licensing issues. … It was not about growing the fishery.”

The recommendations will be the subject of several public hearings in coming weeks, and public comment will be allowed until Sept. 30. The DEC, according to marine bureau chief Jim Gilmore, will take those comments and the recommendations when considering either internal changes to its regulations, or legislative action to modify the rules.

“This is going to be very complicated,” he said, adding that “there’s going to be some people very unhappy with it.” Either way, he said, “we’ll look at any option” to improve the system.

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