Farther East

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Here is one from the Obscure References Department: The Scottish educator A.S. Neill titled one of his books, “Freedom, Not License.” The book explained his philosophy that not having students adhere to rules means that he is encouraging freedom with self-discipline, not that the students should believe they can do whatever they want. (Extra credit to any reader who knows who Neill was and the name of the “radical” school he founded.)

His book title came to mind immediately after I heard about the latest attempt by big government to control the local fishing industry.

In 2006, the Congress reauthorized the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs fishing in federal waters. To some extent, this legislation has been beneficial in the conservation of fisheries, including what is available to anglers and commercial enterprises on eastern Long Island. But as part of the reauthorization, starting a year from now, those of us here who want to fish for striped bass would have to obtain a license from the federal government. (Okay, I admit, the closest I’ve gotten to a striped bass lately was either at a restaurant or in a threesome with former Gov. Jim McGreevey of New Jersey.)

As a result of the reauthorization of the Act, the feds are seeking to establish a national recreational registry for striped bass fishing in federal waters between three and 200 miles offshore and in state waters directly offshore including, of course, the various popular spots on the East End frequented much of the year by surfcasters.

Traditionally, and for good reasons, fishermen here have stood against saltwater licenses, promoting the policy of “freedom, not license.” This has been sacrosanct for a long time and you won’t find many anglers saying otherwise. The view has been that we have all this shoreline and water out there, a lot of good fishing days in the year, and still (we hope) a good variety and number of fish, so let’s all have at it.

The feds think otherwise. And they want to put more of their fingers into the local pie, or at least determine how it is baked and sliced up.

The effort by the feds is not exactly being fought but “negotiated” by the Montauk Surfcasters Association. The head of this group is a genial and seemingly knowledgeable William Young, who is also head of New York Coastal Coalition of Recreational Fishermen.

“Mixed,” is how he termed the reaction of those who he has heard from in his organization because it is “hard to take a poll of 800 or so members.”

“We are for the state managing the application of the Act here,” Young said. “We also think there should be an advisory board on the use of the fees connected to the licenses. And we want to see a gradual phasing in of licenses rather than hit everybody all at once.”

He emphasized, however, that the “feds wanting fishermen to purchase licenses is not about conservation. What it really is, this is all about the fluke. The feds want more data, and we have to pay for collecting more data. None of the shore-based anglers solicited this. The proposal is a response to the charter boat operators.”

There is little doubt that the proposed fishing license is government becoming more involved in the fishing industry, which will rankle many of the independent sorts who like to fish. And an even less benign way to look at the fee for the license—$25 has been mentioned—as a kind of tax on fishing.

“They don’t want to make it seem like a tax,” Young said about the federal government. “But if you don’t pay it, you don’t fish anymore.” Let’s face it: It is the 2008 equivalent of the Stamp Act.

This effort by the feds could get worse for anglers. “It’s not going to be just for striped bass fishing,” warned Young. “That’s just for starters. Maybe that’s the only thing they can write in now because they’ve hit the striped bass before and it worked. Gordon’s happy again. But the federal government isn’t only going to be fully happy until there is a license for everyone for every fish.”

He is referring to Gordon Colvin. He is now with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, but some readers will remember him at the State Department of Environmental Conservation. Part of his role there, as chronicled in Peter Mathiessen’s “Men’s Lives,” was to virtually end the occupation of striped bass fishermen in the 1980s. Now he can further attack striped bass fishing at the federal level.

Okay, what can be done? “There are some people who don’t want any licenses at all, but reality is reality,” Young said. “This is the way it’s going to be down the road. It’s a crucial time to work out what’s best for fishermen to take us down that road. And ultimately what matters is what’s best for the fishery. You can’t go against all the other groups because what has cost everybody in the past is the fighting among ourselves.

“I was up in Albany the other day. We’re not sitting idle on this. We’re going to make the best of it that we can. There are going to be hearings. Right now, we’re starting to get the word out that this is the way it could be, but not the way it has to be. We’ve got a lot to say, and we’ve got the influence of members who pay taxes and buy things that help the economy and, of course, vote.”

Young added: “It is important that people know that this is not a regulation which can get done behind closed doors, this has to be legislated, so you can lobby and otherwise have your say. It has to happen this year because the final result gets implemented in 2009. There is only so much we can do, though we will do everything we can for the interests of fishermen. Contact your elected officials and tell them what you think. The eastern towns have to be involved.”

More next week …

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