Can a private property owner possess the exclusive right to fish on a navigable river? According to the New York State Court of Appeals, the answer is yes.
In Douglaston Manor v. Bahrakis, 89 N.Y.2d 472 (1997), the Plaintiff-Appellant, Douglaston Manor, Inc., owned approximately one-mile-long sections of both shorelines of the Salmon River in Oswego County and the riverbed in between. Plaintiff traced its title back to a conveyance from the State of New York in 1792. The issue was whether Plaintiff’s ownership entitled it to exclude members of the public from fishing in, though not from navigating through, its portion of the river.
Plaintiff operated the Douglaston Salmon Run within its section of the river. The Salmon Run was an exclusively managed private sport fishery from which the general public is excluded and for which users pay Douglaston a fee. Plaintiff sought to enjoin Defendant’s commercial fishing guides from future anchoring upon and fishing in Douglaston’s privately owned section of the Salmon River.
After a detailed legal analysis, including the definition of “navigable” and Plaintiff’s deed from the State of New York, the State’s highest court ruled in favor of the Plaintiff.
The Court held in relevant part that “[T]here is no necessary conflict between the reservation to the public of the right of navigation and the recognition of the exclusive privilege expressly granted to the owner. The public right, whatever it might otherwise be, must be held limited in such a situation to the right to use the waters for the purposes of a public highway. * * * [T]he easement of passage over navigable waters does not involve a surrender of other privileges which are capable of enjoyment without interference with the navigator.”
The Court further held that “Importantly, New York State, as the original grantor of the Macomb Patent directly descending to the title involved in this case, has long respected private fishing rights in navigable-in-fact rivers and has even been engaged in purchasing precisely such rights for public benefit …We see no reason in this circumstance to curtail the State’s general authority to convey property and property rights, nor to countenance the view that the State has been expending public moneys unnecessarily on rights, according to defendants’ theory, the State already irrevocably holds in public trust.”
Finally, the Court held that “In sum, the desirable definiteness attendant upon discrete property rights and principles, along with reliable, predictable expectations built upon centuries of precedent, ought not be sacrificed to the vicissitudes of unsupportable legal theories.”
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