A Southampton judge has dismissed a case mid-trial against an East End commercial fisherman charged with overfishing after he returned to port to avoid a storm.
Two dozen supporters of fisherman Bill Reed erupted in cheers and applause Friday when Town Court Justice Barbara Wilson granted the motion for dismissal sought by Reed's attorney, Daniel Rodgers.
Rodgers hadn't yet called any of his witnesses. Reed could have faced jail and fines.
The case against Reed fell apart after Matthew Foster, an enforcement officer for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and DEC official Steve Heins acknowledged on the witness stand that a "safe harbor" provision the agency uses to grant exceptions to its quota rules was "general practice" but never "written policy."
Foster said under the practice, fishermen are supposed to call the DEC to request an exception to New York's rules, which allow only those with permits to land up to the daily quota of then 70 pounds.
Reed in January was charged with landing more than 600 pounds of fluke illegally when he returned to the Shinnecock dock on Jan. 6 as the weather worsened. Reed, who has a New Jersey permit to land up to 2,500 pounds of fluke per trip twice every two weeks, notified that state's regulators of his plan to return to Long Island.
The next day, Foster charged Reed with landing 625 pounds of fluke in New York illegally. Foster testified he spoke with other DEC officers before charging Reed. Had they granted an exception, it would have been under no written law but under a long-standing practice, Foster said.
In granting the dismissal, Wilson asked, "Can someone hand me a copy of the [New York] safe harbor act?" No one came forward.
Rodgers argued that DEC officers on land weren't in a position to make the decisions Reed found necessary to protect his crew and vessel.
"It's very indicative of the way the DEC as an agency has been mismanaged," Rodgers said after the trial. "They have these policies in their heads but they are not communicated to fishing captains."
Suffolk prosecutor Tara Laterza, who argued the case for the state, declined to comment after the abrupt dismissal.
Reed said the ruling vindicated his decision to return to port. "Ultimately, I had to do what was right," he said. "I wasn't hiding anything."
DEC marine enforcement practices have been the subject of a three-year investigation by state Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott. Critics, including Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), say three years is too long to wait for a report they suspect may not address all their concerns. Thiele said he'll introduce a three-bill package to address fishermen's DEC complaints. A spokesman for the inspector general's office declined to comment. A DEC spokesman didn't return a call seeking comment.