Sen. Charles Schumer Monday accused federal fisheries police of exploiting millions in fishermen's fines as a "slush fund for excess," and demanded money be returned to those wrongly or over-penalized.
The demand comes in response to revelations that the law enforcement arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which polices national fishing grounds, spent millions on unauthorized travel, boats and cars, some for personal use. Local fishermen have complained about excessive fines for years.
"It appears that we had an out-of-control regional fisheries office that used excess fines and forfeitures as a slush fund for excess," Schumer said.
In a letter to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrator Jane Lubchenco, Schumer demanded that unauthorized assets be sold and the money returned to fishermen.
Lubchenco last week said she was "deeply troubled by the way the [fund] has been handled in the past," and has already shifted its administration to a comptroller within NOAA.
One of a dozen fishermen at a Schumer briefing Monday at the Town Dock in Port Washington was Tom Kokell, who had been fined $125,000 for possessing 600 pounds of fluke without a permit. He got it lowered to $65,000 by pleading guilty. Two months ago, he said, he stopped paying the fine, and has not fished since.
"I'd like to see power taken out of the hands of these people," he said of fisheries police. "We don't stand a chance. If something doesn't happen, we're done."
The report by the inspector general of the U.S. Commerce Department came after complaints from fishermen. Besides car and boat purchases, the report focused new light on the fund's use to pay expenses of the legal team that prosecutes fishermen and sets fines.
According to the report, nearly all non-payroll expenses come from fishermen, including pay for administrative law judges who oversee violation hearings. Some say the practice presents a conflict.
"It's outrageous," said Steve Ouellette, an attorney in Gloucester, Mass., who represents fishermen. He said he's seen a sharp increase in fines for even minor violations and has suspicions about why.
NOAA spokesman Justin Kenney said Lubchenco "greatly appreciates Senator Schumer's suggestions and shares his concerns. NOAA takes this issue very seriously and is aggressively responding to the report."