Fees Take A Leap

December 18, 1997

Fishermen are beginning to realize that the cost of commercial licenses will increase between 300 and 500 percent in 1998. The rise is hard to swallow for many who feel their sportfishing counterparts have gotten a free ride from the state for too long. But it could have been worse.

"Maybe I missed the meetings," a shocked Louis Veprek said on Monday. He fishes the bays during the summer months and recently got a bill from the State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Like many baymen, Mr. Veprek buys a number of licenses that allow him to switch fisheries in order to make a living.

Authorized Last Summer

"It used to be $100 for a commercial food fish license, and $30 for a shellfish license. Now it's $250 for a food fish license, and $50 for a shellfish license. It went from $7 to $50 for a shellfish shipper's, class F license. I can see incremental changes, but this. . . ." Mr. Veprek said.

The bayman was right. He did miss the meeting - meetings, actually. The increases were authorized as part of the Omnibus Marine Resources bill passed last summer. According to Gordon Colvin, director of the D.E.C.'s division of marine resources, the reasons for the increase were several.

"There are the costs of statistics and reporting, and there are the enhancements in marine programs, and the cost of the provisions of the moratorium," he said, referring to the current one-year moratorium on the issuance of new commercial food-fish and lobstering licenses.

Extensive Dialogue

Mr. Colvin added that the increases would help pay for the administration of more detailed shellfish inspections required under new Federal regulations.

Basically, he said, "the marine resources account was in need of funding support. There was an extensive public dialogue," Mr. Colvin added. He allowed that complaints were coming in, nevertheless.

He said the issue was first debated three years ago within the Marine Resources Advisory Council, a state-authorized organization of scientists and representatives of commercial and recreational fisheries. Mr. Colvin said that in the end, the increases were not justified as a means for keeping part-time fishermen off the water. People didn't think it would work, Mr. Colvin said.

"Flabbergasted"

In fact, he added, commercial fishermen thought that an expensive license would prompt wealthy sportfishermen to go into business after the current moratorium ended.

Arnold Leo, secretary of the East Hampton Town Baymen's Association, who chaired a licensing committee for the council, said his group was "flabbergasted" when its recommended 20 percent fee increases were rejected in the omnibus bill in favor of the mega-leap in costs to commercial fishermen. His committee complained, and the entire Advisory Council followed suit.

Mr. Leo said his committee understood that the cost of administering the newly adopted regimen of "limited entry" management - that is, limiting the number of commercial fishermen in any given fishery - was greater.

"Unconscionable"

For instance, he said, the jump from $35 to $50 for a shellfishing license was understandable in that shellfish fisheries were not, as yet, subject to limited entry.

At the same time, he said that for "baymen trying to piece together a living by lobstering, finfishing, and shellfishing, a 300 percent increase is unconscionable in light of the fact that the [D.E.C.] doesn't have the political balls to require a $5 recreational license."

"Once again they are making the commercial fisherman pay for the total mismanagement of the fishery."

Could Have Been Worse

Mr. Leo said the Baymen's Association was still smarting from what appeared to be the complete rejection of its proposal for a modified haulseine fishery.

"Our recent experience proves again their complete unresponsiveness to the needs of the inshore commercial fisherman and that their policy is directed by political considerations," he said. The idea was presented, unsuccessfully, to D.E.C. Commissioner John Cahill last month.

Bill Wise, president of the Marine Resources Advisory Council, said the fees could have been higher. When the budget division was looking over the original omnibus bill, it found "an existing shortfall in the marine resources budget" and recommended an even steeper rise in commercial fishing fees.

Federal Funds

"When we got wind of it, we said we would have none of it, and that the deficit should be handled separately. Eventually, it was scaled back to the D.E.C.'s original request," Mr. Wise said.

He said a $5 recreational fishing license would more than compensate for the agency's budget problems as long as the money raised went to the agency. "The council would support it if the money went back into the programs, if it were not used to offset the base budget [from the capital budget], and if the state demonstrated how it would be spent."

Mr. Wise said that a modest recreational fee would also leave the state open to Federal funds - collected via the sale of boating and sportfishing products - that would amount to as much, or more than the license income itself.

Losing Money

"We're losing substantial money. My belief is a recreational license is long overdue, and that the safeguards are not a problem." Like Mr. Colvin, he blamed the impasse on sport licenses on "a lack of leadership."

Mr. Colvin said that the higher commercial license fees were not universally opposed. He said that some of the "larger" lobstermen saw this as a means of keeping part-timers off the water. "The cost won't discourage fishermen given the nature of the license moratorium," Mr. Colvin said. "They are going to want to hang on, for fear that if they let [their licenses] go, they'll never get them back."