August 09, 2006

Angling For Industry Assistance

Fishing is a part of Suffolk County's identity, and Steve Levy would like to keep it that way. Last week, the county executive threw the flagging industry a lifeline, announced plans to convene a countywide task force designed to help buoy the ancient profession. And East Hampton Town Councilman Brad Loewen couldn't be more pleased.

"This is a great moment for the industry," Loewen declared last Wednesday morning at a press conference held to herald the initiative. With West Cove on Moriches Bay as a backdrop, Loewen asserted, "Fishing's been the hidden industry in Suffolk County. Nobody knew it existed until there was a problem."

While those involved with the panoply of disciplines the industry entails, such as commercial fishing, sport fishing and shell fishing, have periodically enjoyed the support of federal, state and local officials, Suffolk County has traditionally stayed outside the fray. To Loewen, Levy's effort means, "The county is a player . . . We know now Suffolk County is committed to this industry and it is going to be better for us."

At the outset, the new 'player's' game plan will include helping those in the industry identify means to ease financial burdens. The county executive will lend the professional resources of his economic development experts to the effort. He'll name his Commissioner of Economic Development and Workforce Housing, Jim Morgo, to the task force.

As Morgo and yet-to-be-named task force members cast their net, they will look at grants and financial programs available to those in the industry. For example, the Long Island Development Corporation, a private not-for-profit agency sponsored by the Empire State Development Corporation, has a program that provides below market rate long term loans, from $5000 to as much as $250,000 that can be used for capital assets or even working capital. Called the Long Island Targeted Industry Loan Fund, the program focuses on industries in danger of being lost on Long Island, Morgo explained.

Additionally, the county's own industrial development agency can provide low rate financing, among other assistance. In fact, Morgo reported the agency has already helped Sea Tow of Southold with a recent expansion.

"Fishing is an $800 million industry on Long Island," the county executive pointed out on Wednesday. "We want to evaluate what things we can do collectively to help." Through the task force, his economic development experts will talk with members of the industry endeavoring to discern what programs are "known and unknown, tapped and untapped," Levy said.

Levy expects the task force to encompass participants from "the whole mix" of participants in the industry. "I am so proud, so honored, so anxious to start sitting down with representatives from the industry to work on a symbiotic relationship," he said.

The state and federal government hold authority over regulations that have at times swamped beleaguered fishermen. Levy acknowledged that while the county can't override regulations, he can put the power of his office behind lobbying efforts. Recently the legislature adopted a resolution in support of a state bill that provides up-front fuel tax exemptions for fishermen similar to those already in place for farmers. It's been acknowledged that such memorializing measures carry little weight. Levy agreed his support would lend gravitas to the effort and said he was amenable to examining the bill.

The county executive also promised to consider backing a Loewen-sponsored resolution adopted unanimously by the East Hampton Town Board last month. In the face of closure and restrictions placed on two important fisheries — fluke and scup — the town board has asked the State Department of Environmental Conservation to audit its data to ensure the figures used in the decision are accurate. On Wednesday, Loewen characterized fishing quotas as "a double edged sword." In many ways they are necessary to preserve species, but they can also appear arbitrary and stay in place longer than necessary.

Overall the Task Force's new chair — Levy credited Loewen as the impetus behind the initiative — said he appreciated the appointment "more than I can say."

The pair met during a private gathering of community leaders in East Hampton hosted by one time Democratic Committee co-chair Bob Schaeffer. During the discourse, which covered a variety of local topics, Levy reportedly listened with rapt attention to those in the fishing industry detail their problems. Not a month later came the creation of the task force.

The next step will involve selecting members to comprise the group. The county executive anticipates hosting the first meeting after Labor Day. Morgo, who'll be charged with the organizational and administrative duties associated with the group, offered his enthusiasm for the effort with a succinct and seafaring statement. He said, "Anchor's aweigh, baby!"

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