Forty Years a Conservation Officer - The Fisherman

Forty Years a Conservation Officer

2017 5 Forty Years Conservation Officer 1

Lt. Garret Meade picked me up on one of my first days as a newly appointed Environmental Conservation Officer. It was early summer, 1977. After a quick swearing in at central office in Albany a week or two prior, and an outfitting by our quartermaster, I now found myself on patrol with my Lieutenant in Suffolk County. I had no idea what I was doing or where we were going but I was confident that Lt Meade would show me. I suited up in my new green ECO uniform, strapped on my newly issued sidearm, and jumped in Lt. Meade’s unmarked patrol car.

“I just got a complaint of clammers in the closed waters in Babylon,” he said dryly. “We don’t have a boat available but we’ll go down and see what’s going on.” We soon arrived at the Babylon Pool at the end of Fire Island Avenue. Lt Meade drove to the southern end of the dock facing the car to the east. In the cove there had to be what seemed like a hundred clam boats of various shapes and sizes. With no patrol boat available Garry decided to hit the lights and sirens on his patrol car. I watched in amazement as every single boat hit the throttle, and like race horses coming out of the gate, raced south into the abyss of Great South Bay, engines roaring and white water and wakes spewing from every hull. As I stared wide eyed at the chaos before me I recall wondering how a handful of ECOs were supposed to handle this. And so began what was to be a forty year career in conservation law enforcement, including more specifically, marine conservation law enforcement.

Marine Fisheries  a Priority

Statewide, the approximately 280 ECOs in the Division of Law Enforcement in the NYSDEC are responsible for myriad laws that protect fish, wildlife, the environment and public safety. With only 25 field officers on Long Island, manpower can get stretched pretty thin. However, New York has always placed an emphasis on marine resource protection. Even though the Division of Law enforcement traces its roots to six Game Protectors appointed by Governor Cornell in 1880 to enforce fish and wildlife laws inland, by the early 1900s New York had appointed Shellfish and Oyster Protectors specifically to police the shellfish industry. In the 1950s Marine Protectors were designated to specifically address enforcement issues in the marine district. The separate marine enforcement program was eventually abandoned due to limited resources however marine fisheries enforcement remained an important priority for conservation law enforcement officers. As marine regulations increased, the need for marine law enforcement became even greater.

When I began my career in 1977 the regulations in the marine district consisted of a few commercial fishing laws regulating the use of nets and trawls, and recreational size limits on striped bass (16 inches), fluke (14 inches), and weakfish (12 inches). There were no creel limits or closed seasons to speak of. Nonetheless, I observed early on that enforcement was necessary, especially as recreational fishing sizes for fluke were increased to 15 and 15.5 inches during the early years of my career. I can recall my fellow officers and I frequently issuing summonses for possession of significant quantities of summer flounder smaller than even those liberal size limits. In addition to increasing size limits on recreational summer flounder, the 1980s brought on several controversial conservation measures, including a moratorium on striped bass, limits on the number of commercial permits that could be issued by DEC, tagging requirements for fish harvested by commercial fishermen, and stricter quotas, daily limits, and closed seasons for commercial and recreational fishermen alike. The responsibility to enforce all of these new regulations fell on the shoulders of the Environmental Conservation Officers. The challenges were many. In addition to having inadequate equipment to do the job, and being severely understaffed, ECOs had to cope with weak laws necessary to deter unlawful activity. Most marine fisheries offenses were punishable as violations, carrying penalties of $0 to $250. Getting a $25 fine in court back then was considered a successful prosecution. Cases were often dismissed outright.

 

Slowly, however, attitudes and support for fisheries conservation improved. With support from the public, including local fishing clubs and other grass roots organizations, and from local political leaders like Senator Owen Johnson of Babylon, and Assemblyman Bob Sweeney of Lindenhurst, things began to change. Senator Johnson appropriated funds for new equipment for the Division, including two brand new 19-foot Boston Whaler patrol boats to replace two vintage 1970 16-foot Boston Whalers with aging engines and hulls that could rattle your teeth loose in a chop and drench you in saltwater.

The Senator and Assemblyman also worked to improve legislation, increasing fines to $25, $50, and $100 per fish depending upon how many were in possession unlawfully. Later, a penalty section in the Environmental Conservation Law for the Illegal Commercialization of Fish and Wildlife was established. This increased penalties significantly when fish, wildlife, or shellfish was sold illegally. Minimum fines were raised from $500 for violations, and the new statute provided for the first felony in the state’s fish and wildlife law when the value of the resource being unlawfully sold or unlawfully possessed in commercial quantities exceeded $1,500. It remains one of the most useful prosecution tools for conservation law enforcement in New York to this day.
Additionally, division command in Albany began to see that the downstate regions, including Long Island, maintained the most productive year round enforcement programs in the state. They acted accordingly, working to ensure ECO vacancies were filled more readily, helping to maintain as good a number of available ECOs as possible. There were times early in my career when there might be one ECO on the south shore of Nassau County.

