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Aug 8, 2017 5:06 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

For New Commercial Fishermen, Licensing Hurdles Are High

Aaron Rozzi and his commercial fishing mentor, Jon Semlear, have been stymied in their attempts to secure state fishing licenses for Mr. Rozzi. Michael Wright
Aug 8, 2017 5:45 PM

For Sag Harbor native Aaron Rozzi, embarking on a career as a commercial fisherman was always going to be a steep uphill climb. Increasingly stringent regulation of fish stocks, and the ever-escalating costs of equipment, fuel and simply living on the South Fork make the life of a traditional bayman a hard path to follow in today’s world.But Mr. Rozzi, 30, decided when he was still in his teens that it was the career he wanted. He has worked on the bays and fishing boats for 11 years and is now in his fifth year of earning every penny of his income from the fish he catches and the shellfish he digs from the mud of local bays.

Unlike most of the paltry few young local men his age who have chosen a career as commercial fishermen, Mr. Rozzi does not come from a family of fishermen with a generational support network. And that has proven to be perhaps the highest hurdle he has encountered—because after five years as a full-time fisherman, he still does not have the state-issued license that allows him to sell much of his catch.

“The license procedure is a joke,” Mr. Rozzi sighed. “It’s a lottery—you have to show three years of income of at least $15,000 from fishing. I’ve shown more than that for each of the last five years, and I still have not been chosen in the lottery system.”

Without the license, which the state calls a “food fishing license,” and add-on permits for selling striped bass and fluke in particular, Mr. Rozzi is limited to working for other fishermen for a salary and harvesting shellfish from the bays, which are regulated by the towns.

He has cobbled together a modest living working on gill net boats out of the commercial docks at Shinnecock Inlet in Hampton Bays, trapping crabs and conch, and digging clams and scallops in the Peconics. He is getting married this fall and is hoping to start looking for a house to buy. But until he secures a food fishing license he has little hope of being able to make a long-term go of it as an independent fisherman.

His story is not an uncommon one. Other young fishermen trying to gain a foothold in an industry once revered in the region as a living emblem of its rich natural and cultural history also have found themselves boxed out, simply because they don’t have fathers who fished for a living, or deep pockets.

Commercial fishing advocates have harangued state officials for years about the intricate and arcane system that determines who gets food fishing licenses and how a license can be passed from one fisherman to another of his choosing.

In the early 1990s, with many economically important fish species, like striped bass and fluke, at historic low population estimates, New York State put a moratorium on new fishing licenses to temper growth of the industry—both to relieve pressure on fish stocks and to prevent newly tightened quotas from being spread too thin among part-time fishermen.

Fish stocks, in most instances, rebounded. The fishing industry did not.

In the close to three decades since, fishermen who had licenses when the moratoriums were put in place have died and aged out of the industry. Those with sons or daughters who are fishermen have been able to pass on licenses to the next generation. But many licenses simply have been abandoned for lack of interest, a lack of heirs, or due to technical snafus that landed them in a file cabinet at the State Department of Environmental Conservation’s offices.

Fisheries authorities have kept a tight leash on how abandoned licenses are handled. Abandoned licenses are reissued through a lottery, though fishermen say they’ve been told only six in 10 abandoned licenses have been reissued, in keeping with the state’s longstanding effort to reduce fishing pressure.

A fisherman who holds a license may pass down his license only to an immediate family member: a brother or sister, wife or husband, son or daughter, or any blood relative who lives in the home. A fisherman may pass his license to his sister, but not to his sister’s son, unless the nephew lives with him.

Stian Stiansen, a Hampton Bays fisherman who died at the age of 85 when his boat capsized while returning from fishing into Shinnecock Inlet in 2013, thought he had made all the necessary arrangements to transfer his licenses to his nephew, Norman Stiansen, before he died. Norman, also a Shinnecock Bay-based dragger captain, like his father and uncle, intended to take Stian’s licenses and transfer his own licenses to his son, Peter, who was nearing the age when he would take over a boat and go to work for himself.

But when Norman Stiansen went to the DEC with the paperwork to get the licenses put into his name a few weeks after Stian’s death, he was told the license could not be transferred to him. The license could only go to immediate family, and Norman did not qualify under the state’s definition, because he did not live with his elderly uncle at the time of his death.

An immediate family member must be designated in a form filed with the DEC—and no immediate family member had been designated on paper, since Stian had thought his licenses would go straight to Norman automatically.

The license was left in a regulatory limbo.

“Stian left me the corporation, his boat, all his equipment and his licenses in his will,” Norman Stiansen recalled last week. “Then they sent me a letter saying they were sorry for the death of my uncle, but that they couldn’t transfer his licenses because I did not live in his house.”

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle introduced legislation that made it possible for a license to go to an immediate family member if one had not been designated prior to a fisherman’s death. But they still do not allow transfer to extended family. They also do not allow an active fisherman to will a license to another who is not related to him prior to his death.

“If I said, ‘Here, Aaron, take my whole rig over,’ tomorrow, he couldn’t do it,” said Jon Semlear, a Noyac bayman who other fishermen jokingly say has adopted Mr. Rozzi, taking him under his wing as a fishing mentor eight years ago. “I should be able to give him my traps and my license, my striped bass permits, my fluke permits. But I can’t. I have to die.”

