Standing in a Riverhead law office on Tuesday afternoon, about a dozen of East End fishermen signed a Fisherman’s Bill of Rights. It was the latest move in a months long effort by a group of East Hampton baymen to protect their industry against what they say are unreasonable practices by the state that take away their basic rights under the Constitution.
Daniel Rodgers, a Riverhead attorney who has taken up the East End fisherman’s battle against the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), said he plans to forward the Fisherman’s Bill of Rights to Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Secretary of State.
This comes after Rodgers formally filed an ethics complaint against the DEC related to the sale of fishermen’s catch after DEC officers seized the fish.
Nassau County attorney Harry H. Kutner, Jr. also announced this week that the group is considering a federal civil rights class action lawsuit against the DEC for allegedly violating fishermen’s rights on the East End.
Rodgers has been working with baymen like the Lester family, current East Hampton Town Trustee Nat Miller and former trustee and veteran baymen Stuart Vorpahl since he took on a DEC case against the Lesters last summer. Paul and Kelly Lester were accused of violating the state’s Conservation Law after a raid of their Amagansett home and were ultimately acquitted. However, for Rodgers it opened his eyes to what he views as state law that allows DEC officers to deprive fishermen of their basic rights under the Constitution. Specifically, it allows that fishermen’s homes and boats can be searched without a warrant and fish seized and sold by DEC officers before they have been deemed guilty or innocent of any crime.
“Because it is the law of the land in the State of New York that fishermen and women as a class be treated differently than ordinary citizens of this State, we have created a Fishermen’s Bill of Rights as an Amendment to the Constitution of the State of New York,” said Rodgers in a statement on Tuesday.
Under the Fishermen’s Bill of Rights, all fishermen would be protected against warrantless searches and seizures unless an officer has probable cause. Fishermen cannot be deprived of property without due process, under the bill of rights and if they are they must be compensated. The bill of rights also aims to give fishermen equal protection under the law and protects them from excessive penalties.
Lastly, the bill of rights states that “No fisherman shall be subject to any moratorium” that deprives them of the right to work unless it is backed up by actual legislation by the state. Currently, the DEC has moratoriums against issuing fluke and striped bass permits to fisherman.
“The DEC moratoriums effectively close down fisheries,” said Rodgers on Tuesday. “It deprives fisherman the ability to make a living. Moratoriums are designed to be temporary but these have been in place for years.”
These issues, said Rodgers, will also be addressed if and when a lawsuit is filed on behalf of the fishermen against the DEC, which could happen as early as August, he said.