Towns Make Final Pitch Against Fishing Licenses in Court

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CENTRAL ISLIP—Attorneys for Southampton, East Hampton and five other Long Island towns made a final pitch in state court on Monday, arguing that their residents and waters should be exempt from New York State’s saltwater fishing license requirement, based on the existence of colonial-era royal patents.

In legal briefs and through the questioning of several witnesses in court on Monday, the towns’ attorneys hoped to convince Judge Patrick Sweeney that the Town Trustees and councils of their respective towns can provide sufficient oversight of fisheries to meet federal requirements that took effect this year, so their residents should not have to buy the $10 annual state fishing license.

The towns also claimed that the towns’ sphere of influence should extend all the way to the boundaries of the traditional fishing areas they once managed, including the Atlantic Ocean within three miles of shore and the Peconics system, which is technically considered state waters, not town.

After the one-day trial, Judge Sweeney closed the case and said he would render a decision. The judge is retiring on December 31, so a decision is expected before then.

After hearings on the challenge by the town in June, Judge Sweeney ruled that there were three topics at issue that could be considered at Monday’s trial: the types of fish covered by the Magnusson-Stevens Fisheries Management Act, a recent update of which created a registry requirement for anglers, spurring the state license proposal; the boundaries of the Trustees’ jurisdictions; and the regulatory authority of the Trustees over fisheries.

To that end, the towns presented witnesses who could corroborate that the towns have exerted control of fisheries. East Hampton Town Trustees attorney John Courtney said that he did not call any witnesses, preferring to submit the Trustees’ claims in written briefs. But Southampton Town Trustees Ed Warner Jr. and Eric Shultz both took the stand to describe the Southampton Town Trustees’ regulatory history and requirements.

“When the town was purchased from the Shinnecocks, the right to fish along the shoreline was included,” Mr. Shultz said of his testimony. “The Shinnecocks didn’t think that someone else owned it out there. The patents mention the ‘pertinances,’ which are the rights attached to a property, and the right to fish is explicitly one of those.”

The towns are claiming that royal patents issued to the towns by the 17th century governor general of the New York Colony, then an agent of the king of England, promised the residents of the towns the right to catch fish, among various other activities, without restriction. Over the centuries, the patents have been ruled to still be valid by several courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, and the towns are claiming that at least within their waters fishermen should still be bound only by locally controlled rules, not state law.

The lawsuit was filed by the trustees of Southampton, East Hampton and Shelter Island towns a year ago, a day before the state’s first saltwater license was to go into effect. The other four towns—Brookhaven, Oyster Bay, Huntington, and Southold—joined the suit later.

Judge Sweeney issued an injunction against the state enforcing the license requirement in the towns that are challenging the requirement. That injunction remains in place today but does not apply to Montauk, because the East Hampton Town Trustees sold all of the land they once controlled east of Napeague in the 1800s.

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