Program Funding

Obtaining money to operate law enforcement programs has always been challenging. These programs require enhanced training, specialized equipment, and competitive salaries that attract highly qualified personnel. While New York State has been supportive overall of the DEC, given all the demands on the budget state funding for conservation programs can often be marginal, and with the removal of the saltwater fishing license it was not likely to improve. Fortunately, in 1996 New York had entered into the Joint Enforcement Agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service that continues to this day. With an annual grant of approximately $500,000 New York’s marine enforcement program has been significantly enhanced. The Division’s current modernized patrol boat fleet of 31-foot SAFEBOATS and newer styled 21- and 24-foot Whalers specifically designed for law enforcement is the direct result of this funding. Enhanced safety equipment for the officers, electronics and more are all possible due to the JEA. However, JEA does not provide funding for marine fisheries managers or research. The Division of Marine Resources in New York continues to operate on a budget desperately in need of improvement.

Public Support

With what amounts to a handful of state conservation officers and federal fisheries agents in each state (There is currently one federal agent assigned to NY.) the number of violations documented by conservation enforcement programs is the tip of the iceberg. From my experience I can confidently say that many illegally obtained fish regularly go through the black market and over the rail of boats, undetected by state and federal agencies. This is why public support for marine conservation is so important. In addition to support from the public for good legislation and funding, some of the best cases I was involved in over the years came from tips from concerned hunters and fishermen.

2017 5 Forty Years Conservation Officer 2

People violate the conservation laws for a number of reasons; greed, selfishness, ignorance, and sometimes they just make an honest mistake. However, poor compliance with the law is often conducted by persons who simply do not believe in the law, often because they do not believe in the science that is the basis for the law. This is perhaps the biggest challenge for fisheries managers and law enforcement alike. Enforcing laws and regulations that make no sense to the public leads to increased non-compliance and decreased credibility for the conservation programs implemented to protect the resource. This is not to say that New York’s conservation laws are based upon poor science. It is based upon the best science available. However, science aside, there is often much disagreement between states, and between state and federal agencies as to what the regulations should be, usually due to discrepancies in the quotas allotted to each state. Recent moves towards regional fisheries management is a step in the right direction. However, there is still much to do to improve the science of estimating marine fisheries populations and harvest, and to provide more equitable quota distribution. The better we can get at that, the more public support we will garner for conservation laws, and the better off the resource will be.

A Common Goal

Over the nearly 40 years of my career as an Environmental Conservation Officer I saw a lot of changes. From the wild and wooly days of the “clam wars,” when there were minimal limits on harvests of fish and shellfish, to today’s strict quotas and seasonal limits, we have gone from what seemed like waters of endless bounty to ever dwindling resources in the marine district. However, despite increased pressure from development and over fishing there continues to be signs of improvement. There are many examples of how conservation measures have been successful in protecting and enhancing marine fisheries. Habitat and water quality protection, increasing numbers of some species like scup and black sea bass, and a healthy, even though ever tenuous, population of striped bass are all positive signs.

Perhaps most importantly, despite the differences and controversies surrounding marine fisheries management, over the years I have observed increased communication between the various user groups in the marine district, and with government agencies, especially with the Division of Marine Resources and the Division of Law Enforcement. At its most basic level, we all want the same thing; a healthy marine environment and a viable fishery. Enhanced communications between us, in various venues like the Marine Resource Advisory Council, in my observation, has garnered a significant degree of common respect among commercial and recreational fishermen, and for the DEC and law enforcement for that matter. That is important, for all of us need to work together to assure a good future for our marine resources.

For myself personally, over the four decades I spent on these waters I learned to respect the marine district and the men and women who use it. Although our relationship could be adversarial, interacting with them taught me a lot about the marine community. I learned that there was much knowledge among good fishermen of all kinds that deserved to be respected. Although I experienced a great amount of satisfaction in environmental enforcement issues working downstate on Long island, there was no comparison to the rewards of all those days on the water during countless hours on boat patrols in the marine district. The sunrises and sunsets alone were worth more than they could have ever paid me. I know the issues DEC delves into each day can often be fraught with concern and controversy, but I also know from experience that DEC, including the Division of Marine Resources, and the Division of Law Enforcement strive to do the best job they can for the people of the state, and the environment and resources that are so vital to our quality of life. It has been an honor and privilege to be a part of it, and I am confident the good work in this arena will continue.

Editor’s Note: Major Tim Huss retired from the DEC in March as one of the most respected environmental conservation officers to don the green uniform in the downstate region. Well over 200 people attended his retirement dinner on March 23, a testimonial to the respect that his peers in the department, other law enforcement agencies, state legislators and the public, including those whose activities he was charged with enforcing, hold for him. He was always respectful but firm in administering the conservation laws of the state, and knew his way around Long Island’s waters and woods as well as anyone, being a hunter and fisherman himself. Rising through the ranks of lieutenant, captain and major, he leaves a legacy that those who follow in his footsteps would do well to follow. In the following paragraphs, he revisits some of the many changes in enforcement, legislation and fisheries management that have occurred during the past four decades.

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