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Jan 21, 2015 12:28 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Commercial Fishermen Rally In Hampton Bays, Demand Changes To DEC's Enforcement Policies

Jan 21, 2015 2:15 PM

Dozens of commercial fishermen from Southampton, East Hampton and other harbors across Long Island rallied on a windswept dock in Hampton Bays on Monday afternoon in defense of one of their own, and to protest what they said is the latest example of overzealous persecution by officers employed with the State Department of Environmental Conservation.

An attorney for fisherman Bill Reed of Hampton Bays, who was charged last week with violating state catch limits for fluke, called on DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens to resign over the perceived abuses by his agents. He also asked Governor Andrew Cuomo to personally call for an overhaul of the state’s fisheries enforcement policies.

“We are asking Governor Cuomo to get off the bench and step up to the plate and show real leadership in the fishing industry,” said attorney Dan Rodgers of Riverhead, who has spearheaded the push-back against DEC enforcement on behalf of commercial fishermen in East Hampton and Southampton towns. “We are asking Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott to explain why her long overdue report on the investigation of the DEC has still not been released.

“And we are demanding that the DEC Marine Enforcement Bureau be disbanded … ” he added, “and that DEC Commissioner Joe Martens must step down.”

Mr. Rodgers stated that the charges filed against Mr. Reed, and the seizure of some 700 pounds of his catch, were an unfairly strict enforcement of the state regulations. He explained that Mr. Reed has stated that he was fishing at the time under a permit he purchased for his boat, allowing him to land fish in New Jersey, where fluke limits at the time were more liberal, and was forced to come back to port in New York only when he was overtaken by a strong storm.

Mr. Reed said he notified the DEC of his predicament before he returned to port in Hampton Bays, and had a federal National Marine Fisheries Service observer on board at the time who could vouch for what the intentions of the trip had been.

But the officers who boarded his boat shortly after he docked nonetheless cited him for catching more than the 250 pounds he was allowed under New York rules.

With Mr. Reed’s stout white fishing boat, the Providence, rocking in its mooring behind them, many of the fishermen gathered on the dock Monday afternoon bellowed similar complaints about years of untoward behavior by DEC agents seeking to enforce state fisheries rules. They said that the agents seem to pursue them with particular fervor, without just cause.

“They treat us like criminals,” said Robert Migdalski, a fisherman. “It’s persecution, not enforcement. There’s no common sense involved.”

Many fishermen in attendance offered examples of DEC officers enforcing the letter of law with an iron fist and with no consideration of extenuating circumstances, like those Mr. Reed faced, as evidence that the agents are not just worried about making sure the rules are being followed in spirit. Some fishermen complained that they are sometimes cited for not having filled out trip reports, documenting their catch, within moments of making landfall.

“We have to have paperwork filled out the second we hit the dock,” fisherman Richard LaRocca Sr. said. “In 6- to 8-foot seas, with 12- to 15-foot waves coming in the inlet, we’re filling out reports. Who is watching the waves? It’s dangerous.”

Many of the complaints echoed those that rang out more than four years ago, when East Hampton baymen Kelly and Paul Lester raised the alarm about the DEC’s enforcement policies after being charged with felony violations of fisheries rules.

Mr. Rodgers also represented the Lesters in that case. The charges against them ultimately were dismissed, and the incident led to state lawmakers calling for an investigation of the DEC’s enforcement practices.

That investigation, by the state inspector general’s office, began nearly three years ago, but no report has ever been issued. Mr. Rodgers said Monday that he has been told by investigators for months that the report’s issuance is imminent, and that it is believed to contain damning criticisms of the DEC’s enforcement polices—but that the IG’s office seems to be dragging its feet with its release.

State lawmakers have echoed Mr. Rodgers complaints about the long delay in what was expected to be a pointed report on needed changes at the DEC.

“There was a lot of activity for the first six to nine months … since then, it’s been quiet,” State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who spurred the investigation, said of the long-awaited conclusions last fall. “I’ve called to ask what the timetable on a report is several times. They keep saying it’s almost done.”

A spokesman for the inspector general’s office, William Reynolds, has repeatedly refused to comment to The Press on the status of the report.

In the meantime, Mr. Rodgers said, the DEC has made some changes in its policies that address some of the criticisms believed to be highlighted by the investigation. For example, no longer do they sell illegally harvested fish that are seized from fishermen and put the money into DEC accounts—a practice that prompted cries of conflict of interest and potential for corruption. Instead, such seized fish, like those taken from Mr. Reed and the more than 600 pounds seized from another Shinnecock fisherman in December, are donated to food banks.

Nonetheless, Mr. Rodgers added, endemic problems within the enforcement community will be harder to simply iron out of the DEC’s current bureaucracy, and fishermen are in need of an advocate in Albany with the power to cry foul on their behalf.

“The DEC is dysfunctional—it is time for reform,” he said on Monday. “The governor has failed us. The inspector general has failed us. We’d like someone from Albany to come down here.”

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You are all being much to kind to a government that doesn't serve the people.
By newresident (4), Hampton Bays on Jan 22, 15 12:06 PM
1 member liked this comment
Start with disbanding DEC, then work on NMFS.

By Draggerman (822), Southampton on Jan 24, 15 8:25 AM
2 members liked this comment
What a shame....typical government..............does anyone remember commercial and sport fishing in the 80's?
By DouglasUlrich (1), Huntington, New York on Jan 28, 15 9:58 AM
The DEC is a virtually omnipotent agency with no oversight and no elected officials that answer to the voters, you know , the ones PAYING for this ****! The DEC is allowed to search private property without a warrant , and are fully armed. Too much power .
By bigfresh (3752), north sea on Jan 29, 15 11:35 AM