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70 subpoenas issued 'throughout New York' in federal probe of fisheries program

The federal government has issued 70 grand jury subpoenas as part of two-year investigation into a fishing auction program widely criticized as a "license to steal" for some fishermen.

In a presentation June 17, Logan Gregory, special agent in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries's Northeast law-enforcement division, said the investigation into the research set-aside auction has led to three guilty pleas, and suggested more were on the way.

"The investigation is ongoing and other targets are being actively investigated," Gregory noted in the presentation before a New England fishery management council. A NOAA Fisheries spokesman didn't return a call seeking further comment, and Gregory couldn't be reached.

In his presentation, Gregory noted grand jury subpoenas had been served "throughout New York," without specifying where, but fishing sources have said some were served in Montauk in 2012.

Meanwhile, court papers filed last week say that two Point Lookout fish dealers and a fish-dealing company, Jones Inlet Seafood, could ask to waive their right to an indictment on unspecified fishing charges to be filed in Central Islip federal court. In the past, such waivers have preceded plea deals by fishermen and a dealer on charges of illegally harvesting hundreds of thousands of pounds of fluke.

Neither Jones Inlet Seafood nor the men mentioned in the filing or their attorney returned calls seeking comment. Department of Justice spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle declined to comment on the recent legal filings but said the investigation was ongoing.

Federal regulators for more than two years have been investigating the program, which allows fishermen and women to pay thousands of dollars to harvest fish above the legal limits. Money from the auction is used to subsidize fisheries research. Critics of the research set-aside program have long derided it as ripe for abuse, and federal prosecutors earlier this year noted that even one defendant in their investigation called it a "license to steal."

One local fishing industry advocate, noting 70 subpoenas represented "a fair majority of a couple of the [Long Island fishing] ports," said New York's small percentage of the coastal quota for fluke was partly to blame.

Federal regulators "knew there was a problem when they set the [fluke] quota in place. They never addressed it," said Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, a Montauk-based industry group. While she said she didn't condone illegal harvesting of fish, she noted, "The RSA [research set-aside auction] was a way for fishermen to turn discards into landings." Discards are fish that must be thrown back once a fisherman has met his quota.

In the first auction-related cases -- against Long Island fishermen Anthony Joseph of Levittown and Charles Wertz Jr. of East Meadow -- regulators charged that the men used the program to overharvest thousands of pounds of fish, but frequently failed to report the catch as part of their set-aside allotment. Prosecutors have said the overharvesting in total represented hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish above New York's legal limit.

Both pleaded guilty to wire fraud and filing false fishing reports. Wertz was scheduled to begin serving his 366-day sentence earlier this year. Joseph is awaiting sentencing.

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