A commercial fisherman from Levittown pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to four criminal counts in connection with a scheme to underreport the amount of fluke he sold by hundreds of thousands of pounds between 2009 and 2011.
Anthony Joseph, 50, pleaded to taking up to 310,000 pounds over the legal limits, valued at upward of $632,000. Department of Justice spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said the illegal fluke haul "constituted a sizable percentage of New York's total quota for the year."
Joseph, who entered his plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge Arlene R. Lindsay in Central Islip, faces up to 20 years for each of the four felony counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and falsifying federal records. Under a plea agreement, the government is recommending Joseph face no more than 33 months in prison. He also faces restitution in excess of $600,000 and maximum fines for each count of $250,000. Sentencing is set for Oct. 7 before Judge Sandra J. Feuerstein.
In court papers filed Friday, Joseph admitted that from June 3, 2009, through Dec. 15, 2011, while captain of the Stirs One based in Point Lookout, he "systematically overharvested fluke in excess of New York State" and federal research set-aside catch limits.
The papers allege Joseph conspired with two fish dealers, referred to as Fish Dealer X and Fish Dealer Y, in filing more than 150 false reports of his catch to federal fisheries regulators.
Joseph declined to comment outside the court. His attorney, Chad Seigel, said, "This has been an emotional day for him. He's looking to put this behind him."
Joseph's guilty plea is the second arising from a federal investigation of the so-called research set-aside program, which allows fishermen to bid at auction for the right to harvest thousands of pounds of fish beyond legal limits.
Federal officials say some fishermen who buy auction allotments use it as cover for overharvesting. Fishermen pay thousands of dollars for the auction allotments, and that money is used for research in federal fisheries.New York's allotment of the commercial quota for fluke is considerably smaller compared to other states. Virginia and North Carolina each get more than 20 percent of the federal quota, while New York gets 7.6 percent. Boats from those states often venture into New York waters to harvest their limit of over 10,000 pounds of fluke and return to their home ports to process. The case against Joseph notes that New York commercial fishermen can harvest at most 210 pounds a day.
Sen. Charles Schumer this week announced that he included stipulations that would balance those numbers in New York's favor by doing away with disparate state-by-state limits in a proposed Senate bill to reauthorize a key federal fisheries law that expired last year. Schumer said he hopes to get the bill with his "Fluke Fairness" additions passed this year.