By Claire Walla
For an area almost entirely surrounded by water, it’s no surprise fishing is a big part of life for many who live on the East End. And given such a citizenry, it’s no surprise that on October 1, 2009, when the state of New York enacted a law requiring all recreational anglers over the age of 16 to pay for saltwater fishing licenses, people got mad. And in the wake of ongoing debate over the license, which ultimately spawned seven lawsuits against the state and seven subsequent restraining orders, it’s perhaps no surprise that last Thursday, December 16 the State Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional.
State Assemblyman Fred Thiele and State Senator Ken LaValle both praised the court’s decision.
“[The law] went beyond what’s required by federal law,” Thiele said. “And I particularly commend the trustees of the towns of East Hampton and Southampton [for fighting against it].”
The suits were, in fact, brought in large part by the trustees of the two towns with support from Thiele and LaValle, and argued that that the state law violated the colonial land grants upon which the East End was founded. According to a press release issued by the Town of Southampton, these patent grants gave the respective towns the authority over all fisheries within the towns’ jurisdiction, therefore making state attempts to control these waters unlawful.
According to the Environmental Conservation Law, as it is called, anglers are required to purchase statewide saltwater fishing licenses at a cost of $4 a day, $8 a week or $10 for the year. An additional lifetime license is also available for a one-time cost of $150. The idea behind the law was to register all fishermen in the state of New York in accordance with new federal legislation that requires all states to collect statistical data and keep accurate records of all fishing activities.
However, Thiele contends the state had ulterior motives.
“It was nothing more than an attempt to raise money,” he said. “All the money is basically going into the [state's] general fund.”
Southampton Town Trustee Eric Schultz said the state had projected it would collect about $3 million from licensing fees, which would actually replenish the state’s DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) fund. Shultz explained that before any money from the saltwater fishing license was even collected, the state withdrew money from the DEC and dropped it in the general fund. Schultz believes the licensing fee is simply a tax to help the state.
“We understand that the government requires each state to have a license,” he added. “But what we were contesting was the fee.”
After the law was announced back in April of 2009, the Towns of Southampton, East Hampton, Shelter Island, Southold, Brookhaven, Huntington and Oyster Bay were successful in enacting temporary injunctions against the state law, making all waters within their jurisdiction exempt from licensing regulations. And on December 16, they all became permanent.
Shultz said the Southampton trustees are currently in the midst of discussions with town assistant attorney Joseph Lombardo to decipher which waters are actually affected by the state’s new ruling. He expects to have a clearer idea of the affected areas after the first of the year.
That’s because even though town waters are exempt from state regulation, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all fishermen are free from licensing fees.
“Unless you’re extremely locally based, you need the license,” said East Hampton fisherman Ron Jawin, who bought his lifetime license in 2009 shortly after the law was announced. Because town jurisdiction only goes so far, certain coastal areas around the East End, like Montauk, are still subject to state licensing requirements. And for die-hard anglers, there’s no limit to where they’ll go for the chance to move in on a thriving school of bass.
“If you hear there’s a fish in Montauk, you’re going to Montauk,” he said.
“I’m not in favor of being licensed,” Jawin added. But he said he decided to get the life-time license and pay a one-time fee “just to get it over with.” Plus, assuming state fees and regulations remain, he suspects the price of the license won’t go anywhere but up.
While Assemblyman Thiele opposes saltwater licensing fees on the statewide level and has drafted a letter of appeal to Governor Andrew Cuomo to consider banning all saltwater fishing licensing fees, he understands the need to track statistical data. Instead, he proposes a one-time saltwater fishing registration, sans fee.
“That’s all that’s required under federal law,” he added.