The state law allows that if a fisherman designates an immediate family member to get his license when he dies, and that immediate family member does not want to use the license, the fisherman may choose an alternate recipient who does not have to be a blood relative.

Other than that, there is no way for a fisherman to bequeath his fishing history to another non-relative or to sell the license to help with the economic difficulty of not being able to fish anymore.

“Every other state allows the selling of personal permits other than New York,” said Bonnie Brady, director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association. “That allows the guys that want to retire to retire, and it lets the young guys show that ‘Hey, I’m invested in this business.’”

There are a scattered few corporate licenses in the state that can be bought and sold, but the going rate is generally in the neighborhood of $150,000, fishermen said—well out of the range of young newcomers to the industry.

Even some of those who do have the main licenses say they are hamstrung without the full complement of permits.

“I still don’t have the fluke license,” said Amagansett bayman Danny Lester, a lifelong commercial fisherman. “Me and Matt Miller, we couldn’t show proof of landings the year they set those up—I was still in high school—so I missed the cutoff.”

Earlier this summer, at the urging of local state legislators, the DEC agreed to hold talks with fishermen this fall about ways the license assignment procedure might be made more accommodating to fishermen, while still keeping the reins on the expansion of commercial fishing effort.

“DEC is aware of the need to explore options for making striped bass and [fluke] permits available to new applicants,” DEC spokesperson Lori Severino said in a prepared statement sent by email this week. “This is a complex issue, and DEC will seek input from commercial fishermen and the Marine Resources Advisory Council to ensure that the solution to this issue takes into consideration the concerns of all interested parties.”

To say that fishermen are less than optimistic about whether any meaningful change will come about as a result of the forced talks would be an understatement. Most said they do not think even a basic concept, like being able pass on a license to someone of a fisherman’s choice, stands a chance of being changed.

Others were convinced that bureaucrats in Albany are intent on squeezing the commercial fishing industry until the last fisherman throws in his hat for a terrestrial job.

“It’s un-American,” Mr. Semlear said. “If someone wants to work, he wants to be a fisherman, he should be able to get a license. It’s not right. It’s almost like there’s a strategy to make the industry die.”

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The DEC is an omnipotent out of control agency with no elected head to answer to the people! A cherished way of life is being slowly destroyed by the State, sad times indeed.
By bigfresh (4666), north sea on Aug 9, 17 5:17 PM
While Mr. Rozzi is certainly not to blame for the situation, maybe if we hadn't over-fished / poorly managed our fisheries for 100 years it would be easier to get a license today.

Fish will not be here forever. As resources become scarce so do those who can profit from them.
By adlkjd923ilifmac.aladfksdurwp (747), southampton on Aug 9, 17 6:57 PM
1 member liked this comment
It's just easier to blame the DEC.

Ask bigfresh.
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Aug 9, 17 8:17 PM
Do you have any first hand knowledge of commercial fishing JuneZ? Any idea how the resource is managed? Any idea how well recovered most species are? Any idea how out of control the DEC truly is , especially when it comes to search and seizure without a warrant? Any cule at all?
By bigfresh (4666), north sea on Aug 11, 17 6:45 AM
1 member liked this comment
New York State needs to be sued -- licenses that is needed to make a living are the Constitutional property of the holders affording them the exclusive right of transfer . That is why every other state and the federal government provides for the selling of limited entry commercial fishing permits -- it's not that they are being "nice".Everyone who has "abandoned" their licenses for whatever reason can file suit for the lost value from being prevented from exercising their Constitutional proprietary ...more
By surfnetter (6), Center Moriches on Aug 10, 17 4:37 AM
Shameful to make an already difficult job even harder for our local fisherman who provide us with food. Our bays have been beat up with illegal fishing, clamming , crabbing ( Mecox Bay) etc for years by illegal immigrants , yet the state punishes those who have made this their living. RESPECT THE FISHERMAN!
By toes in the water (884), southampton on Aug 10, 17 6:59 AM
1 member liked this comment
You can write in all caps to respect fisherman but your comment doesnt really address anything.

Keep screaming, keep getting nowhere, keep 'respecting' those fisherman...
By adlkjd923ilifmac.aladfksdurwp (747), southampton on Aug 10, 17 9:37 AM
LOL you clearly live in a little bubble and have completely no clue as to how difficult of a job it is to be a fisherman which is why you are part of the problem. You probably think food comes in a box. I would pray for you but it seems pointless.

Rather than making snide remarks about things you dont understand, take the time to educate yourself. RESPECT FISHERMAN ( over hear screaming my head off LOL )
By toes in the water (884), southampton on Aug 11, 17 6:35 AM
You Tube : So God Made a Fisherman -A Video Tribute- Core Sound, NC.
Joel Hancock Sr

By toes in the water (884), southampton on Aug 11, 17 7:18 AM
People defending the DEC and fish are clueless. Makes sense, their goal is complete control over everything we can do. It has nothing to do with "declining fish stocks." Its just an excuse for these leftists to pad the Hamptons with the right "desirables."
By TrueHamptons (33), Sag Harbor on Aug 15, 17 2:00 PM