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Baymen ask for Town Code changes to protect their livelihoods

Island baymen asked the Town Board Tuesday to take steps other East End towns have taken to protect the livelihood of commercial fishermen.

Bayman John Kotula summed it up for the Board at the work session saying that if he were to try placing crab pots, eel pots or clamming in Shinnecock Bay, he’d be “ticketed or arrested” within half an hour. “We have no protections,” he said.

Commercial fishermen from other areas are able to come to Shelter Island waters and have the same access to bay bottoms as locals with no repercussions. There have been outsiders harvesting in commercial quantities, Mr. Kotula said. Bay constables last summer tried to take action, only to have the case tossed out because of the lack of protection in the Town Code.

It’s not the recreational fishing community that causes the problem, but outside commercial fishermen.

He and bayman Tom Field told the Board they need Code changes protecting those “domiciled” on the Island from outsiders encroaching on the supply of shellfish and other forms of commercial fish. They asked for and were rapidly granted a meeting with Town Attorney Stephen Kiely to review the existing Code and work on changes that would protect their ability to make a living.

The baymen want the Town to provide either a commercial permit or harvester permit to those who live on Shelter Island. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issues a domiciled permit, but that applies to all waters in the state. Supervisor Gerry Siller asked the baymen to put together a list of their concerns while town officials do the same in order to resolve some long-standing problems.

There are other aspects of the Code that are antiquated, Mr. Kotula said. There’s an entire section on whelks — sea snails — that don’t apply to today’s circumstances, he said.

Past behavior among many commercial fishermen was to toss the whelks on beaches; the Code provides for them to be killed. For years they were not eaten in this country, but have since become a delicacy, Mr. Kotula said. “I make a substantial part of my income harvesting whelks,” he said, and the section of Code dealing with them as it currently reads needs to be eliminated.

Another problem arises in Dering Harbor, Mr. Kotula said. Dering Harbor is closed during summer months because of what the DEC sees as the potential of bad water quality, he said. There’s nothing wrong with the water there, he added. In the past the area has been open for harvesting between November and April with the understanding that commercial fishermen could call a hot line and see if it was all right to harvest day-to-day. This year, it wasn’t open at all, he said.

Police Chief Jim Read said the problem wasn’t the fault of bay constables for failing to get water tested. The DEC was short on personnel to test the water samples in a timely way.

Oyster reefs

Mr. Kotula told Kate Rossi-Snook, an advocate for a pilot program to place oyster reefs at a yet to be determined area this summer, that he favors the program, but wants to ensure the placement doesn’t take away from access to public areas or limit the activities of baymen.

“I’m all about keeping public land public,” he said.

“All the work I do is supporting baymen,” Ms. Rossi-Snook said. She noted the pilot project for the Island, being undertaken in cooperation with Cornell Cooperative Extension, would not be permanent or take up much room.

Among areas talked about at Ms. Rossi-Snook’s previous meeting with the Town Board was in the vicinity of Grace’s Lane, where there is Town-owned land as well as a protected site purchased with Community Preservation money.

Gordon Gooding, chairman of the Community Preservation Fund Advisory Board, said he doesn’t necessarily object to use of waters off the Dickerson Creek Overlook Preserve, but it’s really a question for an East End advisory group that has not been active to render an opinion of how CPF acquired property can be used. At the same time, he said he favors the pilot oyster reef project.

Mr. Field asked about the possibility of using a site at Sylvester Manor, but Ms. Rossi-Snook said while Sylvester Manor is willing to allow use of water beyond its back field to cure shells, placing the reefs in that water isn’t a go.

Mr. Siller wanted to know if Ms. Rossi-Snook is seeking permission to place the reef in Town water or seeking funding.

“Funds would be awesome,” Ms. Rossi-Snook said. But first and foremost she wants to gain permission to use a site for the pilot project. A site chosen must be able to support electricity, she said.

In the past, Mr. Siller has said there’s $10,000 in the budget for shellfish restoration.

“Conceptually, we’re all for it,” he said at an earlier meeting this month with Ms. Rossi-Snook and Cornell Cooperative representatives.