The Department of Environmental Conservation has suspended the practice of selling the seafood it seizes from fishermen in enforcement actions as an internal review of its practices continues.
The move, which follows a report in Newsday last month that the agency was reviewing its practices related to confiscations, comes as a lawyer for East End fishermen on Thursday filed an ethics complaint against the agency charging the sales constitute a conflict of interest.
For the past month, agents for the state inspector general have been traveling around Long Island and New York City interviewing fishermen and women on their experiences with the DEC, which said it is cooperating with the investigation. The IG's office didn't return calls seeking comment.
Critics of the DEC's confiscation practices have accused the agency of seizing fish and equipment without giving accused fishermen the chance to make a claim for their property, even after cases are concluded. Several fishermen and wholesalers say there is no process to reclaim losses when suspects are found innocent, plead to significantly lesser charges, or charges are dropped.
The State Legislature, led by Assemb. Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), this spring proposed a law that would limit warrantless seizures from fishermen, but the bill did not pass. Thiele last week said he will reintroduce it pending the outcome of the inspector general's probe.
In an email Friday, DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis confirmed the agency "has suspended the infrequent practice of selling contraband fish" pending a probe of its practices.
She added, "DEC remains committed to its mission of protecting our threatened fish stocks."
But some have accused the DEC of going too far. Riverhead lawyer Daniel Rodgers, in an ethics complaint filed with the state Ethics Commission last week, accused the DEC and its conservation officers of a conflict of interest in seized fish sales.
When DEC officers sell their seized fish to a local fish market, "they are directly competing with local fishermen and women, the same men and women they regulate and in some cases may have seized the fish from," the complaint charges.
In addition, when agents "accept money on behalf of the Department of Environmental Conservation for the sale of the seized fish, they are engaging in a commercial transaction with an entity they also must regulate: the local fish market."
DeSantis, in her statement, responded: "Through fair and consistent enforcement, DEC ensures a level playing field for all law abiding fishermen who make their living at sea. Marine Fishery laws also ensure a sustainable fishery for current commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen and the public for future generations."